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Thursday, October 07, 2010  

Keep Imagining


It’s nice for the institutional G.O.P. that now, after the most significant series of liberal legislative victories since the Great Society, and with federal spending up over 25 percent of G.D.P., a strict “less government!” message is suddenly resonating again. (Well, to a point …) ... Hence my recent arguments for a kind of libertarian populism, and hence my preference for Tea Partier “extremism” over the budget-busting business-as-usual of the party’s Washington establishment. The Tea Party obviously isn’t the fulfillment of the “Grand New Party” vision, but then again the “Grand New Party” vision didn’t quite anticipate the depth of the fiscal ditch we’ve driven ourselves into — and I can imagine the Tea Party’s small-government purism playing an important role in pulling us out of that ditch.

Since I don't think Ross Douthat is stupid or dishonest, I'm just going to chalk this one up to massive self-delusion. To be clear, there is no such thing as "the Tea Party's small-government purism." Doesn't exist. I have never seen it identified in any robustly objective way. Every scrap of statistical data I've ever seen concerning the Tea Party, and every maneuver by every Tea Party candidate in a competitive race, suggests that the movement is just another white populist backlash, this time with three cornered hats. Douthat's item even gestures in this direction, by pointing (via link) out that Rand Paul--who thought the federal government had no role in dismantling Jim Crow--has now embraced Medicare and even argued to keep its payments to providers high. Marco Rubio, another early darling of the movement, is also running ads demagoguing Medicare. Even Paul Ryan, the policy godfather of the "small government" agenda, only wants to cut Medicare and Social Security for people under 55--ensuring, in effect, that I will pay for both my own retirement and that of the generation above mine. Not to mention the Tea Parties' general fondness for the massive sweep of the security state. John Yoo rallied the small government purists in Marin County--John Yoo, of course, being the man whose small government scruples are so vanishingly small that he argued that the President has the inherent authority to order the genital torture of child hostages.

What the Tea Party stands for, in spades, is the sense that federal spending on somebody else needs to be cut. The catch, of course, is that the big money in the budget already goes to old, white, rural-state people, that is, the demographic core of the Tea Party. You could cut everything that isn't defense, farm subsidies, Medicare, and Social Security--no FBI, no national parks, no food inspectors, no interstate highway maintenance, etc.--and not come close to bringing the budget into long-term balance. There aren't enough undeserving others to punish with our constitutional purism, and the one group the Tea Party considers inviolate in budgetary matters is itself.

The thing is that I don't really blame Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and the rest for playing everyone like rubes because, after all, voters are mostly rubes. People are very willing to believe that there is some painless-to-them way to have what they want--some undeserving welfare mooches to be tossed out on their ears, some sliver of super fat-cats in dire need of a soaking--and the job of a canny politician is to let them believe that. Virtue may be invoked, but only in a rhetorical sense. Marco Rubio is running like an unprincipled demagogue because he wants to be the next senator from Florida. That's how it works.

But I don't know why Douthat and other people who read stuff for a living need to be taken in by this. Ross is familiar with the evidence--he links to it!--but won't let go of this fantasy that there is a real, honest-to-goodness constituency for a radical down-sizing of the federal government. There just isn't. What we are seeing right now is what we always see, which is a battle over how to divide the pie. Relatively wealthy, white, and rural voters are highly energized this year to keep theirs at the expense of someone else's. If that's something you want to endorse, that's fine, but don't have any illusions about what it is.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 3:17 PM
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