The Tea Party does not have a lot of friends in Washington. Conventional wisdom–the sort of thing you hear on NPR, for example–is that the GOP has redistricted itself to death. By creating solid red districts, they’ve turned over power to the loonies on the fringe. Complementary theories include the notion that the Tea Party consists of a bunch of delusional fools who are shoveling their hard earned life-savings to snake oil selling PACs who have no interest in making real changes, but just want to make a buck off of gullible fools.
Both of these narratives tap into deep political stereotypes, but neither actually make much sense. The problem with the gerrymandering explanation is that it’s the opposite of how gerrymandering actually works. Not that I’m defending redistricting games, but the essence of gerrymandering is called “packing and cracking“, and it means you pack your opposition into dense, homogeneous districts but you crack (spread out) your own supporters as much as possible. Think about it for a minute, if you’ve got 5 districts and the overall population is basically 50/50 Democrat and Republican, do you (as a Republican) want to put all of your voters in one dark red district and leave the Democrats to have 4 very slightly blue districts? No: that’s how you lose an election, not how you win it. The idea that the GOP created a bunch of ultra-conservative districts doesn’t make any sense.
Meanwhile, the idea of the huckster political operative taking grandma and grandpa’s money to go off on a doomed crusade to end Obamacare taps nicely into images of televangelist faith healers (i.e. negative stereotypes of the religious right) and the influential What’s the Matter With Kansas?, but all it really does is expose liberal arrogance. The idea is that conservatives are just too darn stupid to know what’s good for them (i.e. liberal policies) when the reality is that conservatives have different values than liberals. For example, conservatives believe that passing on staggering amounts of debt to their children is morally reprehensible and are willing to sacrifice their own interests to stop it.
But is this just spin? Nope, it turns out there are some pretty hard numbers behind this. I got tipped off to that fact when a Facebook friend posted this Washington Times opinion piece: Tea Party Loosens K Street’s Stranglehold on the GOP. The thesis of the article is pretty simple: before the Tea Party, Republican candidates depended on cash from big business and lobbyists to run their campaigns. But a proliferation of ideological PACs provided an alternative source of funds separate from the interests of big business. Carney, who wrote the piece, concludes that Tea Party candidates are therefore getting their money from small business owners and retirees: individuals.
I don’t think the article backs this up solidly, but the same friend who posted it followed it up with this:
Rand Paul: 90% individual donations (legal limit is $2,500) vs 7% from PACs
Ted Cruz : 82% individual vs 10% PACs
Justin Amash 79% individual vs 13% PACs
NY crook Charlie Rangel: 44% individual vs 47% PAC
AZ Warmonger John McCain: 52% individual vs 44% PAC (includes other)
NV Despot Harry Reid: 67% individual vs 25% PAC (plus another 7% “other”, why so high, make your own conclusion)
(All the data came from OpenSecrets.org.)
A word of caution is in order. One of the obnoxious games of politics is that everyone likes to switch their principles to fit their position, and one of the frequent back-and-forths is over populism. Ordinarily, conservatives like to talk about how the United States is a “republic” not a “democracy”, which is an anti-populist dig that emphasis the importance of rule of law over rule of the public will. All of a sudden we’re supposed to assume that populist candidates are better because they are populist? Not so fast.
I think the basic story–that the Tea Party is populist–is correct. And it comes with a drawback. Big business is absolutely corrupt and absolutely seeks to co-opt government regulation as an anti-competitive practice to bolster profits. (This is called rent seeking.) This isn’t capitalism. It’s cronyism. Or maybe corporatism. It’s corrupt, and it’s bad. But it’s also very careful. Big business may be corrupt, but its also rational and cautious. It doesn’t want to rock the boat, because the boat is a gravy train.
Individual contributors to the Tea Party tend to have less education than elite business leaders and also have a far less vested interest in being careful precisely because, as individuals, they have so little power. When you’re someone like George Soros or the Koch brothers, you know that your “vote” carries a lot of weight and so you deliberate carefully. When you’re just Mary Sue or Bobby Joe you know your opinion doesn’t matter much, so why bother investing as much effort in education and deliberation?
From that perspective: our current predicament makes a lot more sense. It would also be funny if it weren’t so dangerous: the Democrats are historically the ones who run with the rhetoric about populism and democracy and power-to-the-people. Well, now they’ve met the people and it turns out they don’t actually like them very much.
As for me: I honestly don’t know what I think about the whole thing. In the short run, the government shut down and threat to the credit rating are obviously bad. But so far the Democrats have worked really, really hard to avoid providing a reasonable alternative. Instead of taking any reasonable position on the long-term debt problem, their narrow-minded, short-sighted attempts to profit politically from this crisis are ridiculous, disgusting, and ultimately rival the Tea Party for threat to this nation’s long-term welfare. I’m pretty sure there is no such thing as a Democrat with a calendar that goes beyond 2016.
I understand that government debt is not the same as individual debt, and that having some government debt is a good thing as a safe investment for citizens. (Not to mention technical economic concepts like inter-generational wealth transfer, but I digress.) So I’m not arguing for zero debt. And, because of inflation and economic growth, I’m not even arguing that debt ought to be static in absolute terms. That means that running a deficit every single year is not–in principle–a bad thing. As long as total government debt stays relatively static and low compared to GDP, you’re fine.
But our debt is not relatively static or low relative to GDP.
(Note: this infographic replaces the chart originally published with this article.) The debt question is actually really complex, but the biggest concern I have is that we’re at historically high levels of debt today (101%) relative to our peak (122% in World War II) and our average (60%). The increase in debt is also hard to blame on the recession given the steady upward trend since the early 1980s and the fact that it has actually gone down in previous recessions. There’s also pretty wild variation between our debt levels and those of other nations. That combined with our unique status as reserve currency holder make cross-country comparisons difficult.
The more the Tea Party goes into histrionics about defunding Obamacare the more Democrats respond by arguing that it is our solemn and sworn obligation as human beings to always raise the debt ceiling without debate or condition. It’s like our politicians have decided to have an arms race of stupid. The more they argue that raising the debt ceiling ought to be some kind of holy political sacrament–a symbolic rite to mark a new season of unfettered spending–the more convinced I am that the Tea Party may actually be onto something. If nothing in the last 30 years has worked to curb the upward trajectory of government debt, maybe it’s reasonable to be desperate.
At a minimum, however, the Democrats have totally dropped the ball when it comes to presenting themselves as a viable alternative, leaving my only real reaction to the possible financial collapse of our nation and the global economy as basically: “meh.” Just to be clear, the reason for this is that I increasingly see the option as catastrophe now or even bigger catastrophe later. If the Democrats want to prove that they can be trusted to solve this problem, they should act like it. Instead, they’re trying to “close” the ocean, keep people out of private parks, and close down the Amber Alert website while the First Lady’s pet initiative remains online. I feel like I just watched Batman rob the tellers at a bank, and then Superman shows up and flies off with the whole damn vault.
These are our leaders, ladies and gentlemen.