Jack A. Goldstone, George Mason University
American politics today are being driven by the Tea Party Movement – why? Because the Tea Party expresses some very real and wide-spread grievances among the American people. Yet Tea Party politicians are being completely wrong, even dangerous, in their political demands, to the point of feeding some very un-American tendencies.
America and the world are facing a genuine crisis. Since the market collapsed in 2008, we have entered a period of lengthy and sustained deleveraging of excess debt, what Robert Schiller and Carmen Reinhart call the “2nd Great Contraction.” Choking on years of 9% unemployment, with almost 15% of Americans on food stamps, and tens of millions of people who worked hard to buy a home having seen the value of their homes collapse, people are understandably angry. What should government do?
If government gives help to businesses in trouble, or to homeowners stuck with or losing homes that fell in value, it has to raise that money by taxing (or by borrowing now and later taxing) those who still have earnings and assets. But most of the latter people are now struggling to get by or afraid of losing what they have. So both groups tend to blame the government for their fears – the former for doing too little to help them while bailing out Wall Street banks and big corporations (true, but necessary to prevent an even deeper collapse), the latter for spending what, sooner or later, is their money to help others. Either way, the government is blamed for bailouts that have not helped most Americans. It is this anger that has fueled the mass base of Tea Party voters.
Yet that anger and energy is being coopted by a much older anti-government movement. Tea Party politicians are claiming to advance the Tea Party agenda, when in fact all they
are doing is using its grievances to gain support for an older and largely unrelated set of goals.
Since Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” Democrats have favored government action to fight poverty, protect minorities, save the environment, and regulate business to protect worker and consumer health and safety. Republicans have wanted to free business from regulation and resist activist government action on social problems.
There is no right or wrong here. This blog believes that a pluralist and democratic free-market capitalism is the best system for ordering social life for human societies, and that in practice the best way to sustain that system is through a multi-party government, with parties advocating for different views and forced to compromise on those views to operate a government.
Republicans are of course right to defend freedom of the market — but if taken too far (as early 20th century progressives realized), a total lack of regulation is self-destructive for markets, as private actors will tend towards speculative excess and pursuit of market power. The result is orderly market operation being overtaken by monopolies, boom and bust cycles that waste and destroy wealth, and abuses of worker and consumer safety that lead to backlashes against corporations and promotion of more government. Democrats are of course right that protecting minorities is vital to increase and integrate the labor force and preserve democratic liberties for all, and that poverty and environmental decay, if not addressed, undermine the quality of life and the stature of the nation. But if taken too far, a controlling and overgrown government can itself be a threat to freedom and a drag on economic growth. So in practice having both parties in government, with both effective, produces a constant give and take and compromise, producing a balance that sustains both free-market capitalism and democracy.
The genius of the U.S. Constitution, and the reason that document has allowed America to become the richest and freest nation in the world, is that the various compromises that went into its formation (and let it never be forgotten that the Constitution was itself a product of major compromises) resulted in a government whose design forces compromises. It was intended to frustrate both arbitrary government (too much executive power) and factional government (the ability of powerful minorities to act against the general interest).
Yet today this principle of balance and compromise is being threatened by factional government, as the Tea Party movement is being used to propel an extreme anti-government agenda. That agenda embraces a wide range of sometimes oddly-matched groups. Libertarians hate any government action to interfere with individual actions, but especially adopting laws or raising taxes that interfere with the actions and decisions of
private businesses. Moral conservatives DO want to use government action to interfere with individual actions, but they want to stop government from supporting or even allowing things they disapprove of (abortion, gay marriage). But both groups agree that the government (and especially liberal elites who they fear are controlling government) is doing things that they want it to stop doing — so much so that they favor passing constitutional amendments (to balance the budget or ban abortion or gay marriage) to make sure that government can NEVER do those things even if a majority of popularly elected officials should be chosen to do them.
In the 1990s, these groups fought under the banner of New Gingrich against Bill Clinton and Al Gore (who were seen as the embodiment of the conspiratorial liberal elites). The
battle was ugly and nobody won. Except, that is, the American people – for by the time Clinton left office, welfare had been fundamentally reformed, the Federal budget was balanced, and despite higher taxes than today the economy and stock market enjoyed a lengthy period of stable growth. The Constitution worked, and produced a balanced, compromise outcome that was good for America.
Then, during the George W. Bush years, the US went too far in freeing finance from regulation. The result was as if we held the Super Bowl but sent all of the referees home, saying the players would referee themselves fairly for the good of the game. At first, everyone enjoyed themselves and had a good time, but eventually things got out of hand and a lot of people were badly hurt.
The intensity of the crisis, and the anger it has produced, have made it easy for Tea Party politicians to blame government for America’s financial crisis. Tapping fears that government spending will take people’s money but not solve their problems, the Tea Party politicians are claiming that government spending itself is responsible for the economic crisis. So the solution is simple – stop the government from spending and everything will be alright! In fact, stop the government from doing anything at all (shut it down!)–
regulating the financial sector, supporting unions, imposing health and safety rules, changing health care – and things will get better!
This easy formula has understandable appeal to angry voters looking for a straightforward answer to their problems. But of course, it is completely wrong – this approach is just a way of tapping Tea Party energies to support the old anti-government agenda of self-proclaimed Republican conservatives that has been around for decades.
As this blog’s central research argues, the global economic crisis has been building for years. In addition to the speculative debt crisis, it is rooted in a deeper shift of economic
activity from aging rich countries to young and fast-growing developing countries. This shift requires a major rebalancing of international labor, capital, and financial flows; it was the failure to appreciate these global changes and adjust the imbalances in those
flows in an orderly fashion that led to – and sustains – the global financial crisis. In order to keep their economies dynamic, the aging rich countries will have to be more open to trade, invest more in education and worker training and competitiveness, adopt incentives to keep investment and jobs at home, and address the inevitably rising health care and pension costs imposed by an aging population. Working on these issues will require hard
compromises to find revenues, cut entitlements, and use market forces and government guidance to find the right measures to provide incentives and limit costs.
But that is complicated! What Tea Party voters want is quick action to solve their economic problems. Yet what they are getting is hare-brained ideas designed to advance political careers and push through an older, unrelated political agenda.
The key to American success has always been compromises that preserved the essence of our system. Yet the ideas being pushed by Tea Party politicians – no compromises; no more revenues for government, period; reduce government spending across the board – are factional, uncompromising, and far from constructive.
There is a huge constituency in America for change – that is what got Obama elected. But by allowing Tea Party politicians to blame government spending for the crisis, and grab the banner of change, Obama has ceded them the power of voter anger, which they are
using to push an old, unrelated, and dangerous agenda. He needs to rethink his negotiation strategy, or America’s core values and economic future will both be in peril.