05 July 2011

A movement with 'no sense of moral decency'

As the deadline for raising the national debt ceiling grows closer, moderate Republican New York Times columnist David Brooks has gone ballistic on the Tea Partiers in his latest opinion piece. In Brooks's opinion, Democrats have bent over backwards in their efforts to compromise with Republicans, giving the GOP an opportunity to claim a historic deal that'd result in trillions of dollars in savings. He writes: " A normal Republican Party would seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing." Doing so, Brooks claims, would be "the mother of no-brainers." Unfortunately, "the Republican party may no longer be a normal party."

Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative. The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.

The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it.

The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation’s honor.

Brooks goes on to condemn the Tea-fueled GOP's monomaniacal obsession with taxes; they "have no economic theory worthy of the name," but only a "sacred fixation" on tax rates. Worst of all, their intransigence has only made Democrats, at long last, less willing to compromise. But at this moment, Brooks clearly believes that the ultimate burden of compromise lays on Republicans, who must show whether they are "a normal conservative party or an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation."

But Brooks's tirade begs a few questions. What is a "normal" party, let alone a normal conservative party? Normal conservatism might be an easier call. Brooks, as a moderate, expects conservatives to be pragmatic rather than dogmatic, as conservative parties were in Europe and America for much of modern times. Pragmatic conservatives, presumably, would take the deal the Republicans have been offered instead of insisting on an all-or-nothing position on taxes. Fine. But what is a "normal party?" Brooks's notion seems to have something to do with "normal governance," which, as for many liberals, is a matter of constant bargaining and compromises on pragmatic principles. The Republicans have been rendered abnormal, almost to the point of dishonor, by an odd, "psychological" protest movement. But leave aside your opinion of the Tea Party movement -- which, I must note, Brooks doesn't mention by name. In our representative form of government, isn't this "psychological" phenomenon entitled to representation in Congress as long as it can draw enough votes? And wouldn't any movement embittered against "business as usual" seems just as abnormal to Brooks? While I may distrust ideology in general, it doesn't follow that everyone must be prepared to compromise on everything. Protest movements are founded on a feeling that conditions are intolerable in some way, so a note of intolerance in political debate is probably inevitable -- as Tea Partiers can attest from either the receiving or the firing line. Any other radical movement that gains traction in the future should expect to be accused of similar intolerance, irresponsibility, etc. These are standard establishment slurs against radicals, and while every radical must be judged objectively by his words and deeds, the case against him is not proved by establishment anger alone.

Brooks's real problem seems to be that a "protest movement" has apparently taken over a "practical governing alternative." But whose fault is that? Tea Partiers themselves are in large part to blame for their typical desire for a short cut to power. From their perspective, the rage of a David Brooks only proves the wisdom of their strategy, since "taking over" the GOP has given them a potential to paralyze the government that they most likely would not have enjoyed as a third party. But if Republicans feel discomfited now by TP pressure, they did not anticipate such discomfiture while urging them to join forces with the GOP, the TPs' supposed natural home, over the past two years. If TP taxophobia makes life difficult for Republican leaders, they have themselves to blame. But this Republican crisis may compel a more nuanced analysis of how Bipolarchy works. For some time, my preferred argument has been that opting into the two-party system in the hope of "taking over" one of the major parties eventually neutralizes insurgency as the insurgents bump against the party apparatus's imperatives of fundraising and "responsible" governance. But if Brooks is right about the Republican crisis, that may prove that Bipolarchy also handicaps politics by empowering radicals beyond their actual numerical strength. In this scenario, all a radical "protest" faction has to do is grow big enough to become a "base" in order to have leverage over the entire apparatus of a major party. Bipolarchy offers not only a short cut to power but also a force-multiplier that could give a faction influence far beyond its actual numbers -- and that is no more desirable in representative democracy than a system that blocks radicals from having any distinct voice at all.

The main reason Bipolarchy offers a short cut to power is because most Americans still refuse to vote independently -- which is the reason insurgents so often seek a short cut to power in the first place. As long as that remains true, radicals will still have a strong incentive to attempt a major-party takeover instead of building an independent party movement. It may be that voters will have to change their habits before politicians will, but that might require people to make their desires known outside the auspices of partisanship -- to reassert democracy in its plainest form.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think, in this case, the charges against the TP are valid. They are unreasoning. They are unwilling to compromise. They are unwilling to share power in a democratic fashion which entails compromise. Objectively speaking, they share many of the bad traits of Nazism, Fascism or any other extremist -ism. Now they threaten to tear the GOP apart. Not that I'm complaining.

But the problems will persist until all Americans finally understand that the root of many of our problems lie in the "class warfare" mentioned by Marx. One way or another one class must be forced to compromise with the others - either by accepting servitude and peasantry on the one hand, or by accepting you can't have as much as you want - that others' deserve a fair share of the wealth they help create.