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No Easy Answers

By Taylor Marvin

Liberal blogger Kevin Drum is happy that the Republican party seems to be swinging more and more towards an extreme and inconsistent ideology in the hopes that the eventual electoral defeat of Tea Party candidates will led to a moderation of the American conservative movement:

“The die has been well and truly cast here for some time: the GOP is irrevocably committed to the undiluted Fox/Limbaugh/Drudge party line, and there’s no going back. They’re either going to stand or fall on that. So I say: let ’em do it. No excuses, no scapegoats.Finish up the Texification of the Republican Party and see how it goes. Only then is there any hope of a return to common sense.”

Drum is wrong because this isn’t how politics works — Republicans aren’t stupid, and the modern conservative movement is gravitating towards more immoderate candidates and antagonistic rhetoric not in some suicidal rush towards political irrelevancy but because their message sells. Politics is a market, and both political parties provide the ideological narrative that their constituents demand at any moment in history. During the terror and foreign-policy obsessed early-2000’s the message that played best with conservatives was one of America’s righteous anger and just hegemony, which was why the ascendant Republican party chose it as the mainstay of their popular political narrative. Today the situation is different — America’s failing wars, diminishing dominance in the world, and most of all a truly awful economic depression have created a new demand for a new message among conservative voters. The conservative movement — a loose conglomerate of party elites, rising charismatic politicians, and the media outlets and commentators that do more than any to drive public opinion — answer this demand by adapting to a new narrative. Political parties don’t set national moods but are slaves to them. The central tenants of the Tea Party message — the wildly inconsistent demand for a balanced budget without tax hikes or any meaningful cuts in government services or entitlement spending, retained belief in a neoconservative fantasy world where American foreign interventions are both easy and always just, and a seemingly desperate rejection of any changes in America’s demographics or culture — are actually a very reasonable reaction to America’s political and economic climate. People make political decisions, like any choice, based on their perceived interests and biases. 9/11 and the Great Recession, combined with accelerating demographic and cultural changes within the United States, are probably the greatest shock American society as a whole has experienced since the 1960’s, and a vocal resurgence of economic populism and nativist sentiment makes sense in America’s current social context. And this harsh characterization of the Tea Party message isn’t misplaced: demanding a balanced budget and lower taxes while holding defense and entitlement spending sacred is nothing if not naked populism, and the furor over the Manhattan mosque project is nativism and xenophobia of the worst kind.

Drum is partly right: in the long-run, a shift towards ideologically extreme candidates will probably hurt the Republican party. Sure, some Tea Party candidates will win seats in Congress in 2010 and successfully influence American public policy. But in the long run the reemergence of an impossible populist strain within the Republican party won’t help. Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich both have a very good chance of winning the Republican Presidential nomination in 2012; however, their obvious lack of policy credentials and extreme view will almost certainly lead to their electoral defeat. If Tea Party candidates do win influential positions, it won’t be long before their policies reveal themselves as absurdly ill-defined and inconsistent — it’s easy to call for reducing government spending while refusing to specify any meaningful programs to be cut when you’re out of power. Populism and angry words are popular and can be inspiring but they aren’t the basis of a government. Tea Party candidates don’t endorse specific policy programs because they can’t: political rhetoric is only emotional when it’s vague and emotional appeal is all candidates like Rand Paul or Christine O’Donnell really have. While embracing Tea Party rhetoric is a reasonable Republican response to a Democratic administration, economic uncertainty and falling-income driven popular anger it will never be a sustainable political winning strategy.

Drum’s mistake is to underestimate the harm that our vapid, populist politics are doing the all Americans, including his fellow liberals. America needs a vocal and intellectually honest conservative movement, something no Tea Party candidate can provide. Conservative positions, like any ideology, are valuable in society only if their advocates have the courage to honestly define them. Claiming the government should have let GM and Chrysler fail rather than allow for government intervention into private business is a perfectly valid policy position, but only if its advocates are willing to claim that the benefits of government inaction outweigh the risk of hundreds of thousands of lost jobs. The dominant voices in today’s Republican party have none of this honesty, and America is weaker for it. The US loses when conservatives accept nativism and the public rejection of American Muslims, when the mainstream Republican party has abandoned real economics in favor of a fantasy land where budgets can balance without expenditures equalling income, when scientific knowledge and dedicated study becomes a mark of suspicion rather than competence, and when an entire section of the American political spectrum bases their rhetoric on fear and rumor rather than reality. Drum is wrong to celebrate the ascendency of the Tea Party because the harm it does America as a whole outweighs any eventual electoral gains it might win for the Democrats. When suspicion and an irrational crawl towards populism and easy answers is the state of American politics we all lose. Narratives change, but reality doesn’t. When the two head in different directions nothing will ever be solved.

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