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Crashing the bus: why we should watch the Tea Party

Postcarbon political activists need to keep an eye on the Tea Party. Or rather, we need to keep both eyes on them, each eye looking for different things.

From the traditional liberal perspective out of which most Postcarbon, End of Growthers have emerged, and whose values concerning civil rights, equality, and inclusiveness we generally share, the Tea Party’s intolerant politics of myth and fear represent the early stirrings of a movement that could, under the right conditions—conditions which many of us are in fact predicting—be the stirrings of some sort of ultra right-nationalist, state-capitalism, waving the flag of libertarian freedom while ruling a market-based civil society with an invisible iron fist.

The prevailing economic myth of the Tea Party is that any government concerned to provide services of security of an economic or social nature—a welfare state, in short--is the primary obstacle to wide-spread prosperity. Its secondary myth is that taxation in general is enabling behavior for the out-of-control federal government and, moreover, that taxing the wealthy will stifle “the job creators.” This sort of economic nonsense dovetails conveniently with a belligerent, though somewhat isolationist, foreign policy and a barely veiled racialized or ethnic hatred directed towards those who are mis-perceived as the primary beneficiaries of government programs. Here we see the legacy of the “welfare queen” imagery that Reagan used to begin dismantling the social safety-net, as well as a general refusal on the part of most Americans, let alone Tea Party members, to examine a basic pie chart or some simple economic-demographic statistics about where our money goes, who has the most of it, and how things are generally divided up amongst us all.

That Tea Party founder Judson Phillips has recently suggested that John Boehner, who himself refuses to consider any additional taxation, “simply wishes to be the manager and chief of the welfare state,” and that this sort of foolish hyperbole can garner the support of an increasingly credible political movement should be cause enough for progressives, liberals, and moderates, alike, to sleep with one eye open. That the Tea Party has made its initial rise during a period of catabolic shedding, as Greer might put it, is as significant as its correspondence with our first president of African descent.

In the recent “debate” over raising the debt ceiling, the Tea Party has interestingly not put economic growth at the top of its bellicose talking points. There may be a number of reasons for this. Perhaps it goes without saying, and saying it does not help one strike a radical pose given the way growth is our official national religion. But belief in growth does frame the debate in a larger sense, as Heinberg recently reminded us. The debate is largely about how we might return to “normal” growth, and the role that government spending and national debt will play in that return as well as its long term maintenance. To put it another way, mainstream liberals and the Tea Party share a common assumption that our problems are ones merely of distribution and incentive, and not scarcity and contraction

But liberals are the vocal ones about economic growth in these debates. Liberal MSNBC has as one of its talking points, audible in nearly all its programs, that we need to pursue a “growth first” approach: end the recession through investments that will spur economic growth, after which we can start addressing the massive government deficits and debt. That we might not be able to innovate and grow our way out of the recession and the national debt has not found its way even into the farthest horizons of possibility for liberal stalwarts such as Rachel Maddow or Ed Shultz, nor economists such as Robert Reich As “The Nation” editor Katrina vanden Heuvel said in an NPR interview on Friday, “The best deficit reduction plan is to put people back to work and to boost demand and growth. The GDP figures out today, lousy growth figures, 1.3 percent. We must do better if we're going to have recovery, let alone prosperity.”

While I would never suggest that the Tea Party has abandoned the American religion of growth first and growth above all else, I am sensing undercurrents of change, if not a turning of the tide. This undercurrent can be seen in the Tea Party’s apparent willingness to jeopardize common economic sense about “keeping the economy on track” in order to assert the principle of small government and lower taxes—their readiness, in short, to crash the economy in order to take a stand.

