As the US government shutdown continues and the debt limit deadline approaches, business leaders and investors are seriously concerned that no agreement has been reached. The Republican party’s traditional backers on Wall Street and major corporations fear that a government debt default would be a major disaster, but do not have the same influence on its leadership that they once had because of the significant weight of Tea Party legislators who oppose any kind of political compromise.
The Republican congressional leadership knows that the party’s electoral base is contracting and in the longer term likely to vanish. So in the short term the Republicans need to assert the legitimacy they consider they gained in the 2010 elections in order to achieve the party’s goal of cutting state welfare spending. The leadership may not agree on the tea party tactic of shutting down the government, but it cannot end the shutdown without losing leverage on cuts.
Washington Post writer Greg Sargent comments: “The battle that spawned a government shutdown is also very much about preserving the GOP majority’s relevance in future policy debates. … Republicans are concerned that the refusal of President Obama and Senate Democrats to negotiate those issues with Republicans would establish a precedent making it impossible to haggle over future debt limit increases or to use them as leverage in other policy negotiations. … Republicans said capitulating to Obama would cede to Democrats the only institutional authority Republicans possess.”
Does the standoff – opposed by a clear majority of the American public – mean that the tea party is politically finished? E.J. Dionne writes: “The movement is suffering from extreme miscalculation … the tea party is primarily about postures aimed at undercutting sensible governance and premised on the delusion that Obama’s election victories were meaningless.” Dionne’s Washington-centric argument leads him to misinterpret the purpose of the tea party’s political theater. It’s not aimed at achieving a coherent government policy, but is directed at reinforcing resentment and prejudice among right-wing Republican voters, one predicated on the axes of class and ethnicity.
Backed by billionaire-supported political campaign groups, such as “Heritage Action,” and activists who are paid to put pressure on elected Republicans and mobilize the news media so as to dominate the political discourse, the Tea Party hooligans seek to subvert the ideal of equal opportunity and the shared prosperity of the nation in order to assert possessive individualism. It’s not, “This land is my land/ This land is your land … This land was made/ for you and me” but rather, “This land is my land/ and I will fight you/ unless like me / you’re rich and white.” Republican voters may indicate support for this notion, but are not active at the grassroots, so success or failure is not going to have a great effect on the Tea Party. The phenomenon won’t end until billionaires are no longer able to direct their wealth into manipulating elections.
A Democracy Corps report based on focus groups in red states found that “More than 4 in 10 Republicans identified with the tea party and were more apt than other Republicans to insist that their leaders hold firm in the standoff … right-wingers … believe they are fighting for political survival in an era where white-run America is vanishing and they’ve lost the culture war.” While the Tea Party is increasingly unpopular with the general public, it has retained its support among Republican voters.
In 26 states where Republicans dominate, the legislatures have voted not to accept the extension of Medicaid, part of the Obamacare law. This posture is directed at keeping control of the dwindling Republican base, above all in the South, by preventing the extension of health care insurance from benefiting poor whites in these states which might make them more favorable to government programs and switch electoral support to Democrats. Both poor whites and poor blacks lose out in these states, leaving millions of them still uncovered. Texas, for example, has an estimated 22 percent of the population without health insurance. They will stay uninsured because its governor, Rick Perry, refused to set up a state insurance exchange and turned down billions in federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage.
Most Republican voters have little in common with the plutocrats who direct Republican talking points, nor with Southern elites that premise the region’s economy on a low-wage “right to work” labor force. However, the coded racism of the GOP’s southern strategy serves to reinforce the prejudices among poor whites that welfare benefits will go primarily to African-Americans.
UMass professor Nancy Folbre quotes a number of academic studies that show how “white political leaders from states with large numbers of African-Americans – especially but not exclusively in the South – have cast new federal protections in apocalyptic terms and mounted a powerful opposition. … Poor whites are promised protection against labor market competition or higher taxes in return for acquiescence with policies that restrict the social safety net.”
Tea Party politicians, while articulating an anti-government ideology developed over years by right-wing think tanks, at the same time have a particular appeal to insular rural or suburban communities who fear that national trends may lose them local privilege, as well as local business elites that need to bolster their competitive position by using state representation to negate federal regulation or taxes.
For example, a comment on a recent New York Times article on Steve King, the leader of the Congressional resistance to Obamacare, points out that King’s Iowa constituency “is largely populated by wealthy Dutch Calvinist farmers, who have recently dived headfirst into the hog and cattle confinement business.” MSN reports that in July 2012, King “sponsored an amendment to the House Farm Bill that would legalize previously banned practices such as tail-docking, putting arsenic in chicken feed, and keeping impregnated pigs in small crates. ‘My language wipes out everything they [animal rights activists] have done with pork and veal,’ King said of his amendment.”
In this vein, author Michael Lind argues that Congressional tea partiers are following an entirely rational strategy on behalf of their constituencies. The Tea Party’s social base, he says, “consists of what, in other countries, are called the ‘local notables’ – provincial elites whose power and privileges are threatened from above by a stronger central government they do not control and from below by the local poor and the local working class. … They are second-tier people on a national level but first-tier people in their states and counties and cities. … They would rather disenfranchise blacks and Latinos than compete for their votes. And they would rather dismantle the federal government than surrender their local power and privilege.” However, this brand of local sectionalism would not have had a chance at the national level if it had not connected with the narrative of the plutocracy to undermine the concept of the common good.
Richard Seymour gives Lind’s analysis a Marxist gloss, while stressing the importance of the ideological dimension of Ted Cruz’s speechifying. Obamacare, he writes, “is connotatively linked in a chain-of-equivalents to a whole series of issues from the bank bailouts to stimulus spending to unions etc. These are all linked, somehow, to the threatened revival of a social coalition behind a moderate tax-and-spend liberalism which the Tea Partiers call, with perfect Hayekian inflection, ‘socialism’.” Seymour describes the social coalition behind moderate liberalism as “essentially a pact between the working class and the upper levels of the bourgeoisie.” But this is a mischaracterization of the social movement behind Obama’s reelection, which is what truly disturbed the provincial white elites, and tends to downplay the struggle at the political level by imposing a class schema on a complex social reality.
Obama’s election victories stemmed from a visceral rejection of the Bush years and bank bailouts from across society but in particular by the young and by growing numbers of minority voters who in a few years will make up a majority of the population. The mood of the country was expressed above all by the Occupy movement, whose rhetoric Obama appropriated in his electoral campaign: a rejection of the political and economic domination of the country by Wall Street and the billionaire one percent.
It remains to be seen if the stalemate in Washington is resolved by negotiations over cuts in social security and Medicare. This is a strategy pushed by the business class and bankers, as well as the billionaires who back the Tea Party. Republicans cannot capitulate to Obama without giving up their leverage, but Obama can’t contain the social movement that elected him if he is seen to abandon constitutional government and agree to swingeing fiscal austerity.
He senses that this movement’s demand for more government intervention to create jobs, a higher minimum wage, and an end to fiscal cuts has grown stronger and more determined. Americans of all ethnicities have realized that if we’re going to sing, “This land is my land / This land is your land” next Fourth of July, we’ve got to protect the 99 percent. Time for our legislators to do the same.