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I've been mesmerized by the meltdown in D.C. these past couple weeks, how about you? Am I glad it's over? Heck yeah.

If only it were over....

Frank Rich wrote a terrific putting-things-in-perspective article this week on the recurrence of government sabotage by red-blooded Americans: The Furies Never End in New York Magazine. His premise is that the Tea Party, now sinking lower and lower in the (oh so ephemeral) polls, are not the pariahs in the country at large and outliers even in their own party that coastal in-tuh-lectual types would like to believe. Nope. Rich wrote:

Would that this were so, and that the extralegal rebellion against the Affordable Care Act, a Supreme Court–sanctified law of the land, would send the rebels, not the country, off a cliff. Off the cliff they may well have gone in this year’s failed coup, but like Wile E. Coyote, they will quickly climb back up to fight another day. That’s what happened after the double-header shutdowns of 1995–96, which presaged Newt Gingrich’s beheading but in the long run advanced the rebels’ cause. It’s what always happens. The present-day anti-government radicals in Congress, and the Americans who voted them into office, are in the minority, but they are a permanent minority that periodically disrupts or commandeers a branch or two of the federal government, not to mention the nation’s statehouses. Their brethren have been around for much of our history in one party or another, and with a constant anti-­democratic aim: to thwart the legitimacy of a duly elected leader they abhor, from Lincoln to FDR to Clinton to Obama, and to resist any laws with which they disagree. So deeply rooted are these furies in our national culture that their consistency and tenacity should be the envy of other native political movements.
I found this perspective provocative and intriguing (it goes on for quite a few words; Rich's article is long, and worth reading). It helped me to focus my own ambivalent feelings about the whole ugly mess. Because -- surprisingly perhaps, given that I profoundly disagree with most of the far right's objectives (we agree on radically reducing government snooping) -- my feelings are ambivalent.

The thing is, as a lifelong activist on the left edge of this country's political spectrum, I have to admire the Tea Party's ability to make waves.

Yeah, I think the teabaggers' positions are for the most part idiotic, hypocritical, and socially corrosive; but to be fair a whole lot of so-called "moderates" -- and pretty much everybody to the right of them -- thought the same of quite a few positions I took before they became middle-of-the-road:

  • that the U.S. should get out of Vietnam (and shouldn't have gone to war there in the first place);
  • that South African apartheid demanded active, material international opposition;
  • that same-sex lovers should be treated by others with respect, should be equally safe in public and private spaces, and should enjoy the same civil rights as opposite-sex lovers;
  • that both the 21st century Afghanistan and Iraq wars were mistakes from the get-go

... and so on.

Seriously. When I threw down on each of those issues, my position was regarded as, well, kind of wacky at best. Well to the left of mainstream.

Now? Not so much.

But the you've got to be kidding side of my ambivalence, the side most of the country took as the right wing of the G.O.P. took the government hostage and the POTUS (finally) stood his ground, left me mildly uncomfortable. I questioned how I could credibly wag my finger at tactics that I've encouraged, and used myself, and organize others to use ... in support of ending a war, or dismantling apartheid, or making safe space to be queer, or any others of the issues I've agitated for or against myself over the years.

And here I have to reveal my reformist tendencies (sorry, revolutionary comrades: I'm middle-aged now).

See, I've pretty much always understood, even when I was bellowing rage at, say, then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger on the barricades in front of San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, that the practical, useful role of the fringe left in the most wealthy and -- in many respects and for many if not most individuals -- the most politically permissive nation of the 20th (and now 21st) century ... the actually effective role of people willing to rage at barricades and occupy buildings and blockade bridges is to push the agenda and discourse of those who hold actual power in one or another direction.

It also helps to make the people who walk picket lines and march on Washington look more reasonable to the vast middle-of-the-road. There's a spectrum, and somebody's got to hang out in the infrared.

At no time during my rage-at-the-barricades days (or since, as it happens) did I hold any more political power than the next woman or man willing to kick up a fuss. Not that we tell ourselves that in organizing meetings. Not that we don't allow ourselves to dream. But aside from enthusiastic youth and the delusional-left (and there is a delusional left in this country, just like there's a delusional right), the activists I worked and work with understand the bigger picture.

The difference between the variants of political activism in which I participate and the actions of the Tea Partiers that forced a sixteen day shutdown of the government this month, the Tea Partiers who seemed ready and willing and able to wreck the global economy by letting the U.S. default on its (legislated) debts -- that difference was pithily articulated in the hallowed pages of the New York Times about a week ago.

