Saturday, October 16, 2010

Wag the Dog

Grassroots movements are nothing new in American politics. Those of us old enough to remember the tumultuous ‘60s – and, having been born in 1961, I barely qualify – will no doubt recall the famous 1967 Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco that was the precursor to Woodstock. Movements like that come around every few decades and they are almost always short-lived, not because their causes aren’t real or pertinent, but because the resources needed to sustain “the moment” often exceed the ideals of the organizers. Without quite realizing it at the time Woodstock was not the culmination of the counter-culture movement; it was its final encore. No sooner had it ended than the business of co-opting it began and – for those of us who love music this is quite painful – within a few years subverted all that had been worked for.

It is that way with virtually all movements, regardless of ideology. Grand ideas that lead to a rush of enthusiasm that inevitably peter out on their own like a dying dwarf star from a lack of fuel, that is when they’re not being subverted and bought out (e.g. ‘70s album oriented rock).

Find a cause or movement that hasn’t collapsed of its own weight and you will find a very large stash of Benjamin Franklins bankrolling it. There is an axiom in American politics: follow the money. Those who have it usually get what they want; and those who don’t are seldom heard from again. We have come a long way from 1789, when George Washington had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to assume the office of the fledgling nation’s first presidency. Today’s politicians have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, just to get them to do their jobs, but that’s another blog, isn’t it?

Enter, stage right, the Tea Party movement: the motherload of political movements. The genesis of all movements have one thing in common: a deep and festering resentment that needs an outlet to express its rage. The race riots of the '60s were the result of centuries of pent up rage of millions of African Americans who had finally had enough. Populists movements that decry the corruption of Washington politics are a dime a dozen, and after their brief and spontaneous outburst, a few heads are turned, perhaps a few heads roll, and we are left wondering what all the hubbub was about.

But here is where the story begins to get a little dicey for the Tea Party movement, and why this is no ordinary run of the mill faction of disenchanted minions. For one thing, while it is fair to say that the vast majority of Tea Partiers are fed up and frustrated with the way things are going in the country, their movement – whether they want to admit it or not – is hardly spontaneous or genuine. If anything, the Tea Party movement is a carefully orchestrated and choreographed extension of moneyed interests that saw an opportunity to cash in on a national crisis in a way that is about as profound as any in American politics, and which now threatens not only an election cycle, but perhaps the future of the Republic.

Let’s hearken back to 2006, shall we. The dent in George W. Bush’s armor had become a gash, as it was painfully obvious that a war he had lied us into was not going as expected. No WMDs, no functioning Iraqi government, no exit strategy, no clue. The result? The electorate rewarded the Democrats with sweeping majorities in both Houses of Congress. Two years later, with the economy in free fall, the nation elected its first black president. Payback is a bitch. Maybe the Republicans weren’t to blame for all the mess, but the people were going to take out their frustrations on somebody, and they seemed as good a target as any.

The wounds from that butt whoopin’ ran deep and were tough to swallow for the GOP. In just over 14 years they had gone from a Congressional majority to a party on the run. Humiliation would be a word in a half. Clearly, they needed an overhaul. But rather than engage in some healthy reflection and re-invent themselves, they decided to become recalcitrant to political reality. They engaged in a bunker mentality and became the Party of No. Worse, they started calling out any and all members of their ranks who didn’t kowtow to the party line and drink from the same fountain. Those who insisted on reaching out to Democrats or who were seen as being anything other than hardliners were politically isolated and vilified within the conservative press. The likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin were now calling the shots. The term moderate Republican became not only oxymoronic, but something akin to a leper within the GOP.

But rather than bolster their cause and provide a workable roadmap for the nation, the Party of No looked rather silly. By the end of March 2009, not only had their efforts not resulted in any appreciable mood swing within the electorate, if anything the vast majority of Americans saw them as nothing more than obstructionists who were sore losers. Political pundits began floating the comparison to the Whig Party, another political party that couldn’t see the forest for the trees that ultimately met its demise. Clearly, if they were going to succeed they were going to need some help, and this is where the fortunes for the GOP started to ascend.

Let’s start by stating the obvious. The Obama Administration badly underestimated the severity of the recession that had befallen the nation. The stimulus was way too small to jumpstart the economy – virtually every economist now agrees with this – and over time a restless electorate began to grow weary as naïvely optimistic forecasts not only weren’t met, but things began to get worse. Unemployment actually went up, not down as expected. Yes, the free fall had been stopped – there was not going to be a repeat of the Great Depression – but that did little to pacify the multitudes. Within the nation a growing resentment against Washington was taking root. All that was needed was a little fertilizer and a lot of watering.

