Grassroots Wars in America

Reading the Economist this week, I noted an article which might provide the opening lines to the epitaph of Sunny Hundal’s idea (responded to by myself and Madam Miaow) that the right-wing Tea Party movement are somehow more successful at taking control of the Republican Party than their leftie counterparts.

The usual ideas (clichés?) are floated by Sunny – we socialists are all too busy fighting amongst ourselves etc, they’re more pragmatic while we’re more idealistic etc – but in actual fact, the seeming drift of the Republicans towards the Tea Party movement doesn’t change the nature of the Republican Party at all. Fiery rhetoric about slashing state powers on the ground, continuing corporate welfare when not stumping.

The Economist mentions the primary race for Georgia, in which all the candidates addressed the local Tea Party group and did a grip’n’grin. Candidates thought to be ‘establishment’ candidates – like Oxendine and Deal – lost out to Handel, who in her leaflets denounced her opponents, dubbed “the good ole boys” as “politics as usual”. Handel was also recognised to be more popular at the local Tea Party convention. So far, so good for the Tea Party movement, right?

Well, we’ll see. Ms Handel was endorsed by Sarah Palin, darling of the Republican grassroots, and surged ahead in polling shortly thereafter. Palin is the darling of the Republican grassroots and the Tea Party movement; her endorsements carry a huge amount of weight (or at least press coverage, which can amount to the same thing in races loaded up on TV spots) and she doesn’t wield them against Tea Party people – such as her decision not to endorse Jane Norton over Ken Buck in Colorado.

But who is she endorsing? In Handel’s case, whatever the candidate says about “the good ole boys” and ending “politics as usual”, she’s no outsider. One time President and CEO and a county Chamber of Commerce, having worked as an executive for companies like KPMG, she was appointed Chief of Staff for a previous Georgia governor, and from 2007 until 2010 she served as Secretary of State in Georgia. This is a full-time careerist politico, who, incidentally, has received numerous endorsements from the rest of the Republican establishment.

So what effect, really, is the Tea Party movement having on Republican politics? It would be easy to portray the Deal v. Handel run-off in August as establishment v. Tea Party-backed outsider, as the Economist does, but it would also be lazy. They are both political insiders, and actually, so the commentary from local sources seem to suggest, Handel is probably more liberal than Deal, but she has endorsements from well-known conservative figures to bolster her reputation.

My point in all this is to suggest that the Republican grassroots are being diddled in exactly the same way as Leftie grassroots activists. As has been noted with regard to the Labour leadership election, since the stinging criticisms a couple of months ago that most of the candidates fudged the question of gay marriage, more candidates have come out to back it – as it’s likely to be a popular position with a large section of Labour’s base (though very unpopular with another section).

It’s a sop – it won’t change anything fundamental about Labour’s approach, but it allows the candidates to appeal for grassroots support. The Tea Party movement is being used in the same way. At the bottom are people with a some genuine grievances – the belief that immigration results in worse employment conditions, or the wish that NAFTA should be scrapped, for example. Yet Republicans aren’t going to curb immigration, and they won’t scrap NAFTA. It’ll hurt economic growth.

Meanwhile, far from being grassroots-run, the Tea Party movement is basically a network of professional pressure groups which can link national political figures and large emailing lists, and which can fill stadiums with people who believe that these groups are the last-ditch American defence against socialism. The sort of hyperbole common to true believers here would be hilarious if it wasn’t so dangerous – but the candidates they’re backing don’t share any of these beliefs. People who have served in state and national politics aren’t that naive. They are using the grassroots, and will then promote their own agenda once in office.

The odd sop will be thrown to the base, of course – that’s just good politics. But the disconnection between Right grassroots and leadership, and Left grassroots and leadership is exactly the same.

It should be a lesson that, after eight years of a Republican President, the grassroots of the Right – the sort who idealised things like the 9/12 campaign – were disillusioned and pissed off. Two years in to a Democratic Presidency and Congress which promised much and delivered little, the implication of Sunny’s remarks (though he might not see it like this) are that Democratic supporters expected too much – that blame should lie with the grassroots, rather than with tenacious corporate lobbying, a massively funded propaganda campaign, or with obfuscating Senators.

The grassroots American left has every right to be pissed off. They were taken advantage of – and the Republican grassroots will likely be in the same position once Obama can no longer be the whipping boy for every frothing congressional wannabe.

In the UK, we should learn this lesson. Whoever wins the leadership election now – John McDonnell having failed to make the ballot – the result is going to be a disconnection between what the activists of the party want and what the PLP and the trades union bureaucracies settled for. That’s not the fault of demanding activists – as in America, it is the fault of the process underpinning Labour Party politics.

  1. July 31, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Good post.

    But some in the Tea Party movement aren’t even Republicans any more as pointed out in this Gary Younge article.

    “These are the people that left the Republican party in 2006 and 2008,” explains the Republican strategist Frank Luntz. “They didn’t embrace the Democrats, but they rejected the Republicans, and the only way the Republicans can recapture Congress in 2010 and the White House in 2012 is to unite the basic elements of the Republican party with this Tea Party movement.”

  2. Jacob Richter
    August 1, 2010 at 3:41 am

    “My point in all this is to suggest that the Republican grassroots are being diddled in exactly the same way as Leftie grassroots activists.”

    Since when did that point become anything but obvious?

    There’s a real lack of party-ness amongst the Republican base: their multi-million membership is just voter registration and not substantive party membership (dues plus participating in meetings). They, like left-wing workers, can’t control these voting machines pretending to be “parties.”

  3. August 2, 2010 at 12:45 am

    I would like to complain about this post. Casually scanning down posts on google reader, I do not expect to be confronted by a giant picture of a waxworks model of Sarah Palin that makes me jump out of my fucking skin in terror. Please never do this again.

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