Saving The Rich With Pitchforks
The tea bag parties are a lot of fun and I will be among the first to mock and jeer tomorrow. But it's not a good idea to ignore their potential for serious business down the road if the economy continues to be under stress. Whether they are organized by Republican hacks or not, if they provide people with a way to understand their current circumstances, they could end up being a problem.
I am a worrywart about these things, I know. But it continues to concern me that in the absence of a clearer explanation of what caused this financial meltdown and resultant recession, people will simply fall back on the conservative propaganda of the past two decades to explain their problems. And that is an opportunity the Republicans should not be given.
Here's a random comment I lifted from a story about the tea bag parties:
The Tea Parties are TAX PROTESTS. The bailouts are a hot topic, & their cost & mismanagement are made possible by the oppressive & counterproductive tax system we have in place now.
I know that's convoluted, but it fits very comfortably in the rhetorical grooves that have been deeply worn into our political dialog for decades. What the GOP wants to do in this moment is channel anger at the bailouts to the Democrats and taxes. After all, they don't want the anger to be pointed at the corporations and the wealthy --- that's their bread and butter --- and they want to find a way to take political advantage. So the familiar language of the tax revolts are being employed to redirect the populist anger at Wall Street and the wealthy to the government.
Here's Stephen Moore from yesterday's Hardball trying to squeeze all this into a coherent form:
STEPHEN MOORE, “WALL STREET JOURNAL”: Well, you know, if you think back to the Reagan era, you know, when the kind of Republican revolution was really begun, Chris, remember that was started on the heels of Proposition—remember Proposition 13...
MOORE: ... in the summer, I think, of 1978. So I‘ve actually been to a few of these tea parties, because remember, a number of them have happened already around the country and some of them are happening later in the week, many of them are on April 15th.
The one thing that really struck me when I was at one in Wisconsin was that this really isn‘t something that‘s being driven, A, by the Republican Party, or B, by the national conservative groups. You got to give credit where credit is due on this, Chris. It really is a genuine kind of grass roots thing that just spontaneously combusted around the country.
And so I think it‘s mainly people—and by the way, one last point.
It‘s not so much about taxes, Chris, it‘s about the bail-outs. People...
MATTHEWS: So it‘s the notion that—as Rick Santelli well put out, this notion that, basically, people out there who were totally unreliable, who brought homes they shouldn‘t have paid for...
MOORE: That‘s right.
MATTHEWS: ... people who helped them buy those houses they shouldn‘t have bought, are now getting our money.
MOORE: That‘s it! That‘s exactly right, Chris!
The people I talk to, yes, they are upset about taxes, and they are upset about debt, but they really think, fundamentally, that the bailouts of the banks, the bailouts of the homeowners who took out bad mortgages, the bailouts to the auto companies...
MATTHEWS: Well, where we these...
MOORE: ... it‘s unfair.
MOORE: They think it‘s unfair and unwise...
MATTHEWS: Well, the question I have—back to you, Steve—is that a lot of this money—I love the fact that some of the newspapers are printing the checks. They are showing what the checks look like, at least recipients of the checks, the beneficiaries of all this bailout money.
It‘s not Joe Blow from San Diego. It‘s somewhere in New York in a big bank.
MATTHEWS: I mean, the checks are being made out to rich people in these bailouts.
MOORE: Well, that‘s what makes people angry, Chris.
I mean, you‘re exactly right. I mean, look, nobody was more angry than I was when people were getting bailout—when they were getting bonuses for—for companies that lost billions of dollars.
It adds to the sense of frustration that real people—and these are middle-class folks. These are not people who are rich in three-piece suits. And the thing I would say about this is, I really think it‘s not partisan. I really believe, Chris, if Republicans were doing the policies the Democrats were doing—and this—you‘re right.
This started under George Bush, no question about it—that people are just angry that Washington isn‘t listening to the little guy.
Stephen Moore as a populist is pretty hilarious, but there you have it.
As you can see they haven't quite been able to find the right rhetorical formula yet either, but they are getting closer. The key is to find a way to turn the anger at the bankers into anger at Obama for bailing them out. Right now most people don't feel that taxes are the proximate cause of the nation's problems but a prolonged recession along with continued bailouts could change that if the conservatives can find a way to synthesize their anti-tax message with the current populist anger.
Right now, Obama's popularity is keeping that at bay. But nobody should believe that people are supporting the government's actions because they understand Keynesian principles or that the government has to solve the liquidity crisis because they don't. And Democrats have not exactly made a compelling case for liberal economics lately other than a vague promise that it's better than the other guys' in the wake of gilded age excess. We certainly didn't see any serious discussion of it during the campaign when everyone was talking about lowering taxes and extolling Reagan.
An awful lot of what the government is doing right now feels completely counter-intuitive and there is plenty of legitimate anger that these wealthy pricks just can't shut up and refuse to take responsibility. And also keep in mind that much of what the government is doing, such as stimulus, is as much preventive as anything else, and nobody ever gets much credit for preventing problems only solving them. (I would guess that Roosevelt was given so much slack by the public because he inherited 20% unemployment and a deep national despair, something that Obama -- fortunately! --- doesn't have.) The sheer complexity of the issues and the failure of the Democrats to articulate an alternative economic philosophy leaves a mile wide opening for right wing demagoguery.
We don't know what these tea bag parties are going to bring tomorrow. It's likely they will be McCain rally freak shows, of which they really are an extension. But if they manage over the next few months to get a coherent message together and the corporate backed front groups can successfully manage them, they could turn into something more troubling --- a right wing populist movement aimed at government. Not good.
SaveTheRich is an excellent frame to start beating this back. May the best populist win.
Update: I just saw Obama's economic speech. I wish he'd been making it for the past two years.
Update II: Taibbi weighs in on the same subject.