Why the Tea Party Has Emerged from America’s Side Streets
Bill James, the pioneer baseball number-cruncher who is also a gifted sportswriter, once observed that historians reduce real events to patterns of light and shadow, which popular memory further reduces to black and white. The description of the Tea Party movement offered yesterday by the Projo in an unsigned editorial was derived from a black-and-white picture of political activity that allows for only limited avenues of basic citizen participation: decisions by individual voters, activities of special interests and not much else.
In the political science literature, Republican Party support is often characterized, in terms of this limited set of possible actors, as an alliance of Main Street and Wall Street interests (which then added the “religious right” leading to the Republican Revolution of the 1990s). But the Wall Street/Main Street model has to my mind always been insufficient, as it is difficult to envision enough votes existing in the dual-street coalition to provide the totals needed to actually win anything. In cases where Republicans have been successful, there have to have been a goodly number of people from the side streets who also choose to vote Republican.
Side-street voters can be brought into the picture in a couple of different ways. In addition to citizens who focus solely on their narrow interests, our political and social system can also produce citizens concerned more generally about the long-term health of their municipality, state or country (I know it’s hard to believe, given the cynicism of the times). Over the course of American political history, the Republican Party may have had the stronger attraction to these voters, who served to counterbalance the coalition of special interests that is the Democratic Party. (Digression: Don’t blame me for characterizing the Democrats like this. This is how the poli-sci literature frequently describes them). Or there could be a significant segment of American voters who lie outside of a deep attachment to either party, who serve as neutral referees, choosing amongst the options they believe best serve the common good. Like many items in political analysis, the reality will be a continuum between the two ends.
But however this dynamic has worked in the past, at the present moment, the side-streets are where the Tea Partiers are coming from. The Tea Partiers are citizens who have put their hands up, to tell the established political players 1) you’ve really screwed up in planning for the future of our country 2) so you need to put together a better plan to pull things together 3) or else we will replace you, via the ballot box, with someone different who will. Yet while efforts to replace politically-chosen decision makers when the public believes that they have governed poorly are recognized as fundamental to the practice of democracy, reactions to the emergence of a segment of citizens who are visibly signaling that they want better choices than what is currently being offered have ranged from the dismissive to the apoplectic.
The negative reactions towards citizen participation are, in part, the result of special-interest-centric attitudes towards politics that have disimagined any significant role for regular citizens concerned about the long-term future their society. In many theories which gained traction in the latter-half of the 20th century on the subject of how democracy “really” works, the role of the common-folk was limited to picking amongst options offered by coalitions of elites and organized interests. Elites had the ability to transcend base motivations of self-interest, as well as to manage a power-structure that balanced competing special interests and to create the right messaging to get some of the common folk to come along, but the common folk, being common, couldn’t be expected to organize in pursuit of a larger purpose, on their own, with the same vigor that they would organize themselves to pursue more immediately gratifying ends. Elite leadership was required to move them towards broader, high-minded goals.
Now, this is not the only pattern of light and shadow about the workings of American democracy offered by modern political science and, in this century, it may not even be the dominant one. But it is still one accepted view. Certainly, for example, a black-and-white picture of narrowly-focused special interests being the only significant mode of citizen participation that is possible informs the Providence Journal editorial board’s cynical attempt to pound Tea Partiers into the mold of a traditional interest group.
Fortunately, immediate evidence of the deficiency of the narrow view of citizen participation is present on the same Projo page as the Tea Party editorial, where in what is either an unintentionally schizophrenic juxtaposition, or a brilliantly subversive move by someone on the editorial staff, a second editorial discusses the need for spending restraint to secure the future of all of Rhode Island.
When one newspaper editorial calls for spending restraint which will depend on political change, while another expresses unconcealed disdain for citizens who advocate for political change involving spending restraint, it is safe to say that a contradiction has been identified. The question needing to be asked to the author of the Tea-Party editorial, in light of the spending editorial, is whether it is acceptable for regular folks to organize on their own to address the long term, system-wide consequences of special-interest dominance of government — or whether they should only be addressing hazards to the general good that staid and proper elites (like maybe the Projo editorial board) have declared to be legitimate concerns.