Monday, May 26, 2014

Fretful symmetry

Astroturf nail art by Marlene Vinha.
Monsignor Ross Douthat, the apostolic nuncio to 42nd Street, is interested in the fate of the "Tea Party" in last Tuesday's primaries and in its long-term effect on the Republican party, which he thinks he can clarify by comparing it to something even more imaginary:
think about another recent grass-roots movement that reshaped our politics: the netroots/Deaniac/antiwar insurgency, which roiled the Democratic Party between 2003 and the ascendance of Barack Obama.
I swear I was right there, joined MoveOn in 2003, and I'm still waiting for our politics to be reshaped or at least to see the old party just a little bit roiled. My best recollection [jump]
is that is that it got no attention at all, although the country, Democrats and Republicans alike, eventually did realize that Bill Clinton should not have been impeached and the Iraq War should not have been started and Moved On, but without so much as a thankyou to us hippies for pointing it out to them years before, correct me if I'm wrong. I certainly don't remember any Democratic politicians desperately working to outdo each other in the primaries to show how antiwar they were in the way Republicans have been jousting and one-upping over their relative Rightness over the past six years.

What Douthat's up to here may be called the Argument from Symmetry: Given a recognized phenomenon on the Right side of the equation, it must be the case that there has been an equal and opposite phenomenon on the Left side, its mirror image, which can be used to suggest, say, that the "Tea Party" was a grassroots movement.
Symbolic set (white picket fences and Astroturf) at a townhall meeting with George W. Bush in Sterling, VA, January 2006.

The Tea Party was money, deployed to create an online presence for a certain vague or merely stupid rhetorical stance (complaining about rising taxes as the tax rates sank and government-run health care where it didn't exist in the ACA but not where it did in Medicare), to fund dark-horse lunatic Republican primary candidates, and basically to give an insurgent appearance to the Republican establishment in the 2010 midterm elections. As Michael Brendan Daugherty noted at the time at The American Conservative,
Curiously, the phenom got the most energized and received the most credit for backing Scott Brown, a pro-choice Republican, who supported Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare plan—one similar to the Senate scheme he now claims to oppose. He is, by all appearances one of those dread “RINOs” —Republican in Name Only—that conservatives once despised.
At the National Tea Party conference, attendees wore pins with Scott Brown’s figure under the “American Idol” logo. Palin referred to him and recently elected New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as “ours.” It didn’t matter that Brown and Christie won as moderate Republicans running against badly damaged Democratic candidates. Their victories infuriated liberals, and that counts most of all to Tea Partiers.
While it undoubtedly featured some "real" people (the Medicare patients tooling around on their government-issued scooters at the 2009 rallies) alongside the low-rent media personalities from talk radio, CNBC, and Fox, it began as a project of Charles and David Koch and began to acquire some real political influence with the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in January 2010. As faithful Old Corporatist Bill Scher was saying in the Wall Street Journal toward the end of last fall's government shutdown,
[Tim] Carney says this Citizens United–fueled dynamic has led to a "Republican leadership vacuum." I would go a step further: It has broken the Republican Party in two.
Both the ascendant Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action groups are financially backed by the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers, leaders of a single corporation that appears to be trying to surpass the Chamber of Commerce as the dominant funder and power center of the Republican Party.
In the 2012 elections, the Chamber of Commerce and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity each spent roughly $35 million. But since then, the Kochs have used another group they created, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, to spend $200 million supporting an array of organizations determined to destroy ObamaCare.
According to Open Secrets, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce spending now "dwarfs" the old Chamber, which has been urging Republicans to keep the government open and increase the debt limit, to no avail.
The Kochs and others like them no longer have any use for a "Tea Party"; its work is essentially done, as the old GOP politicians have bent to its will. I'm sure the Kochs in particular would like to get past their Frankenstein's monster to push through an immigration bill (they love immigration as long as it combines with the lowest possible minimum wage law). And the great thing about Astroturf is you can just roll it up and lay it down wherever you like.
The Remodeling Project, performance piece by Heidi Kayser, in Boston's Fort Point Channel, May 2012.

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