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.
8 thoughts on “The Tea Party Fights The Man”
Nathaniel: The most plausible reading of the causality on the debt to GDP numbers is that they start heading up not int the 1990s but in the 1980s, which would correspond to Reagan’s reduction in marginal tax rates and increases in military spending. The kink in the early 1990s would correspond to the 1992 recession. You get a peak in the mid nineties, when Clinton and the GOP agree on tax increases and modest spending controls. You then get increases again after the popping of the tech bubble and the Bush tax cuts.
The reality of fiscal politics, it seems to me, is that you get reductions in spending when you also get increases in taxes. This actually makes political sense, as it spreads the pain across the political spectrum and generates a coalition. Likewise, cuts in taxes often correspond to increases in spending, which also makes sense as both sides get something that they want creating a coalition. I don’t think that the GOP can really be serious about shifting the debt to GDP ratio if they take tax increases off the table. They will not be able to generate a congressional coalition and nothing will happen. I would point out, however, that even if you have a GOP district with a healthy but moderate majority, you are likely to get extreme politics. So long as you have a safe one party district, it doesn’t really matter if you have an overwhelming majority. The real election will continue to be the primary, where participation rates are low and positions tend to be more extreme. (I’d point out that the gerrymandering story isn’t necessarily a partisan one either. The House Dems have gotten far more liberal than they used to be, which can be seen in the rise of Pelosi and figures like her as well as in the decline of the Blue Dog Democrats and other conservative Dems.)
Likewise, I think that you are right about the mechanics of gerrymandering — I’d add that much of this was also pushed by the DOJ’s implimentation of the voting rights act, which tended to push African-Americans (i.e. Democrats) into single, supermajority districts.
“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.”
That was my thought. If I had to choose between self-interested businesses, which as part of self-interest have a very keen interest in keeping the economy stable, and the Tea Party, which apparently will go so far as threatening the economy to carry out their beliefs, I’ll gladly go with the businesses, especially since the Tea Party seems to operate on the simple mantra of ‘debt bad, austerity good’ which is so naively simplistic as to be useless, especially when combined with extreme hostility to taxes. True, a large amount of debt for future generations is not a good thing, but that evil must be weighed against both the economic cost of austerity and the relative size of the debt, not the absolute size. I’m about as German and austere as people come in terms of money, but even I understand that personal debt and government debt do not operate on the same principles.
Aaaand I wrote this bit before finishing your article, so I basically just repeated you. However, I would need way more convincing that our relative debt is so catastrophic as to merit the current actions of the Tea Party, since those actions are catastrophic in and of themselves.
“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.”
The Tea Party is nowhere near representing the people. If not for gerrymandering (which I realize both parties do but my point stands), the Tea Party would have near zero voice because the Democrats won the popular votes for the presidency and both chambers of Congress in 2012 *during an economic downturn as the majority party*. If anything, the Tea Party is anti-populist in this respect and holding onto power solely because our system is not strictly democratic.
“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.”
Yes, because anything else enables the House to basically hold the country hostage for whatever they want. If representatives want less spending, they can legislate, not threaten to hammer the economy abusing what has up until now been a routine procedure whether Republicans or Democrats are in power.
Lastly, maybe I’m just bad at reading graphs, but I think the US’s debt-to-GDP ratio is below 60% for most of the years shown and is currently sinusoidal around 60% and could be best described as ‘a gentle slope upwards with ups and downs,’ which doesn’t really lend to my feeling of impending catastrophe. Just looking at the graph, within one decade our debt has gone as high as 70%+ and still come down below 60% again.
I agree with most of your observations, and just wanted to add to this:
I agree. The incredibly difficulty of getting even modest real reform to our tax code is incredibly frustrating. I don’t think that the Tea Party could be trusted with setting reasonable long-term fiscal policy for this reason. I think that the moderate / incrementalist conservatives are by far the wisest of the bunch, but also really damn hard to elect, apparently.
“I think that the moderate / incrementalist conservatives are by far the wisest of the bunch, but also really damn hard to elect, apparently.”
Which really baffles me, because I know a number of people who don’t particularly enjoy voting for the Democrats (myself included on some issues), but we’ll all go to hell before voting for the Tea Party.
