Posted by Brad @ 8:59 pm on April 13th 2009

The Cooption of the Paul Movement

Rojas and I are talking about this in email, but one of the things that both strikes and bothers me about this tea party stuff is how it began, of course, in the Ron Paul movement in service of a very specific message and a very specific agenda, and has devolved into a shrill mass demonstration in service of nothing, that I can see, but itself.

It struck Rojas that what this represents, in a lot of ways, is the Republican party not only taking note of the Paul movement, but seeking to emulate it. Rojas:

In point of fact, what we’re looking at here is very much an attempt by the Republican Party as a whole to appropriate the tactics and enthusiasm that made the Paulite movement somewhat successful.

Would that they’d picked up the message rather than the tactics.

Would indeed.

In examining my own displeasure at this, part of it, being honest, is I think the “that band was totally cool before everybody started listening to them” impulse. I’ll cop to that to some extent.

But part of it also is many of us worked very hard to police the Ron Paul movement, in our own little ways, because of the ever-present danger of it just spinning off into opaque wing-nuttery and losing sight of specific objectives. It seems to me that we were, for the most part, successful in that, but at some point fairly recently, we lost control of our own movement as larger elements—the Glenn Becks, the Michelle Bachman brigades of opportunistic Republicans, a host of people who certainly did not support the agenda of the Ron Paul movement or those of us who actively sought to apply standards and accountability to the Republican Party (who, indeed, went into overdrive trying to shout us down), who are suddenly finding it convenient to grab the reigns and use it in service of…well, whatever their pet cause happens to be, so long as it’s anti-Obama.

Hence the befuddlement of mainstream America as to what, exactly, the Tea Parties represent. Discontent, to be sure, and a general and very sharp anti-Obama feeling that leaves most Americans just scratching their heads, but what is it, exactly, that they want?

Mark Thompson I think sums up the thoughts that have been milling around in my own head on that point:

The concept started out as a relatively small idea organized by a handful of libertarian activists. Movement conservatives saw an opportunity to co-opt it – and they did.

To them, the Tea Parties aren’t just an outlet for expressing frustration over the recent orgy of government spending, they are an opportunity to complain about gay marriage, affirmative action programs in government hiring policies, and just about everything else that movement conservatives oppose even more vehemently now that they’ve been beaten – badly – in consecutive national elections. Never mind that the original point of the Tea Parties, so far as I can tell, was completely libertarian in nature and was to be as much a protest of the Republicans as it was of the Democrats.

Of course, if the Tea Parties had remained the sole province of a handful of libertarian activists, they never would have received the national attention they’re now able to receive, and thus would have had even less impact. By accepting the involvement of the movement conservative multitudes, the originators have lost control of their message even as the message has access to an ever-larger platform. The result? An incoherent jumble of protests that is going to wind up resembling the same sort of incoherence that has characterized large-scale protests and demonstrations for decades.

And losing control of the message is exactly what’s happening.

I got a letter today from the Campaign for Liberty which struck a sharp counterpoint for me. The envelope had four items. A two page letter explaining why the recently-proposed Obama budget was bad and why it was important to provide specific, targeted opposition to it. A one page letter to all my congressmen (To: Bob Casey, Arlen Specter, Tom Murphy) expressing that same point, that I need only sign and stick in the appropriately signed enclosed envelope, and of course a request for a donation to the Campaign for Liberty. I get a letter like that from them about every two weeks, always with a next step, and always trying to build a very specific organization working for very specific aims in very specific ways.

By contrast, I’ve gotten about a million emails from various PACs and organizations claiming the Tea Party mantle and asking me to do anything from providing financial support for Jim Tedisco’s legal fund to building a border fence to spreading the word that Obama means to turn America into a socialist dystopia to pushing back against all those Democrats who are anti-troop to spreading the word that Obama means to take our guns to calls for a bill in Congress demanding some kind of birth certificate certification for presidential candidates to long diatribes about how the fabric of American society is under threat by gay marriage to about a million other things. It’s true that too many cooks spoil the broth, but so do too many ingredients.

But maybe what’s bothering me most is that the common thread isn’t limited government. That is a pretty big part of it, but that’s not the denominator. The denominator is a cult of anti-personality. I keep hearing the tea party people bitching about the fugue of sycophancy surrounding Obama, but it’s increasingly striking me that there is a counter-point, a fugue of sycophancy surrounding all things anti-Obama. The only thing all the different elements claiming the 15th as part of their own have in common is a preternatural dislike and distrust of Barack Obama, a sort of reflexive oppositional militancy quite often seemingly for the sake of it (to my eyes). This isn’t an anti-government demonstration, this is an anti Obama demonstration, and that distinction may seem semantic, but it’s not. Because there are a lot of reasons (many good, many bad) to dislike Obama that have nothing to do with principled opposition to expanding government, and I keep feeling like, to be a part of this whole Tea Party / Glenn Beck / crap, I have to implicitly sign off on all of it. And I sure as hell don’t want to find myself in a foxhole with Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachman, particularly if I’m not quite sure which way that foxhole is facing.

