Empowering The Activist Class

Peter Suderman tackles yours truly for backing the netroots in pressuring Obama to keep his promises while disparaging the tea-partiers for doing the same thing. His point is a decent one. In response, I'd say that I have no problem with Republican activists/insurgents challenging the GOP establishment. On the size and scope of government and on fiscal balance, I'm all for them in theory. In practice: not so much.

Why? Because the time to pressure your establishment is when it is in power. Back in Bush's first term and well into his second, a few of us actually did stand up to the unconservative spending and borrowing, the unconservative Federal Marriage Amendment, the illegal torture regime, and the unconservative recklessness with which both the Afghan and Iraqi wars were waged. Funny thing: none of the tea-partiers were with us. In fact they were mainly cheerleading a trillion dollar war based on false pretenses long after its bankruptcy was exposed. They were rallying for Bush's re-election. The moments they did wake up - the Harriet Miers nomination for example - were exceptions that proved the rule.

Only now do they actually get organized. And one can be forgiven for seeing it as a toxic mix of Fox-generated partisanship and paranoia, with some ugly populist and cultural under-currents. This is rather different than the netroots or the gay activists actually putting real heat on Obama in his first year. And the difference lies with political seriousness.

On the opt-out public option, for example, the matter is in the Congress now, it's popular in many polls, it may be the only way to restrain costs, and by phasing it in through the states, its efficacy can be tested. My point is that this is a practical way to push for real change, especially since the Obama campaign explicitly embraced this model of citizen input. Ditto the protests for ending the military ban or repealing DOMA. These are tangible goals, already supported by the Democratic leadership, in which base pressure can work - to force the Dems to do what they have promised to do when they can actually deliver. And the activists can claim some measure of integrity: they're willing to tackle a president they supported. How many conservatives were tackling Bush in his first year even as his betrayal of core conservative values was evident from 2001 onwards. Or his second year? (There were, I think, two of us in Washington. And Bartlett and I were excommunicated for disloyalty).

My worry about the tea-partiers is not that just they are Johnny-Come-Latelies (even though most are). It is not that they are partisans (some of them clearly aren't). It is that they are motivated by an amorphous distrust and loathing of government that never seems to get translated into actual policies (and that is itself more populist than conservative). And they are pushing the GOP leadership to take talk-radio abstract positions, rather than tangible proposals. They are deeply unserious.

If they were proposing a serious set of cuts to entitlement or defense spending, or an alternative to the Democrats' health insurance plans, or an openness to a VAT to rescue federal finances, I'd be on their side. But what they currently are is a form of ideological protest movement with no hope for or intention of actually bringing any of this about. I feel about them as a small government type the way I used to feel about ACT-UP as an HIV-positive gay man. They're more about theater and therapy than protest and progress.

They're also reactionary on several critical areas: gay rights; climate change; accepting a multicultural America; the desire to abolish the Fed; this nonsense about czars; assertions of Biblical verses as if they were public policy arguments, etc etc. I know base movements get fringy. But the fringe here is the base. And I do not feel in any way welcome or included or even addressed.