This is why we in the Postcarbon world need to keep the other eye on the Tea Party as well. Although much of this may be political posturing in the lead-up to a crisis, it seems to me that mainstream liberals—the sort that follow MSNBC, the Washington Post, and The Nation—don’t take The Tea Party’s coherent and principled political philosophy seriously enough. It is easy to dismiss their current round of heal-digging as representative of a know-nothing economic pugnacity. With prominent spokespeople like Michelle Bachmann, this is an easy mistake to make. Their abandonment of basic fiscal and economic good-sense—like maintaining our AAA credit rating or avoiding default—will not, after all, help create all the jobs they claim to be concerned about (and probably really are, at the grassroots level at least). Allowing a driverless bus careen off the cliff will not, in the end, help lower our federal deficits, which are likely to increase in the event of a true economic melt down.

But there is another way in which The Tea Party’s uncompromising stance does make sense and in a way that should be a bit more apparent to Postcarbon End of Growthers and very interesting to us as well. Perhaps they are willing to crash the economy not just or only out of ignorance of basic economics—or basic economics as, importantly, it is articulated by liberal academic economists and Wall Street analysts alike. Perhaps they see this crisis as an opportunity to make their stand against a system that cannot continue along its current path. Our shared use of a favorite “keyword” is a bit frightening and certainly worth noting: our current rate of government spending, especially on entitlement programs (and, I would add, defense spending) is, as the new radical libertarian right has pointed out, unsustainable. If we don’t cut medicare now, they often note, there won’t be any medicare left to save down the road. The path to a sustainable future, they seem to suggest, will involve some changes to our expectations about what we deserve and what we can expect.

I don’t want to overemphasize the similarities—any association between the Tea Party and the Transition Movement, for instance, would make my skin crawl. However, from an End of Growth perspective, I do understand and somewhat admire the willingness to forgo a temporary economic palliative. If one truly believes current spending rates, or the regime of economic growth, is unsustainable, doesn’t there then come a time in which you sign a Do Not Resuscitate form and just let the economy make its eventual and inevitable crash? Deciding that that moment is now is difficult and probably impossible not to screw up in some way, so vast would be the web of disruption. And I have no real sense that The Tea Party has the ability to think through all the implications on a very deep level.

But I can compare their stand to my own. Maybe because of, maybe in spite of, the peculiarities and specificities of my understanding of the implication of continued growth as well as the repercussions of an impending crash, I do hope for a quick resolution to the debt-ceiling crisis. In so doing, I find myself not only siding with the Rachel Maddows on a policy level, but also on a level of political identification. During this difficult time I want to stick with “my kind.” They may not be perfect, but at least they are family—that at any rate is the way my sentiments sound to me. Why, I have to ask myself, is another year of financial quasi-security worth pretending I believe in the economic good sense of the mainstream? Why not now? On what grounds would I work or hope to postpone the day of reckoning? The answer, however unsatisfactory, is that my long and short term commitments pull in opposite directions. My sense of responsibility to the near impeding birth of twin boys is concerned with keeping them in diapers for the first year AND in providing them with a livable place far into the future.

Let me be clear again that I find most of the politics and political dispensations of The Tea Party revolting. Above all, I believe, a relatively peaceful economic contraction will need an enhanced social safety net, a strong regime of environmental and economic regulation, and a great leveling of economic inequality. But we End of Growthers nevertheless share some common ground with the radical right. Both groups believe that the current economic system is in some way unsustainable. Both groups feel that the public at large is unwilling to recognize the obvious and that real change is, without some jolting catastrophe, therefore unlikely. Since neither group believes the current regime can last anyways, at some point neither side is going to allow itself to be whiplashed into squeezing out a few more years of delusional behavior, whether in the form of government spending or a more generally unsustainable economic system.

An additional difference, though, is that the Tea Party seems willing at this point to get it over with and just let the bus crash, while Postcarbon activists seem more inclined to put off the day of reckoning by way of some economic policies (increase, or at least don’t decrease, government spending until the recession is over) that we don’t really believe in.
But the Tea Party is nevertheless the largest political force in recent memory that is willing to entertain truly radical economic consequences in the name of a principled vision and the effective rejection of the clearly unsustainable. How this all plays out—what they do and how business and politics as usual responds—is worth our attention.

Editorial Notes: The article doesn't seem to be posted yet on the Transition Milwaukee website. -BA

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