There’s a reason, I think, why some of the core Ron Paul elements—the Campaign for Libertys, the Judge Napolitanos, hell Ron Paul himself—are beginning to put a little distance between themselves and this amorphous tar baby of a movement. Because those elements have always been all about message, and the elements behind the Tea Party stuff are, in some ways, about spinning that message in all conceivable directions at once—which is, in a sense, anti-message. The result is something for anybody but nothing for everybody. Most of the people coming to the tea party stuff are there for very good reasons; I just hope they remember what they are and what they aren’t and keep vigilant lest the latter overtakes the former.

Have fun on the 15th guys. I sent back that Campaign for Liberty envelope with a check.


  1. The original tea party was, of course, a tax protest, and that seems to be the overarching theme of this one as well. I think that much has come through clearly even amidst the rest of the ideological noise.

    And that’s what creates the real problem for me, I guess, because I’m not especially anxious about my tax burden. I pay about 10% of my income in direct federal taxes, which is by no means unreasonable given the benefits of the society I live in. Hell, I could even pay more without having to really bite the bullet.

    What I’m anxious about (more than anything else, anyway) is the absolutely obscene practice of spending tomorrow’s money today, and the long term accounts deficit. Obama has inflated this problem outrageously, and a good case can be made that he is, in fact, worse than Bush on the issue.

    A cut in taxes now, without a SIGNIFICANTLY LARGER cut in spending or a meaningful reform in entitlement policy, would be a bad idea. As long as the emphasis of the protests is primarily about taxes rather than about the size of government, I can’t go along for the ride. It’s not that it’s not my favorite issue, it’s that I’m actually opposed to what seems to be the only core principle of the protests.

    Comment by Rojas — 4/13/2009 @ 9:14 pm

  2. Weirdly, I’m kind of the opposite.

    As I’ve argued before, I think a reasonable case can be made that, if we allow that the federal government has any spending powers, putting through a stimulus push in the face of a potentially devastating recession is a defensible policy. I say “reasonable” and “defensible” on purpose, because I don’t like the underlying mindset, I don’t even necessarily agree with the policy itself, but it strikes me as both a sane response and a policy made, more or less, in good faith. I can really get behind people like Mark Sanford who are trying to make another good faith case that this is the wrong policy (indeed, you’ve persuaded me a lot on this point); what I can’t get behind are people who refuse to meet that debate whatsoever and view those who are reasonably bringing that case to the American public as prima facially insane and tyrannical.

    But, my own experience colors that as well, as yours does with taxes. I’m probably as sensitive to the recession right now as anybody here, in terms of my personal life/economic situation. I have, in short, a lot to lose, immediately, by this recession continuing or getting significantly worse—I don’t mean a hit to my 401k, I mean, say, not being able to have a family, or begin a career, or eat. This isn’t an abstract ideological point with me.

    Obama, right now, pledges to stimulate in the short term and reign in in the long term. I think he will, at least, fall far short on that latter point, but I also think he’s making that pledge in good faith, that he intends to, that it is theoretically possible to do, and that he’ll probably push to make good on his word, even if what he chooses to do will wind up (in all likelihood) being horribly deficient. If he fails to do so, that will be a perfect window of opportunity to strike back. But in the abstract, I hope he is able to make good on exactly what he is pledging to do. I don’t think it’s wise policy, but I hope he succeeds, I hope he’s right and I’m wrong and what’s possible falls more along his way of thinking than mine, and I don’t quite understand why somebody wouldn’t.

    To that end, the Republican agenda right now, the oppositional agenda that the tea party is quickly becoming in service of—namely, accelerate tax cuts and freeze spending but only in the short term, strikes me as likely a worse prescription than Obama’s, given the economic context. If I thought that the tax protests weren’t mostly corporatism and focused on the higher end, and if I thought the short term spending freeze were in service of a much larger conversation on entitlement reform (which, right now, only Obama, ironically, is speaking to) and a significant parsing down of the government, and not just a peon to fiscal conservatism while being a simultaneous dodge of any of its heavy lifting, I could get behind that. But I don’t, if you can’t already tell.

    So I can only judge these things on the face of them. And if given the choice between the Obama plan and the Republican plan-like thing, at this point I won’t sign off on either, but I have to say, at least Obama’s makes some kind of sense to me.

