How will future historians characterize our curious era? It seems to be, above all, a time when appearances have become particularly deceptive. As suggested below, such may especially be the case with the factors influencing the more ominous escapade of our recent giddy romance with national economic suicide – the debt ceiling default melodrama.
An Age of Denial
But first to set the scene. One basic social fact is clear: we live in an age of denial. As a culture, we are constantly assaulted with the message that everything is falling apart. The world economy is mostly mired in the doldrums. The global resource base is shrinking. Our national infrastructure is steadily degrading. The poor are getting poorer, but the rich, for the most part, don’t care. Modern political candidates are chronically obsessed with the need to raise campaign money, which both corrupts them and drives away good people who might otherwise opt to participate. And what more can be said about the environment – ecological systems of every sort are under stress from population pressure, excessive pollutant loads and heedless exploitation.
In the face of these staggering problems, in our society a number of less than optimal responses have emerged. Some people are overcome by despair or apocalyptic fears; others are consumed by anger and outrage. Some adopt a survivalist mindset: they either barricade themselves in a self-sufficient homestead fortress in the woods or ruthlessly compete for an ever larger share of a diminishing pie.
But most of us look to escape. Escapism here simply means undertaking to ignore the unpleasant. Attention is directed elsewhere, usually toward the rewards and satisfactions of the immediate environment. A purely hedonistic escapism immerses itself in the sensual – food, drink, drugs, sex, sports, entertainment. A more conscious attitude, while acknowledging the existence of ubiquitous challenges, may focus on being fully engaged with present experience, believing that if each being behaves responsibly in her locality, then the more universal issues eventually will take care of themselves.
Denial is that subset of escapism which goes beyond merely ignoring an unpleasant reality to demanding the rejection of its very existence. Climate change is a hoax. Oil spill damage is vastly exaggerated, fully cured when the tar balls disappear from the beach. Resource shortages are imaginary. Every economic and social problem can be solved by (a) freeing the economy from all regulatory constraints; (b) cutting taxes on the rich; (c) waving the flag; (d) all of the above. Here mention should also be made of the variant of denial that seeks to oversimplify a difficult issue, usually as a precursor to confessing faith that some painless technological fix can be found for any challenge. The primary topic of our discussion, the perplexing populist collectivity fondly described as the Tea Party, falls mostly into the broad rejectionist category.
20th Century Patterns
Looking at the recent history of political conflict, as a generality we may say that, except for World War II, the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism dominated the 20th century. And one of the central tenets of the Marxist-Leninist critique of mature capitalism was that the exploitation of resource-rich underdeveloped countries, as supported by Wall Street and European financiers, provided the essential foundation for the continued expansion and relative stability of First World global imperialism. So an overarching goal of revolutionary Marxism was always to topple the global financial system that sustains advanced capitalist imperialism.
But it has never come to pass. The radicalism generated by the Great Depression in the Thirties was sublimated into a welfare state buttressed by a strong regulatory regime, then overwhelmed by the world war and the wave of prosperity that followed its conclusion. The discontent of the Vietnam era was diffuse in its concerns and never fully embraced the radical economic critique of the New Left. And despite the specificity of its label, the Occupy Wall Street movement has been nearly anarchic in its lack of clear goals and fascination with the nuances of process.
More fundamentally, with the fall of the Soviet empire in the late Eighties, the entire Marxist enterprise fell into public disrepute. In the popular mind, the brutality, corruption and inefficiency of the Soviet system were directly attributable to intrinsic deficiencies in the underlying political and economic philosophy. In like manner, the countervailing meteoric economic growth of that last bastion of world communism, the People’s Republic of China, was observed to be the direct product of its pragmatic abandonment of Marxist principles. China no longer sought to overthrow Wall Street capitalism, but to beat it at its own game.
Present Political Implications
The fact that communist utopias have been found wanting does not automatically discredit the Marxian analysis that traditionally described capitalism’s ailments. If such structural defects really do exist, they will surely continue to generate crises on the world stage regardless of whether we have preserved a politically acceptable way of talking about them. What is more, if these problems indeed have critical effects on our lives, the analytical conversation may be impelled to search out new channels of expression, ones unburdened by the weight of unhappy historical associations. In other words, the Marxian critique, if it still retains some vitality in describing real-world processes, may be forced to re-emerge in a form that effectively disguises its now-discredited origins.