Noooooooo, Bryan! You’ve wandered into Nathaniel’s briar patch. Post-2008, fed. debt/gdp *definitely* spiked to at or around 100% of GDP:
1) “debt” =!= debt in the way that the term is used colloquially (e.g., Chinese pikers turned bill collectors/bond vigilantes who are coming to repo America’s collective pickup truck)…
and 2) no shit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ea/CBO_-_Revenues_and_Outlays_as_percent_GDP.png
Besides the above fiscal mismatch, did I mention the part where we fought a combined 20+ years of land wars in Asia after being Pearl Harbored on 9/11 and THEN THE ENTIRE GLOBAL FINANCIAL SYSTEM COLLAPSED IN A WAY WE HAVEN’T SEEN SINCE THE 1920s?!??!?! But instead of debt just being debt -a market transaction between two parties, each benefiting from what the other has to offer (e.g. warships and stability on one hand, and cash on the other)- debt has switched back to being an urgent morality play. The question is not “is joblessness more or less of an urgent problem than immediately cutting entitlements to balance 30 and 40-year budgets?” or “can we repeat the trick where in 1946 federal debt amounted to 122% of GDP; 71% at the end of the Truman administration; 55% at the end of the Eisenhower administration; 39% at the end of the Kennedy/Johnson administration; 36% under Nixon/Ford; and 33%? under Carter?”. No, the question is “should we commit suicide immediately to avoid the shame of (maybe) one day (possibly) not being able to pay our debts (which are mostly owed to ourselves and not foreigners)?”.
This is the brilliance of Saint Ronnie and Co.’s blowtorching of the candle at both ends- keep the outlay-to-spending gap at 6%+ of GDP while in office; when out of office, caterwaul about welfare queens and young bucks and T-bone steaks and food stamp presidents and king crab legs purchased with SNAP cards, then force government shutdowns and/or unconstitutionally repudiate the national debt a la revanchist Civil War losers. Repeat until government is small enough to drown in a bath tub.
The ideology can never fail, only be failed. If only the One True Conservative could ever be elected and slash spending by, say, 20%….”true” conservatives wouldn’t be elected for another generation. Thus the economic hagiography of Reagan. Thus Bush winning reelection during the above mentioned unfunded wars and attempting to use his “War President mandate” to privatize Social Security (just in time for it to be liquidated in a financial collapse). Thus the used-car-salesman-esque attempts by Romney at vaguely campaigning on fixing entitlements (“trust us!”) while fuming about how Obamacare is in ur Treasury, stealing ur Medicare. Thus the hostage taking, thus the attempts to make the system fold in on itself and collapse under its own weight.
*How else* does one undo what FDR put into motion? Not through democracy or populism or popularism or pluralism. No, that’s the tyranny of the (voting) mob. But through structural hacks, through radically altering the balance of power in favor of a minority of a majority of one house of congress, etc.
This is the thing I don’t get- given the choice between a Huntsman (or even a Christie), a generic conservative fire eater, and a real true old school leftist, I’d probably cast my lot with the first two (contingent, of course, on the circumstances facing the country). Currently, though, there’s almost no space for me to do so, because there’s no primary space for Huntsmans and Christies to operate. Or at least there’s no space that’s been carved out and nurtured for them within which they can safely operate and not get tied up in knots defending two impossibly opposite sides. Maybe this space will exist one day. Or maybe it won’t. But I’m not sure that day will ever come through luck and happenstance.
This makes me sad, and not in a concern-trolly way. What if, instead of holding on to the Tea Party Tiger by its tail, conservatives had taken stake of things in 2008 and said to themselves “wait a minute, maybe we can fix a lot of the things we (at least proclaim) to care about not by going for broke, but instead reinventing ourselves and examining why we lost 5 of the last 6 presidential elections?”. The coalition is there, and I can even see myself voting for it one day. But it has to be built. Even before that, it has to be allowed to escape the cradle unsmothered.
Someone once famously used an old Hopi Indian saying -“we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”- in building a pretty damn effective political coalition to get a lot of shit done that Democrats have been trying (and failing) to do for going on 45 years now. It’s totally true and it totally works!
Your rhetoric is so over the top that I’m not even going to try and engage you this time. And that’s sad, I think. I’d like to think you consider me a reasonable sort of conservative, so if I’m giving up I’d hope it would cause you a moment’s hesitation.
But maybe not.
I just don’t think this kind of over-the-top rhetorical warfare is really helpful at all.
Okay, well at least you’ve changed your chart but please, please, pleaseeeeeeeee change your note. It’s so dishonest.
“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.”
Can you give an example of a previous financial recession that akin to what happened in 2008, which was piled on structural deficits accrued by Republicans in 20+ years of unfunded wars, tax cuts, DHS, etc. etc.? Just one will go a long way in showing that it’s “hard” to attribute the rise in debt to the recession. I mean, is there any non Mankiwian wish-I-coulda-been-Romney’s-Treasury-Secretary economist out there who believes this? Who has data to support this? This is borderline poll unskewing/fake BLS job numbers type echo chamber stuff that I *know* you don’t truly think is as self evident as you indicate.
And we absolutely KNOW what, given extant policies, components of our debt are: http://thecurrentmoment.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/debt-graph-cbpp.jpeg (+/-15%ish overall)
So, how about an ounce of accountability here?
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