From last week's article Business Groups See Loss of Sway Over House G.O.P.:

As the government shutdown grinds toward a potential debt default, some of the country’s most influential business executives have come to a conclusion all but unthinkable a few years ago: Their voices are carrying little weight with the House majority that their millions of dollars in campaign contributions helped build and sustain.


Joe Echevarria, the chief executive of Deloitte, the accounting and consulting firm, said, "I'm a Republican by definition and by registration, but the party seems to have split into two factions."

While both parties have extreme elements, he suggested, only in the G.O.P. did the extreme element exercise real power. "The extreme right has 90 seats in the House," Mr. Echevarria said. "Occupy Wall Street has no seats."

Uh, yeah. That's just about right. And right from the mouth of the C.E.O. of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, the largest professional services network in the world by revenue and by the number of professionals (if Wikipedia is to be believed).

Sure, Elizabeth Warren gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling, but she ain't OWS by a longshot. She was a professor at Harvard Law before she got elected Senator. And now ... she's a Senator (a Senator I would vote to re-elect in a Massachusetts minute if I lived in the state she represented).

So the difference between my left-fringe activism and the so-called Tea Party's: is it success?

Well, I don't think so. Look again at that bulleted list of erstwhile-fringe issues earlier in this post. I'd say that over the time the arc of history has bent toward the left-fringe in each of those cases.

The difference is power. The Tea Party had -- and has -- real power, in the form of those ninety seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. And they weren't afraid to use it. I'm far from convinced they'll be afraid to use it again.

It's almost a tautology to say that a large majority of U.S. citizens inhabits the middle of the political spectrum. That middle is movable, certainly. In past decades it has located itself well to the left of its current spread. I'd like to believe it'll scooch over that way again, and I do my small, sometimes fringey part to induce just that.

But if the actual activist left -- I'm not talking about center-rightists like the POTUS who are rhetorical victims of idjuts who wouldn't know a socialist if one came right up to them and offered to share a sandwich -- if the actual activist left held and exercised power in the way the Tea Party did these past several weeks? We'd be in the same doghouse the Tea Party inhabits now. Worse, because Deloitte's CEO and his comrades would have been (are) hounding us from the get-go.

This is not a call for lefties to give up. Heck no. Real activists don't ever give up. We're constitutionally incapable of it. That, indeed, is Frank Rich's thesis.

So what's Frank Rich's prescription? Here, from the conclusion of that same New York Magazine article (bold emphasis is mine):

Some Democrats nonetheless cling to the hope that electoral Armageddon will purge the GOP of its radicals, a wish that is far less likely to be fulfilled now than it was after Goldwater’s landslide defeat, when liberalism was still enjoying the last sunny days of its postwar idyll. This was also the liberal hope after Gingrich’s political demise of 1998. But his revolution, whatever its embarrassments, hypocrisies, and failures, did nudge the country toward the right: It’s what pushed Clinton to announce in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over” and to adopt policy modulations that tamped down New Deal–Great Society liberalism. The right has only gained strength within the GOP ever since. Roughly half of the party’s current House population was first elected in 2010 or 2012, in the crucible of the tea-party revolt. While it’s Beltway conventional wisdom that these Republicans don’t know how to govern, the real issue is that they don’t want to govern. That’s their whole point, and they are sticking to it.

Dwindling coastal Republicans of the nearly extinct George H.W. Bush persuasion like Peter King nonetheless keep hoping that the extremists will by some unspecified alchemy lose out to the adults in their party. Tune in to Morning Joe, that echo chamber of Northeast-corridor greenroom centrism hosted by Joe Scarborough, a chastened former firebrand of the Gingrich revolution, and you’ll hear the ultimate version of this fantasy: Somehow Chris Christie will parlay his popularity in the blue state of New Jersey into leading the national party back to sanity and perhaps even into the White House.

To believe this you not only have to believe in miracles, but you also have to talk yourself into buying the prevailing bipartisan canard, endorsed by King and Obama alike, that the radicals are just a rump within the GOP (“one faction of one party in one house of Congress,” in the president’s reckoning). In reality, the one third of the Republican House caucus in rebel hands and the electorate it represents are no more likely to surrender at this point than the third of the states that seceded from the Union for much the same ideological reasons in 1860–61. Unless and until the other two thirds of the GOP summons the guts to actually fight and win the civil war that is raging in its own camp, the rest of us, and the health of our democracy, will continue to be held hostage.

