Rule of the minority

August 25, 2011

The idea that the Tea Party fanatics are solely to blame for the debt-ceiling debacle obscures the broader bipartisan commitment to austerity politics in Washington.

WHEN THE Pew Center for People and the Press asked survey respondents to describe in one word their view of the Congress-White House debt-ceiling debacle, the most often-used words were: "ridiculous," "disgusting," "stupid" and "frustrating." Those won out over these runners-up: "terrible," "disappointing," "childish" and "joke."

Not much ambiguity there. No wonder the approval ratings for President Obama and Congress hit new lows once they finally came to an agreement that led to the ceiling being raised in early August.

Poll after poll shows a consensus among ordinary Americans--they consider jobs, rather than the deficit, to be the number one priority for the country. And when it comes to addressing the deficit, they would rather tax the rich to pay for programs for working people over seeing them cut.

Case in point: An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted in mid-July, showed that 62 percent of people said the Republicans should agree to raise taxes, including on corporations and the wealthy. The same poll showed 52 percent of the public saying that the Democrats should oppose cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

So what happened in the debt-ceiling deal? It raised no taxes, and it set a process in motion that will lead to trillions of dollars worth of cuts in federal spending--including, inevitably, in the "big three" entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

In other words, it accomplished exactly the opposite of what the public has pretty consistently told pollsters for months. This may represent a triumph of the "Tea Party" agenda, but it's pretty clear that the Tea Party itself is increasingly unpopular.

To social scientists David Campbell and Robert Putnam, writing in the New York Times on August 16, the Tea Party "is increasingly swimming against the tide of public opinion: among most Americans, even before the furor over the debt limit, its brand was becoming toxic."

How is it that a vocal--and unpopular--minority can drive the agenda in Washington, while the majority of Americans are left as collateral damage to their machinations?

Because it was planned that way.

MAINSTREAM MEDIA coverage of the debt deal explained it as the outcome of high-profile hostage taking, where a handful of Tea Party ideologues threatened to blow up the nation's economy if they didn't get their way--and Republican leaders in the House caved to their demands because they couldn't control their rebellious ranks.

(Doug Kerr)

There's some truth to this story line. The debt-ceiling fight didn't play out exactly as top Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner wanted--as when, for example, Boehner had to call off a late-night vote in the House on what he hoped would be the final version of the legislation, because of dissension among Republicans.

But there's also strong evidence that the GOP leadership encouraged the showdown. A long August 6 Washington Post feature on the origins of the debt-ceiling confrontation, authored by Brady Dennis, Alec MacGillis and Lori Montgomery, described not a disorganized lurch into chaos, but months of planning at the highest levels of the Republican leadership. As the authors explained:

The frantic showdown...bringing the nation to the brink of default, looked like the haphazard escalation of a typical partisan standoff.

It wasn't.

It was the natural outgrowth of a years-long effort by GOP recruiters to build a new majority and reverse the party's fortunes. That effort began before the economy collapsed in 2008, before the government bailouts that followed, before the Tea Party rose in response to push its anti-tax, anti-spending message.

But blaming the confrontation on Tea Party fanatics alone serves a number of interests.

First, the Tea Party types can claim credit for forcing the rest of Congress to continually alter its proposals, down to the last minute. Second, the Republican leadership could claim that its "backbenchers" were tying its hands. A While House official quoted in the Washington Post article noted, "I, for one, was never sure whether they were using this [idea that they couldn't sell a deal to the GOP rank-and-file] as a negotiating tactic or expressing genuine frustration."

Finally, liberals and Democrats could also point the finger at the Tea Partiers, using the tried-and-true "lesser evil" argument that unless Democrats voted for draconian cuts, the barbarians waiting in the wings would impose even worse.

In the end, the Republican "freshmen"--that is, the newly elected GOP House members supposedly most devoted to the Tea Party line that any concessions must be rejected--voted for the debt-ceiling deal by a margin of 59-28. A majority of the Tea Party caucus voted for the deal, and 12 of 17 Tea Party freshmen voted to accept it. So in the end, it appears that the Republican leadership had more control over its members than they let on.

WHY ARE members of the political establishment continuing to promote the idea that Tea Party obstructionists are more responsible than anyone else for the debt deal and the austerity politics it embodies?

For one thing, this helps to obscure the reality that Washington's commitment to austerity politics is thoroughly bipartisan. It's easy for liberals and Democrats to blame the Tea Party for the disaster. It's harder for them to face the truth that the Tea Party hostage-takers got what they wanted because Obama wanted to ransom the hostage.

When Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell both publicly stated early on that they wouldn't allow a U.S. government default because the debt ceiling wasn't raised, that was a tell that they weren't as confident in their hard-line position as they seemed. But rather than press them to show their cards, Obama upped the ante by putting a "grand bargain" of $4 trillion in cuts on the table--including cuts in "entitlement" spending--not once, but twice.

Obama may be a lousy poker player, but he's also part of a political establishment that has wanted to cut entitlement programs like Social Security for decades. The debt-ceiling deal gave him the opportunity to open the way for this.

The media's simple morality plays--Democrats vs. Republicans, Tea Party conservatives vs. the establishment--serve to camouflage what's really going on: A bipartisan drive for austerity where both parties ignore what the public really wants.

Nevertheless, it's central to the ideological legitimacy of American democracy that public policy be portrayed as a response to some sort of public sentiment. No matter that the results of the debt deal are highly unpopular and will hurt millions of working people. The politicians in Washington will claim that they were only trying to carry out the will of the American people, as expressed in the 2010 elections.

That's why the Tea Party has proved so useful to the corporate elite that funds and shapes American politics.

Earlier in Obama's term, had health insurance executives led the way in opposition to reform proposals, ordinary Americans wouldn't listen to them. So insurance and big business money created a "grassroots citizens movement" to give the illusion of popular opposition to genuine health care reform.

In the Washington Post article, the writers describe how Tea Party and conservative groups mobilized to press Republicans to "hold the line" against tax increases during the debt-ceiling fight. At the same time, the writers note with little comment:

A similar message also came, in a quieter way, from the trade groups for the nation's hedge funds and private equity firms. Their members had billions at stake, thanks to a White House proposal that would raise some tax revenue at their expense. As the July home stretch arrived, they had already spent $4.2 million on lobbying expenses for the year.

It wouldn't be accurate to pin the entire debt-ceiling debacle on the heads of hedge fund managers and private equity firms, but this observation shows how narrow, money-soaked interests influence the politics of austerity reigning in Washington today.

Ask yourself this: If you're a member of Congress looking for money for re-election, are you more likely to pay attention to criticism from a blogger or advice from the hedge fund industry's trade association?

Ultimately, Wall Street didn't want a government default on its debt. But Wall Street players did want to make sure that working people, rather than them, would be stuck with the bill for the debt.

The disconnect between the plutocracy in Washington and the will of the majority will continue to grow wider--until the majority forces Washington to heed its demands.

Further Reading

From the archives