    Comment by Brad — 4/13/2009 @ 9:41 pm

  3. An interesting post at Ambinder’s place called “Who’s in Charge?”, sketching out the three dominant political organizations who are coopting the Tea Party thing. I think the author of the piece way overestimates the organization impact these groups actually have here, but it’s interesting nonetheless to see who is claiming the mantle for themselves.

    In a nutshell, one of the organizations, FreedomWorks, is more or less explicitly just honing in on the tea party action to try to soak up volunteers and money for the Republican party.

    don’tGo, another organization, says of that:

    dontGO founder Odom, on the other hand, does not see a parallel between his group and liberal ones like MoveOn. His vision for the movement is much more libertarian and revolutionary

    “Their agenda was to get these individuals elected. Our agenda is to declare war on incumbency and long term power,” Odom told me.

    Hence the rejection of Steele’s request. The goal is “not to promote Republicans at all,” Odom said. “I voted for Bob Barr.”

    “I think April 15th is going to provide an environment in which a completely new movement comes out of that [conservative response to Obama’s economic agenda]…new networks, new groups…the birth of a completely new base,” Odom said.

    And the third, Americans for Prosperity, is more Club For Growthish, more specifically just an organization focused on opposing Barack Obama’s economic agenda.

    Obviously, there’s an overlap between all that. And I still think it’s sort of grasping for straws to try to find any kind of superstructure here, because there just isn’t one.

    Still, it makes me feel a little bit better about the whole thing. don’tGo strikes me as having the right idea, and I plan on finding out more about them. FreedomWorks is a large chunk of what I’m objecting to: just an attempt to coopt the Ron Paul movement and try to funnel it into generic support of Republicanism, though I find it hard to blame them for wanting to get onboard. And Americans for Prosperity is just another pro tax cut anti government spending organization, which there can never be too many of. Throw in the Campaign for Liberty, and that’s a constellation of organizations that I can broadly support.

    Comment by Brad — 4/13/2009 @ 10:09 pm

  4. I’ll let you know how it goes in my town. So far as I can tell, it is completely a spontaneous movement of politically unsophisticated folks who are fed up with the fiscal direction coming out of Washington. My take on the spending is that if we are to throw money at the problem (recession) I’d rather see it be in the form of a tax cut than spending on government programs. As you probably already know, the $1.85 trillion projected deficit would amount to a tax refund of apx. $18,5000 to each of America’s apx. 100,000 families. I’d rather they spend it than our “leadership” in D.C.

    Comment by Coogan — 4/13/2009 @ 11:30 pm

  5. Is that figure really right: 100,000 families? For all I know it may be, but it just seems counter-intuitive given that there is loosely 300 million people living in this country.

    Anyhow, to the point, the economic critique of that approach is that households are less likely to spend the money immediately to consume goods and services. To be sure, some will to some extent, but not all of it. Furthermore, even if they wanted to spend all of it, they couldn’t — at least not immediately, or more accurately not as quickly.

    This doesn’t even address second-order arguments about the merits of investment type spending such as infrastructure vs. buying more ipods. I’m not as convinced by that line of argument. It’s not readily apparent to me that infrastructure spending is necessarily better than other sorts other than the fact that one (presumabily) ends up with a useful public good in the end. That future utility may (or more likely, I think) may not arrive in time to help moderate the financial crisis — this is separate from the jobs created by the so-called shovel-ready projects.

    In the short-term I think my biggest concern is of the type brought up by people like Simon Johnson. Essentially, if we don’t take steps to address the root cause of the current crisis then we may well find ourselves in this position again, indeed, we might not even find our way out of it anytime soon. The spectre of Japan’s lost decade is one example. He’s gone so far as to say that the problems the US is facing in the financial sector reminds him of many emerging markets that he has helped salvage.

    Long-term, I’m with Rojas. I AM worried about sky-rocketing debt. I DON’T trust the Left to police itself notwithstanding Obama’s good intentions.

    Comment by tessellated — 4/13/2009 @ 11:50 pm

  6. Bizarrely Coogan, Maddow and Air America agree with your assessment and approve. They also talked about he co-opting.

    No, I don’t make a habit of watching, I was channel surfing, and heard them mention teabagging and Ron Paul so I waited to see what they’d say.

    Something funny about the whole thing.

    Comment by Mortexai — 4/13/2009 @ 11:58 pm

  7. My error, the 100,000 should be 100,000,000. Not enough zeros. The $18,500 is correct. I don’t favor building this huge deficit either but if given the choice of how to spend it I would prefer this to giving it to friends of the establishment.

    Comment by Coogan — 4/14/2009 @ 9:39 am

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