We'll see what the G.O.P. does with the next several months. In the meantime, you might want to lay in a supply of USDA-inspected foodstuffs, get some visits in to national monuments, download images sent home from Mars by the Curiosity -- to stock up on whatever you like about government.

'Cuz January's right around the corner.

This post is cross-posted with the author's blog, One Finger Typing.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I've yet to finish. Yours or Rich's. Something to (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    chew on when I come back to the computer.

    “Conservation… is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence and caution…” Aldo Leopold

    by ban nock on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 08:20:55 AM PDT

  •  What Radical Left? (4+ / 0-)

    There is barely any radical left in any way shape or form in America. There are certainly no radical leftists in government. Even Sanders isn't radical by any stretch of the imagination. Whatever the head count, they have almost no influence on America today, for good or ill. The few Radical Leftist public figures that exist in America today are so few and so below radar that I doubt I could name more than a handful. Conversely, I also can't find more than  a handful of Republicans in government, at any level, that are not mindless radical right wing figures that spout illogical, fact free nonsense. There may be some Republicans that don't believe their own propaganda, but they go along to get along which makes them just as bad, if not worse.

    Patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings. Steal a little and they throw you in jail. Steal a lot and they make you king.... Dylan

    by bywaterbob on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 08:24:11 AM PDT

    •  liberalism on defensive since Goldwater (0+ / 0-)

      Ironically, we're the conservative party: protecting an increasingly tattered status quo built on victories that were won generations ago.

      There are no radical leftists, except perhaps among people whose radicalism compels them to forsake politics completely, viewing a capitalist and/or white male supremacist system as inherently corrupt and corrupting.  Most of the people who still take Marxism seriously are on the right.

      Domestic politics is the continuation of civil war by other means.

      by Visceral on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 11:37:23 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I personally don't like the use of the word... (8+ / 0-)

    ..."radical" to describe tea partiers. And one of the reasons is the obvious effort to build a symmetry between it and the "radical left." I much prefer a more truth word for the tea partiers: "Extremist." Obviously, the radical left had some extremists: the Weatherman, for instance. But, for the most part, it comprised people fighting against war, for broadening of civil rights and economic justice. Not exactly the tea party's agenda.

    Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

    by Meteor Blades on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 08:24:55 AM PDT

    •  That's a pretty fine distinction (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DaveinBremerton, Odysseus

      I think. I get what you're saying.

      I might, or might have, call(ed) myself a radical in some respects and at some stages in my life and of the history I acted in; I wouldn't ever have called myself an extremist. But I wonder if that's a matter of perspective: the "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" problem.

      Timothy McVeigh was an extremist. The klansmen who lynched African Americans and allies in the Civil Rights Movement were extremists.

      I'm not aware of Tea Partiers placing explosives where they'd kill (McVeigh) or not (Weather Underground). The Tea Party's politics are radically divergent from those of the moderate wing of the GOP -- what's left of it.

      Though I see the rhetorical attraction, I'm not sure I can agree your distinction is the right one to make.

      •  I know I am fighting a losing battle on this... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        DaveinBremerton, Gorette

        ...issue. But I fight it because, in my view, there is no ethical, practical or tactical symmetry between most people who called themselves radicals in the '60s and '70s and radical conservatives.

        Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

        by Meteor Blades on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 08:53:49 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  I hadn't thought of that, but had liked the use (0+ / 0-)

      of "radical" applied to them because it was so very damn effective when used against leftists. But that seems so long ago, I wonder if our righteous so-called radical left would come to mind. But would doubtless be resurrected by media so I do believe you are right. Better label them extremists. Words do matter.

      How shocking Meteor Blades is right! ;>}

      "extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy.... the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake." Paul Krugman

      by Gorette on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 10:43:00 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Frank Rich is a very smart person (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Odysseus, Tonedevil

    but the Reps lost seats thanks to Gingrich and Gingrich is mainly a punchline these days.

    And that was before the demographics began to favor Democrats.  Extrapolating from twenty years ago is not helpful, imo.  No one can know until November whether this fringe will continue to hold seats.

    Many of them come from rural areas and they refuse to pass a Farm Bill.  Even gerrymandered "safe" seats are at risk if pols consistently fail their constituents.

    •  Extrapolation aside, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I think this:

      Even gerrymandered "safe" seats are at risk if pols consistently fail their constituents.
      is the exact-right basis for pressing hard against the Tea Party in electoral politics.

