Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Tea Party not your cup of tea? Blame Ralph Nader

In Uncategorized on February 16, 2010 at 5:14 pm

In this post I am going to stretch out my neck a bit and comment on the recent phenomenon of the Tea Party movement. The NY Times has a nice investigative piece on the movement today.


It is worth noting first that online this article is much less prominent than it is in the paper version (front page above the fold with picture) and this may say something about the audience that the Times is trying reach with the story. I think it is clear that the not so hidden agenda of the article is to make us afraid of the Tea Party folks. They do a good job of this and there is reason to fear the kinds of energies that could be unleashed.

I first encountered the Tea Party phenomenon long before it started when I wrote my master’s thesis on Ross Perot. The movement is not new at all, but is an outgrowth of a native kind of libertarian populism that arises from time to time in the States. My argument there was that you could only understand it as a response to the kinds of economic stories Perot told in response to the stimulus of economic distress. That piece is buried in a book somewhere, but I’ll link it here some day. The key idea is that to understand the kinds political movements that will arise in times of stress, you have to know what kinds of stories people respond to. Ross Perot did. Glenn Beck does.

My first real encounter with the movement as it now stands was on a visit in the 2008 campaign to Mount Vernon (George Washington’s estate). There I encountered an exhibit on the Boston Tea Party. At that point it finally clicked for me that this seminal event was a narrative anchor for the idea that Americans should not pay taxes. This is sort of a no-brainer, but I had been thinking a lot about how historical examples can be used as symbols of this kind to preserve political ideas for later use. I had the opportunity to do a TV show for a Canadian broadcaster that week and this made for great material. In reviewing what I think was the first debate between McCain and Obama I suggested that McCain was in trouble because we were now in a terrifying economic crisis and his economic plans sounded like a cross between the Beverly Hill Billies (drill baby drill) and the Boston Tea Party (cut taxes). I was trying to be ironic, but in politics that is quite hard to do, because less than a year later that became the organizing frame for the right wing populist movement (the Hill Billy part is still there too if someone wants to exploit that, it might make for a great campaign commercial).

So the Tea Party movement is a classic populist revolt against the progressive impulse in American society that tries to work out a third way between boss and mob rule–between capitalism and socialism.

The progressive movement has always been annoyingly temperate, starting from the days that it was a Republican Party spur, and there is plenty of room for elite power. The main difference between progressive elitism and corporate elitism is that the path the the top is meant to be based on merit and not power. The best should be selected and trained and given the opportunity to practice their specialty once in a position of responsibility. In laissez-faire capitalism, those rule who others need the most for reasons good or bad. In American style socialism (think Huey Long), those rule who are best in touch with the common man.

So what has Ralph Nader got to do with this? Well, if you are like every other liberal, you probably blame Ralph for many of the problems we now face, because he made it possible for Bush to win office in 2000 by spoiling the race for Al Gore (I actually think that we can’t be sure about that because of turnout dynamics that I may describe some other time).

I think we can blame Nader in another way–for failing to build a left populist movement. You see, the reason that Nader had to be cast out of the Democratic Party (and anything associated with respectable and practical politics) is that he failed to play the gentile game. Whatever his impact, he did risk spoiling the 2000 election and did so because he believed that only by mixing it up with the progressive Democratic establishment could you force them to pay attention to the egregious market dynamics that threatened to derail the economy (great recession) and degrade the American people (bank bailouts and limited jobs programs). It was always a little too shrill and extreme of a message, but he was savvy to note that there is a segment of the American people who require a less professional style to get them excited about politics and willing to fight for their interests. The professionals of the Democratic establishment (this includes many of the people I know and respect, so it is not meant as an attack) can’t stand the sort of over the top and conflictual exaggerations that are required for such a left populist movement to get off the ground. It is just against their nature and either scares or embarrasses them depending on the moment. This is why almost everyone I know who supports the Democratic Party became an overnight Nader hater in November of 2000. It just got worse in 2004. Nader understood that the populist strain was an important minority position that had to be nurtured if a left politics was to obtain in the U.S. (Clinton had proven that to him and you should read the recent piece by E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post on Obama and Clinton if you want to get a sense of the future of Clintonian politics).

Can you really blame Ralph for failing to put a little fighting populist spirit into the American left? Not really; he did more than anyone else did (Howard Dean gave it a shot for a while as well). The lesson is that if you are an old fashioned cranky populist, the Dems are just not that into you. Of course, most of the Tea Party folks would not have flocked to the Democrats if someone like Nader had been successful, but in failing in his epic quest, Ralph let the Dems shoot themselves in the foot. Based on the perception of his spoiling progressive reform, Ralph has pushed the Democrats to the point that they have abandoned the field of economic populism to the right wing, and that is actually quite hard to do.

This is all really tongue in cheek, and in retrospect Nader’s only real failure in his quest to build the energies of left populism was his communication style.  By the time he hit his presidential  stride, his style had become wooden and his justifications implausible.  As the attacks on him wore on, Ralph looked peevish and insincere even to those who were rooting for him. The people like a little less scolding and a little more charm in their leaders over the long run. Most people now remember Nader as the guy who was too idealistic to face the realities of practical politics. All you have to do is look at all the wonkishly practical stuff he accomplished over his career to see how out of touch that view is, but whatever else we might say about Saint Ralph, you heard it here first. Why are we now facing an extremist and nostalgic right wing political movement today? Nader done it again.


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