The Tea Party

I’m in the midst of doing some community organizing in my county, and I’ve been struck by the contrast between the work I’ve been doing and what is happening in the tea party “movement.”

Some interesting social analysis has been done about them.  Most of the tea party is white.  They don’t want to be told what to do.  It represents the hyperindividualism that reflects part of our cultural consciousness, and the more recently cultivated antagonism toward the behemoth that is The Government.

Reasonable people can critique the “therapeutic state” and its diminishment of civil liberties.   Institutions, after all, engineer cultures (did you know that the English propensity toward tea was based primarily on a conscious decision to prefer Tea corporations to Coffee corporations?).   Anger toward corporations, generally, is well placed, even if tea partiers aren’t that consistent.

But the tea party, which seems proud that there is little leadership or organization, seems to be blind about the nature institutions, government and the public.  Their view is of the mass, “taking over” which is more like the cultural revolution (choose any) than of getting work done.

The tea “party” ignores that politics is about people in institutions.  Joe Schmoe is just a dude spouting off about paying taxes.  He’s got some anecdotes, and he’s pissed, but just because he knows his car’s broken doesn’t mean he knows how to fix it.   It just looks like another narcissistic blowhard who doesn’t know who’s responsible for his lowered standards.

Good Government requires some leadership and management skills.  Politicians will make difficult decisions.  If tea partiers don’t want leaders, and don’t think government should manage, their task is going to be incredibly challenging as they get stuck in their internal bickering.   They will perpetually seek a consensus that will never emerge.

No government will make everyone happy.   Kenneth Arrow showed, in my view, decisively that there is no perfect government or economic system.  Someone will feel screwed.   Perhaps the rich will find some of their money confiscated; or the middle class will find their pensions cut.  Sometimes liberty wins, sometimes security.  But in a democracy we live together whether we win, or lose.   Although I talked, admittedly, about emigrating to the Netherlands after Bush won a second election.

Leaders will inevitably disappoint some people.  It’s the nature of leaders that they get hit, that they compromise, and choose between two bad, or two good, decisions.   A tea party that isn’t sure what it wants, besides being left alone, and resists any leader trying to compromise between the various publics, will find itself just another discussion group, a loud mob unable to accomplish anything.

I have not been worried about the tea party because they do not take organizing seriously.  In someways, they are like some parts (not all, of course) left – get people angry, hold a couple marches, find some politician who says what you want to hear. The hard work of engaging communities, discerning their values, discovering what keeps people up at night, and then acting upon it, is substituted for quick fixes.  Like corporations, politicians and even some progressives, the tea party thinks there is a quick fix, and that is to vote the bums out.

It doesn’t work like that.  It’s one reason I fell in love with the church. Granted, plenty of priests try to find quick fixes.  The daily life of church, however, resists it. Although I believe there may need to be a reboot of the church,  bodies of people coming together are what the church does.  Perhaps we have not done so well at that over the last 30 years.  We’ve not been able to manage within the new economy of attention.  I don’t think it’s hopeless, but I do think it will require a different kind of work.  The tea-party illustrates what we should not be doing.

I’m not hard on the tea party.  As a reformed anarchist, I’m actually sympathetic, aside from it’s loose resentments that stem from race populism.  I wish that there were some elected officials who would really challenge the economic system.  As it is, some of the tea party officials seem like stooges for state capitalism.    Which is a lot different than democratic capitalism.

One of the reasons I think that democracy, and capitalism, are fruits of some hard consequences of Christian morality is because, in the case of democracy, we learn to lose some times; and when we win, we treat the losers with respect.  Battling things politically is far better than fighting a civil war.  In capitalism, we coordinate desires, trusting in each other’s ability to share goods (I’m not talking about the system of high finance).  They are held in tension – sometimes they contradict each other.   And then we should be able to learn to choose.

The tea party needs to learn how to live within the former.

Obama’s Leadership on Health Care and DADT

Obama seems to have disappointed liberals with his suggestions that progressives should stop hammering senators about health care, and his (lack of) speed at reforming “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” I think they are examples of astute political leadership.

First of all, even though Obama may make these suggestions, it does not mean Progressives should listen to dear leader and stop saying stuff. If anything, Obama is implying organize better. By simply not impeding progress, he is actually enabling forward movement – but the work will revolve around groups organizing popular support.

What ideological progressives forget is that good politics is not a matter of diktat. Political calculus requires constantly negotiating between different competing interests. For this reason, Obama’s comments to progressives should be seen as shoring up as many favors and political capital as he possibly can among conservative Democrats. And it seems to be working. He has an impressive number of victories. Obama is carrying out his agenda with steady, if slow, progress, laying down a solid foundation for future political victories. He understands that politics is not done by shouting ideological platitudes at people. It’s done by building relationships. By showing loyalty to conservative democrats, he builds good will with them – capital he can spend later. It is a smart maneuver on his part.

It does not mean we should obey him.

If Obama presses too hard on DADT at this time, he may force conflict in a fashion that will undermine his tenuous relationship with the military establishment. If he were to push DADT now, he risks both losing that battle and making it impossible in the future to manage other important political issues, such as curtailing defense spending. He has stated his position about DADT clearly already: it will end. But he will do it when he has his ducks lined in a row so that other important policies don’t get sacrificed.

This does not mean we should stop complaining. Not at all. I believe that Obama expects and desires that we organize. In fact, by being temperamentally conservative, he helps progressives avoid political complacency – which is exactly what happened under Clinton. They should not be frustrated that the organizer in chief is as conservative as he seems.

His implicit message: continue organizing. It is enough that we have a president that will listen.

Obama’s Skillz

Politico notes that Obama seems to be skating through Republican Rage. Here are eleven reasons Obama has so far been successful in managing the various thunderstorms around his presidency.

1) Don’t spend political capital on losing battles. Gun control is a losing battle. The “fairness doctrine” is a losing battle. Don’t fret or worry about it.
2) Let others spend their political capital first. For example, let the army spend political capital on same-sex marriages. Get outside organizations to make suggestions first.
3) Enact “low hanging fruit.” Change policies that don’t require a lot of input from outside bodies or authorities. Structure internal procedures differently. This opens up spaces for political action to change.
4) Have a clear sense of role. The president isn’t going to pass legislation. The president can change executive orders. Sometimes all the president is doing is shaking hands. Other times the executive is describing a vision.
5) Stay cool. Michell Malkin likes to get hot and wants the president to declare “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.” In the movies, that’s a great sentiment. But as Obama notes:
6) Success speaks louder than words.
7) State the vision, loudly, forcefully.
8) Speak their language. This means talking the language of responsibility and caring; not just numbers. He speaks as “compassionate conservatives” spoke, with authority.
9) No permanent enemies. It’s just politics. He listens, though he might not agree.
10) Be conservative, until work needs to be done. For example, don’t legalize pot until there is a practical opening for change. Work within the institutions available. The “conservative temperament” looks like a virtue peculiar to our time and age: patience.
11) Obama does his homework.

Obama is the master gardener-politician of our age. He is right now, just planting the seeds he can. His style will be the model for leadership for many generations.