2014-06-12

There Is No Tea Party

I.

In the wake of the Dave Brat/Eric Cantor upset, the news media and all the political pundits are saying the same thing: another “Tea Party challenger” defeated a member of the “Republican establishment.” Out of curiosity, I checked out Brat’s official website so that I could see what his policy stances are. To be sure, his position on the issues has been accurately reported. But his official platform consists of things like opposing amnesty for immigrants, balancing the budget, increasing military spending, repealing Obamacare, and supporting the free market system.

Can anyone tell me which one of those positions is at odds with the Republican establishment?

The news media are making a big deal out of the immigration side of things. It’s true that Brat’s stance on immigration is stricter than Cantor’s. But since when does one issue like that make a person a “Tea Party extremist” or not? One issue?

This made me think – and not for the first time – that there is no such thing as “the Tea Party.” The Tea Party, more than anything else, looks to be a re-branding of the Republican “establishment.” From my vantage point, the only way the “Tea Party” differs from the “establishment” is in tone, and even that benchmark is not totally reliable.

II.

How do you sell a new smartphone to a nation of people who already own five apiece?

You could do it the old-fashioned way. You could offer people a smartphone with new or significantly improved features, that performs faster, has clearer calls, more storage capacity, better apps, and so on. The problem with this is that it’s both difficult (to technologically improve on something that is already cutting-edge), and risky (to offer something that may turn out to be an “alternative” platform).

If you’re both greedy and lazy, then you have another option: You could simply stop providing meaningful updates to your phone’s operating system, make a few cosmetic changes to your flagship smartphone, give its operating system a new number (you know, increment from “4.1.5.1.0.1” to “5.0”), support it with meaningful updates, and sell it for an extra hundred bucks. In this case, you’d be relying on your customers’ collective sense of product envy and mounting frustration with the lack of operating system updates. It might also help to make the phones as brittle as possible, to maximize the periodicity of replacement.

The funny thing is, we all know that the smartphone companies are scamming us, but we’re tolerant of it. We might be less tolerant of this kind of thing if, rather than smartphones, we were talking about political regimes.

III.

Well, maybe…

The Republican establishment hasn’t offered any sort of meaningful operating system upgrade in a century or more. They’re “conservatives,” and conservatives like things to stay just as they are, thank you very much. What’s more, it’s doubtful that making any significant changes would be good for them as a political party. New or significantly improved features are difficult to produce, especially when your central goal is to reign supreme over the country. You might “alienate your base” by introducing them to weird, new-fangled concepts like ending agricultural and corporate welfare. If you stop talking about god, then you won’t be able to rattle certain cages anymore, and you’ll have to risk giving them individual liberty. And we can’t have that.

So what you can do instead – again, assuming you are both greedy and lazy – is add a few cosmetic upgrades (a woman here, a member of a visible minority there) to your old product and bill it as an entirely new product! You can sell it to people under the guise of its being a “grassroots movement,” meaning it must be popular and forward-looking; popular, because it’s a movement, and forward-looking, because its “grassroots” AKA “indie” AKA hip.

If you did this, though, you still might risk alienating the more somber, contemplative members of your base. They wouldn’t be prepared to join any noisy and impulsive grassroots movement. They’d want to make sure the ideas are sound and consistent with Republican ideals. How would you dupe them into accepting your new sham product?

You’d introduce a plot conflict: the Tea Party is passionate, but they may also be extremists! This lends credence to the old fuddy-duddies while simultaneously inspring the grassroots hipsters to double-down. “Hey!” they’ll scream, “We’re not extremists! We just want the party to return to its old ideals!” So you hand the Tea Party a stack of posters to circulate around Facebook, mostly consisting of pictures of wounded soldiers and smiling old Ronald Reagan. Both of these symbols will reassure the fuddy-duddies while energizing the hipsters.

At this point, you’d be inclined to think you have a new problem: With all this Republican grand-standing, your new product has zero appeal among the centrists. But you’d be wrong, because by introducing the plot conflict, you’ve set yourself up to resolve it with a “compromise.” That is, you’ll dilute the so-called Tea Party extremism, the “anti-government” stuff with the wisdom of the Republican “establishment.” Some old racists will have to go, no matter how good they are for funneling pork into the hands of your favorite funding organizations. The most clever of the hipsters will also have to be sacrificed to appease the beast, and also to ensure that they don’t cook-up any genuinely good ideas.

Remember, we’re not selling freedom, we’re selling Republicanism. It’s two different things.

IV.

There’s a chance you’re chuckling softly to yourself as you read this, because you’re a Democrat. “Ho ho! Those nutty conservatives!”

But the Republican “establishment” is the same thing as the Democrat “establishment,” and you were recently sold a movement variously called “Occupy,” or “Green Party,” or “Progressive” or “evidence-based” so-and-so, or whatever new thing you think you’re buying.

V.

Think about it. These new “grassroots” movements haven’t actually managed to weaken anyone’s grip on anything. Guantanamo Bay is still open for “Business… And Business Is Good.” We are still at war with Eastasia. (Or was it Eurasia?) So the end result hasn’t really changed.

Now consider the actual platforms of these groups, the Tea Party or whoever else. The core question I would like you to answer (to yourself) is: How –EXACTLY – do these organizations differ from the establishment? Be specific. The Tea Party’s platform is nothing new. It’s not “extreme,” and it’s not “different.” It is the same old Republican Party platform we’ve seen for at least 30 years. At best, you could argue that their tone is more belligerent, but that’s not a tangible difference. It’s just marketing.

There is no Tea Party.