"Tea Party" Politics: Something Old or Something New?

Many foreign observers across the political spectrum have long considered the U.S. to be the most media saturated society in the world.

Others have mentioned that U.S. media bombards readers and viewers with endless facts and clips, without a framework to put those facts together (Marxists have long contended that the framework is there, hidden or closeted, and reflects and highlights capitalist principles and prejudices).

The huge amount of coverage for the "tea party" movement is an example of this.  First,  tea party activists and leaders are shown for their entertainment value(with right wing Fox News as their uncritical promoter). Neither the business leaders funding this "movement," nor the background of the right wing Republican politicians who have played a leading role  in it are mentioned.

Yesterday the New York Times reported a "tea party" rally in Washington.  Dick Armey, the old Texas righting Congressmen (a sort of minor league Dick Cheney) was a featured speaker.  Armey, best known for  privately calling Representative Barney Frank "Barney fag" heads a right wing pressure group called Freedom Works(where the money comes for this group and what it is all about wasn't explained).

The article used the term "populism" as a sort of generic term  for any demonstration attacking "elites" and quoted the wife of ultra right Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas attacking "elitism".

First, the use of the term "populism" in this way isn't knew. Michael Paul Rogin in a classic study, The Intellectuals and McCarthy (1963) made the point that those who saw McCarthy as an expression of "populist" anti-elitist politics of the kind represented from the left in Wisconsin previously by Senator Bob La Follette misunderstood American politics. 

Appeals to the "common man" and against the  rich, the banks, etc., had been a tactic of politicians and groups representing the rich since the 1830s, since the U.S. was the first country in the world to establish universal white male suffrage. Andrew Jackson, the very rich slaveholder and landowner had been the most important early practitioner of such politics. 

Abolitionists had been condemned by Jackson and many others  as  members of the privileged classes, more interested in Blacks than poor whites. Radicals and reformers of all kinds had been portrayed as enemies of the "common man," seeking to destroy the "common man's" freedom by establishing public schools, reforming prisons, giving women the right to vote, and other  tricks.  Labor unions and socialists were also condemned as foreign conspiracies seeking to take away individual freedom by making workers pay dues to unions, keeping workers from becoming self -employed businessmen, etc.

What Rogin  contended scholars through the world have long argued, that is, that the right learns from the left to engage in mass politics when it has to  but the fact that the right engages in mass politics does not make it in any way like the left. 

In Germany for example, the Nazis  used slogans like "Deutschland Erwache"(Germany Awake) and called their party the "National Socialist German Workers Party" but their ideology and policies were racist, xenophobic, militarist, an expression in an extreme form of traditional German rightist ideology and policies.  That Germany had lost WWI and the Weimar Republic, a liberal republic with a strong left opposition, had been established after the war both made them more extreme and also made sections of the German ruling classes ready and willing to support them against the socialists and the communists . Later, when the depression enabled them to garner a large voting bloc these ruling classes  supported  them in forming a dictatorship.

We don't have anything like the strong left of Weimar Germany and we don't have a depression of the magnitude of the early 1930s.

But we have a president who is both African-American and the first advocate of progressive domestic policies in forty years.  That he has done far less than many hoped is not really the point.  The Weimar Republic, for all its liberalism and constitutionalism, didn't change the economic and social structure of Germany.  Neither with all of its successful reforms did the New Deal in the U.S.  But both were opposed by the the respectable right because they were seen as the beginning of radical changes, an opening to a new politics in which the old prejudices would no longer work.

Although the "tea party" campaigns for the repeal of national health care legislation, opposition to all attempts  to tax the wealthy a "balanced budget constitutional amendment"(this is support of a Republican Party whose  tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy and military spending and other subsidies to corporations increased the national debt from one trillion in 1981 to 10 trillion in 2008) it  apparently has the support of the corporations and the rich.

Why should the these ruling groups support policies which led directly to the stock market crash of 2008 and indirectly to the Obama victory---policies which have lost trillions not only for the people but for large corporations, investment banks, brokerage houses, compelling "bailouts" that the "tea party" groups promise to eliminate.

 A good question--something like why did the German corporations continue to support the Hitler regime after D day at the time of the July 20, 1944 bomb plot against Hitler when it was clear to all non Nazis that the war was lost and ending the Nazi regime was in the best interests of the German ruling class. Many have argued that the Nazi regime had enriched German capital so much with the loot of Europe, not to mention the earlier military subsidies and the destruction of the labor movement, that they could not turn against the regime. I would argue that the Reagan-Bush policies have enriched the corporations and the rich so much over the last thirty years that they cannot even in their own interest turn against those policies, even to support the tax reform of President Obama, which would eliminate the Bush tax cuts for families with incomes above 250,000 or the very modest attempts at regulation of wall street and banking, or the very limited health reform legislation. 

That is why I believe that  they and the media they control are highlighting the "tea party" groups, who represent a mish-mash of traditional rightwing ideologies and policies in the U.S. context, i.e., opposition to "big government" which aids the people, constitutionalism to protect property, not defense of the bill of rights to defend civil liberties and civil rights, and a very clear undercurrent of hatred--hatred of social welfare, hatred of undocumented workers, hatred of a president who dares to be both progressive and African-American.

The corporations and the rich are clearly hoping to use the "tea party" groups as shock troops to ride back to power and turn Obama into Clinton.  However, when you play with such groups, as the German ruling classes discovered, they really become difficult to control and eventually it becomes unclear who is using who.   

That is why we must carry forward the fight to keep these groups from gaining a foothold through the 2010 elections.  If they do, their influence will become more pervasive.  If they don't, they may very well dissipate as rapidly as they took shape, since they will lose much of their ruliing class sponsors.

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