Enter Dick Armey and FreedomWorks. Formed in 1984, FreedomWorks has long been an advocate of lower taxes and less government regulation. But it was not until 2009 that it made its most significant contribution to the political landscape. No one can agree as to where and when everything began to coalesce within the hearts of the disenchanted – the old chicken or the egg argument – but one thing is certain. Once it became obvious that there was an opportunity to make significant inroads and take back the power they had lost, FreedomWorks was quick to pounce. Armey saw the Tea Party as the ultimate vehicle with which to navigate the Republican Party back to political dominance.

Capitalizing on the growing unrest within the electorate, and taking advantage of the frightened, the ignorant and the gullible, Armey began pouring in millions of dollars to support and, in some cases, create Astroturf rallies all throughout the country. The August Town Hall meetings last year over health care was his pièce de résistance.

Whatever else you may think about “Obamacare” it is not, contrary to the opinion of far-right conservatives, socialized medicine. Actually, if one takes a close look at it, it more closely resembles 1994’s Republican alternative to Bill Clinton’s healthcare plan than any Bolshevik takeover.

But that was not what we saw or heard that whole summer. Shouts of death panels filled the ether, as misinformed citizens were driven to rallies and fed a packet of lies by corporate mercenaries intent on stirring up the political pot of discontent. Adding insult to injury, the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats did little to correct the gross mischaracterization of their policies. Instead of building their own narrative for the reforms they were bringing to Washington, they were passive and reactionary, and when occasionally prodded, chided their opponents, thus adding fuel to the claim that they were elitists after all.

In less than a year, Republicans went from a discredited party in disarray to winning a Senate special election in Massachusetts and two gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. And all thanks to the Tea Party. Things were starting to look good in GOP land again.

And then things really started getting weird. All throughout 2010, extreme-right Tea Party candidates began challenging and beating their moderate brethren in Republican primaries. Joe Miller defeated Lisa Murkowski in Alaska; Carl Paladino defeated Rick Lazio in New York; Marco Rubio defeated Charlie Crist in Florida; Rand Paul defeated Trey Grayson in Kentucky; and, in a stunner, Christine O’Donnell defeated Mike Castle in Delaware. The resulting wave of victories for these candidates has all but purged the Republican Party of its moderate members. Olympia Snow and Susan Collins of Maine are now all that is left of the middle of the road crowd; that is until their terms expire, when they will undoubtedly face stiff challenges from the Tea Party.

And all this, we are told, is the sole result of a grassroots movement to take back the government from an over-reaching and out of control Democratic Party and restore it into the waiting hands of “the people.” Somewhere an Indian is spinning around in his grave. There hasn’t been a whopper told that big since Manhattan Island was stolen for a bunch of beads.

No, what this is, and sadly has always been, is about power retaking its rightful place among the stars. The “people” never stood a chance. For had this been a real grassroots movement to “take back” America, it, like all the others that came before, would’ve had its moment in the sun, spawned a few harmless protests, and faded away into that good night that awaits all erstwhile movements of good intentions and meager means. That the Tea Party has not faded or diminished is owed not to a festering unrest within the electorate – that has been a part of the national discourse quite possibly since our founding days – but to a determined and unabashedly shameless attempt to seize control of a political party, lay waste to all that stands in its way and reduce the Constitution to a meaningless piece of parchment.

That was the painful lesson that the Republican Party learned two years ago when it was routed by the Democrats, and, give them this much, they learned it well. Through the auspices of Fox News and most of the A.M. dial, along with some good old-fashioned incompetence by their opponents, they are about two weeks away from Phase One of Operation Take Back. Make no mistake about it: should the GOP take control of the House – and virtually every poll points anywhere from a slim victory to a landslide – they will do everything in their power to roll back all the legislative victories of Obama and the Dems. If they can’t roll them back, they will simply not fund them. Translation? A government shut down.

And the Tea Party? Once its job is done, it will eventually be co-opted, like all the other political movements, into the waiting hands of the mothership, just as it was always intended to be. And that will be the cruelest of ironies. That a political movement, spawned out of frustration, and underwritten by corporate interests inimical to the very things they and all of us should be worried about most, in the end, once its purpose was fulfilled, was dispensed like yesterday’s newspaper.

That is how it goes in today’s America. The tail wags the dog. The average guy and gal in the street, with legitimate problems and concerns, is manipulated and used for ulterior motives. Then once those motives are realized, they are discarded and tossed aside. The ultimate mission accomplished moment. In some respects, this has been going on for quite some time, but never has it been this brazen or toxic.

And that is what is most tragic about all this. What the country needs most is a genuine political uprising where the people rise up and actually do take back their country from the powers that be; what we got was a fraud perpetrated by those very same powers that be, who were skilled enough to provide the itching powder to a susceptible audience who was desperate enough to believe, and resourceful enough to pull the wool over their eyes in the process. Brilliant.

Yes, we have come a long way since the days of George Washington, haven’t we?

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