      The power they're wielding is corrosive and regressive. Working to take that power away from them is constructive and progressive. I'm in.

  •  Much of this conflict is based on false choices. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Steve Masover, Odysseus

    To be governed or not to be governed. To shrink Big Government or expand Big Government. These aren't the choices. The choices are democracy or oligarchy. I see many in the current Republican party--not exclusively tea partiers--as acting essentially against democracy.
    Big Government will not go away as long as we have a 0.1% ownership society. Ownership requires big government. When many on the right invoke the scourge of government what they're angry about is Lincoln's concept of government of the people, by the people, for the people. They reject this concept because they're frightened by what America is becoming. The future scares them.
    The tea partiers are just the latest part of a decades-long divide and conquer strategy. The strategy works because we have a substantial population of very frightened people. The future of democracy looks too brown. So, they're turning to the Whiter wealth of oligarchy to help them take their country back.

    -4.38, -7.64 Voyager 1: proof that what goes up never comes down.

    by pat bunny on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 09:07:05 AM PDT

  •  My inexpert view as a former Republican... (5+ / 0-)

    The fundamental differences that I, as a consumer of ideas, see between the extremist right and the left are:

    (1) The left's long-term ability to persuade produces irrevocable change (i.e. marriage equality) while the right's willingness to lie produces eventual buyer remorse (i.e. the aftermath of the California tax revolt).  The reason that issues such as marriage equality, skepticism of war, anti-apartheid sentiment, and the follies of Iraq and Afghanistan are considered mainstream today is that the left's arguments have withstood the tests of time while the right's arguments were found wanting.

    (2)  The left's worldview is grounded in an inherent decency and fairness that tracks nicely with the inherent fairness of people.  My own opposition to marriage equality was grounded in ignorance, not meanness.  Given enough time to digest the facts and screen out the right's maniacal noise, I came to what I believe is a logical conclusion that happens to track with those on the left.

    By no means do I think we are seeing the end of either the Republican Party or the Tea Party.  However, I doubt either are relevant much past the end of the next census, demographic shifts, and inevitable un-gerrymandering of at least a few red states.  The howling faction of the extremist right will always be there and they'll always have some political power, but I doubt they have the power to hold their current position.

    Once they lose, having an impotent, lunatic, howling minority might serve as an inoculation against them ever regaining the position they hold today.

    "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win". Mohandas K. Gandhi

    by DaveinBremerton on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 09:48:43 AM PDT

  •  Radical Homosexual Extremists? (0+ / 0-)

    Back in 1992, I realized that as an out gay person, I was as radical as CPUSA --even more so; no gay rights document has the historical weight of Das Kapital.  But when we crashed the NY Conservative Party, I hollered "we're more powerful than you are!"

    In Lawrence v. Texas (overturning sodomy statutes), Scalia described the majority ruling by Reagan appointees Kennedy and Day O'Connor as "a massive disruption of the current social order ... Today’s opinion is the product of a Court ... that has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda."  10 years later, Scalia is passive-aggressively scrambling to keep SCOTUS from striking down every same sex marriage ban in the country.

    The Default Secessionists can't win a game-changer like that.  I feel the power to flip lifetime Reaganites on SCOTUS is more than the power of 80 headless chickens in the House.  I certainly don't envy them!  They have a 1000 year headstart on us and they're swallowing their tongues.  

    So no, a rabid dog will never stop barking.  But this Secessionist outburst is just the political cost of passing Universal Healthcare -- it doesn't represent real power.  It's not a function of their 'tenacity'; Pelosi just traded in her gavel for Obamacare.  However, their tenacity is a function of their frustration.

    I also think Rich is wrong to equate the Default Secessionists with Newt Gingrich -- they're not a tenth as smart as that pervert.

  •  The difference is in the financing $$$$$ (0+ / 0-)

    Does the so-called radical left have counterparts to the Koch brothers and Pete Peterson? Has anyone on the left donated $1 billion to safeguard Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid the same as Pete Peterson has done to destroy those programs?

    The Tea Party is fake grassroots with tons of money behind it and there is nothing on the left to compare with that.

    One glaring problem right now is the focus on the extreme right's stupidity which is very well-known already. There should be more focus on how to fight them, on how to keep them from destroying government. Focus on how to reform campaign financing so that their money will not wield so much political power.

    To thine ownself be true

    by Agathena on Sun Oct 20, 2013 at 01:22:14 AM PDT

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