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Friday, October 07, 2011

Live by the mob, die by the mob
David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

Progressives in America owe a big debt of thanks to the Tea Party. Not because of any sense of ideological solidarity, of course: right-wing so-called "populism" is just as contemptible and antithetical to real moral values as it ever was.

Rather, progressives owe the Tea Party a huge debt of thanks because it normalized the politics of protest. There is a reason that the Occupy Wall Street protests, in spite of the condescension of jokers like Erin Burnett, are gaining traction as a real movement to be reckoned with, even though the protests against the invasion of Iraq were considered a sideshow despite being much larger in sheer numbers. The fact is that like it or not, the Tea Party has a lot to do with that.

Over the broad arc of history, the Right has stood for established power and the status quo, while the Left has stood for the rights of the downtrodden and dispossessed. Since the abolishment of monarchy and the adoption of representative democracy in most of the Western industrialized world, the great battle between Left and Right has been over the middle class. The Right has usually attempted to align the middle class emotionally and ideologically with established power, while the Left has attempted to open the eyes of the middle classes to the fact that they have much more in common with the less fortunate than they do with the most fortunate. The tools of the Right's trade, then, have been things that could divide broad swaths of the middle class and poor against one another: race, culture, religion, and the like. Basic economics has traditionally been the province of the Left in making its own argument--which is why the Democrats' abandonment of populist economics over the last 30 years has been so wildly damaging.

Protest has been a tool of the Left for centuries. It is a way for desperate and angry people without power in other respects to make their voices heard. If the protests are large and angry enough, protests can shake the foundations of power and hopefully change them through consciousness raising; through removal of politicians who stand in the way of change; and, if all else fails and all other options are exhausted as in the Arab Spring, through actual revolution.

The Right has traditionally minimized and marginalized protests as the province of lazy malcontents and angry mobs. The purpose of doing so is not only to reduce the likelihood of change, but to rhetorically persuade the middle class that the protesters are not "normal." They are not like them. The middle class, in the words of Richard Nixon, are the Silent Majority for whom those smelly, long-haired dispossessed protesters do not speak. (This is why it is important, insofar as possible, for those engaged in protest to seem as outwardly "normal" as they can.)

And that has largely worked. Protests in America since the 1960s have not been viewed as a legitimate voice of the people, but rather as the outbursts of a malcontent few. And the media as an arm of the status quo has been happy to portray them that way. Protesters like myself and millions of others marched against the invasion of Iraq, for instance, to little fanfare and less effect because of this dynamic.

But then something happened. In the United States after the election of America's first black president, the Right changed the rules of the game. Sensing demographic shifts that threatened to make them a permanent minority and feeling boxed in by Democratic control of the White House and Congress, the conservatives decided to go all in with a faux-populist hand. They were emboldened to take this approach after watching the Left largely abandon populism for a safer, more "mainstream" message.

Now was the time, thought the Right, to take up the populist mantle once and for all. Now was the time to portray the white suburban American male as the dispossessed and downtrodden, and the oppressive force as the big, bad urban overspending government headed up by a black guy. Using all the power and money of the corporate sector and the conservative media establishment at their disposal, they created an astroturf faux-populist movement that adopted all the outward qualities of protest movements, but with little of the organic outrage of a real movement.

And the media lapped it up. They did so partly because Tea Party protests constituted a "man-bites-dog" story. It's nothing new when mostly younger, dispossessed lefties get out into the streets with papier-mache figurines. But when older, more "normal"-looking people are in the streets advocating against the poor, that becomes a real story. The ultimate goal of the protests for conservatives was, of course, removing the "threat" of Democratic rule. It turns out that Democratic rule wasn't really that big a threat to corporate interests after all, but the powers that be feared Democratic rule enough to give us divided government nonetheless. And in 2010, the faux populist right got what it wanted: a hyper-conservative House that stymied even the minor threat of changes to even the fringes of the status quo.

But there were unintended consequences, too. In playing the popular protest card on its own, the Right legitimized the politics of protest that they had spent decades if not centuries minimizing. After the Tea Party, it's difficult for any members of the right-wing establishment to use their traditional dismissive rhetoric about protest movements.

So now when Eric Cantor says something like this:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor took to the stage at the 2011 Voter Values Summit in Washington to do a little fear-mongering about the growing Occupy Wall Street protests.

“If you read the newspapers today, I for one am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country,” he said.

Cantor appeared try and connect the protests to the cries of “class warfare” Republicans are lobbing at President Obama’s jobs bill and his Buffett Rule.

“Believe it or not, some in this town have actually condoned the pitting of Americans against Americans,” Cantor said.

it comes off not as a legitimate portrayal of his worldview, but as a massively hypocritical joke. Fox News' reaction to the Occupy movement is too easy to mock. The Republicans rode to power largely on the politics of protest. Now they have to accept the results. Democrats, meanwhile, aren't shying away from pointing out the irony:

At the Washington Ideas Forum on Thursday, Vice President Biden discussed the parallels between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

"The core is the American people do not think the system is fair or on the level. That is the core of what you're seeing on Wall Street," he said. "There's a lot in common with the Tea Party. The Tea Party started why? TARP. They thought it was unfair, we're bailing out the big guys. What are the people up on the other side of the spectrum saying? The same thing."

Of course, Joe Biden knows well that there's little in common between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement. But in conflating the two, he puts the media and the conservative establishment in an awful bind. It's hard to minimize one protest while maximizing the other, especially when both sides each used Wall Street as a bete noire in one way or another.

In creating the Tea Party fraud, conservatives have helped make the politics of protest part of "real America" again. Now they get the suffer the consequences of that short-sighted cynical ploy. Real authentic populism is here now, and there's politically nothing they can do about it.

Update: I hadn't even seen this:

"I for one am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country," he said.

Uh, excuse me? White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in the briefing today.

"I sense a little hypocrisy unbound here--what we're seeing on the streets of New York is a an expression of democracy," Carney said. "I think I remember how Mr. Cantor described protests of the tea party--I can't understand how one man's mob is another man's democracy."