Sunday, 20 October 2013

Welcome To The Washington Political Theatre

The Tea Party in the United States has accomplished an extremely difficult task. It has made politicians in Greece look positively statesmanlike. Whatever bumbling and fumbling we have seen in Athens over the last several years has now been more than equalled in Washington.

My foreign friends shake their heads is dismay, confusion and anger about what they have been seeing. What is this thing called the Tea Party? How can this group bring the world’s one remaining super-power to the brink of implosion? They watch in amazement as the fanatics in the Tea Party accomplish what no foreign power or terrorists have been able to do – create the impression of an incompetent giant as much of a threat to itself as anyone else in the world.

The best response I can come up with is that much of this nonsense is pure theatre – nothing else. Not very good theatre, but still theatre.There is very little chance that the leading actors of this far-right fantasy will ever get their hands on the levers of real power or change the direction of the American government. The government is already so big with so much inertia and so many vested interests in the status quo -- from retired people, to local governments that desperately need federal assistance, to farmers, to the military/industrial complex, etc, etc. --  that serious, fundamental change is almost impossible. Maybe you can tinker at the margins, but that’s about all.

The Master Of Political Theatre
No less than Republican stalwarts like Ronald Reagan and George Bush came to power claiming they would reverse the spread of ‘big’ government. They soon gave up that quixotic effort. Just consider two major budget items, Social Security and Medicare. Every conservative worthy of the name has railed against these two programs and promised to ‘cut them down to size.’ Never happens. They soon learn that threatening to touch these two is like touching the third rail in a metro system – instant political death. And efforts to cut other government hand-outs are instantly met with loud squeals of protest that can easily transform into votes against the offending politician. Much easier not to rock the boat too much.

The Tea Party act may play well locally, but it weakens dramatically in state-wide contests, and disappears from sight in national elections. The Tea Party is such an appealing target in national elections that if it didn’t exist, President Obama would have to create it. It is the perfect foil for the Democrats, the perfect bogeyman that allows them to scare enough normal people to vote Democratic to keep their benefits. We will probably find out in a few years that the Tea Party poster child Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is actually on the White House payroll.

Sen. Ted Cruz: Is He Secretly Working For The Democrats?
Just consider the national demographics to realize the futility of the Tea Party protests. The so-called Red States are indeed Red and likely to stay so. Trouble is not many people live in those places, and they don’t really count in national elections. If I were a Democratic strategist I would easily give you relatively empty Wyoming, Montana, and Utah in return for the heavily populated Northeast, California, Illinois and Michigan. The Democrats could probably nominate Darth Vader for president in 2016 and still win.

This is not the first time this very bad play has run in the United States. Through the relatively short history of the country from time to time some clever politician, now aided by the very loud and pugnacious trolls on cable TV, taps into an underlying streak of distrust, fear, and isolationism that runs throughout parts of the US. Big government, big business, big anything, and foreigners of all shapes and colours are blamed for what is wrong with the country. If we get rid of the bums and stick our heads in the sand everything will be all right and go back to the way it was in 1955. The mythology underlying this trend is that the ‘Last Honest Man’ lives anywhere outside corrupted urban areas in a permanent set from the old TV show Leave It To Beaver.

The ultimate cynicism, sell-out if you will, is that most of those Congressmen who rant the loudest about the evils of Washington and other urban areas usually stay in those cities when their political terms are finally over. The lists of lobbyists and leaders of the ‘trade associations’ are filled with former members of Congress who use their Rolodex to slide into multi-million dollar jobs. Somehow the charms of Little House On The Prairie fade in comparison to the seduction of the bright lights and brighter bank accounts in Washington. Anyone who wants to rock this boat with real political convictions is treated like a charter member of Al Qaeda. 

Just consider the case of former Sen. Jim De Mint of South Carolina. Once a leading light of the ‘We-hate-Washington’ Tea Party brigade he resigned his Senate seat last year to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation located in, you guessed it, Washington. He claimed the move was to ‘expand’ the conservative movement. Right. I don’t know about the expansion of the conservative movement, but his financial situation certainly expanded with a sharp pay increase.

For a full explanation of the incestuous and seductive nature of Washington I recommend Mark Leibovich’s recently published book This Town. It is an engaging tale of how Washington absorbs and molds many who come there with fervent expectations and hopes to change the ‘Town.’ More often than not, it is the ‘Town’ that changes them.

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