This need to re-conceptualize the traditional Marxist critique may partly explain what we have been seeing with the debt ceiling crisis, which appears on the face of it so farcical and unnecessary. What seems to be taking place is that ostensible absurdities are being energized and sustained beneath the surface by an intuitive sense of fear and outrage that has not been accurately identified and articulated by Tea Party adherents. This absence of insight leaves outside observers wondering which tea party is actually serving as the operative model – the Boston Tea Party of 1773 or the Mad Hatter’s tea party described by Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The conventional wisdom holds that the Tea Party stalwarts in Congress are mere fools – so steeped in ignorance and self-righteousness that they could not clearly grasp the national disaster they were courting. Consistent with this view, wiser heads were seen to have diverted them from their self-induced stupor at a point short of plunging the country into the chasm of default, an event that everyone agreed could have triggered a meltdown of the world financial system.
But this most recent episode clearly will not be a final act. The core of Tea Party true believers remains unabashed and unreconstructed. The short deadlines attached to the eventual Congressional compromise almost guarantee that the same budgetary issues fueling the recent stalemate will remain in play early next year when the desperately desired brief respite expires and another debt ceiling extension is needed. The history of political stalemate since 2010 offers no basis for optimism that the profound budgetary conflicts separating Republicans from Democrats have moved closer to resolution. Without a breakthrough on these substantive issues, last minute procedural maneuvers will prove ineffective to offer anything more than temporary symptomatic relief.
More critically, the political focus will quickly shift to the 2014 Congressional elections. Most House Republicans who had opportunistically accommodated the Tea Party faction but in their hearts were not true believers ultimately broke ranks on the final compromise vote to extend temporarily the debt ceiling. Their apostasy will be rewarded with fervent and well-financed primary challenges on their right flank. As we have seen, the Tea Party faction is often large enough to control the outcome of a Republican primary, even if the anointed Tea Party choice is beset with obvious drawbacks as a general election candidate. In the ultimate analysis, the outcome of the 2014 elections may largely hinge on whether conservative independents in their increasing disillusionment are willing to move further right.
Is there any hope for relief from this bleak formula? Part of the answer depends upon whether at some point the veil of denial begins to shred. The recent debt limit brink buffoonery may convince some independents that the Tea Party fantasy is simply too divorced from reality to offer a useful political vehicle. On the other hand, if the world’s problems continue to spin out of control, for a substantial cohort the answer will be a renewed dedication to repairing and sustaining a carefully constructed parallel universe of denial. A principal function of the artificial political crises we now see being created on a regular cycle is, after all, to divert attention away from more important (and far more frightening) real-world problems.
Activists on the Left need to ask themselves a strategic question: do they simply sit back and leisurely watch this mainstream political drama play itself out, or do they try to influence its outcome? If the need to respond to climate change and the myriad other problems facing humanity is as urgent as supposed, an indefinite extension of the current political stalemate may not be an affordable luxury. This viewpoint argues for some effort to engage the right-of-center mainstream on its own turf, with the goal of at least shifting the balance of power leftward far enough to break the gridlock and empower a workable progressive coalition. It operates from the premise that the Tea Party phenomenon is not as monolithic as it appears, that the dominance of right wing purity is misleading – and may be due in some degree to the fact that the Left has failed to offer this constituency a compelling alternative narrative.
Any viable road to restoring sanity to the national political conversation will depend on effecting a separation between Main Street and Wall Street. As many will recall, the actual genesis of the Tea Party movement was a populist reaction against the TARP bailout of Wall Street banks, combined with the federal government’s failure show equivalent concern for ordinary folk facing foreclosure on underwater home mortgages. So for a brief moment, popular anger expanded to include not only the feckless Washington establishment that threw billions of taxpayer dollars at the profligate financial giants, but also the errant bankers themselves who raked in this largesse.
The Wall Street vector of this deviation from orthodoxy was quickly realigned. Right-wing think tanks and PACs moved rapidly to co-opt the more prominent Tea Party leaders, offering them fawning attention tinged with reminders that unquestioning fealty to the business class was a bedrock principle of true conservatism. While a Wall Street banker may be a little slicker and richer than the guy in the overalls who owns the local feed and seed store, one must never forget that beneath their skins they are bred from the same stock. Beginning in 2010, this expression of comradely solidarity was fortified by the generous infusion of Wall Street money into the campaign chests of Tea Party Congressional candidates.
But despite the apparent rapprochement, it seems likely that Main Street’s inherent suspicion of Wall Street has not entirely disappeared. The surface has been smoothed and plastered over, but an underlying crack remains. One should not forget that beyond the TARP flare-up lies the more profoundly troubling reality that Wall Street capital has been a prime mover in stripping mid-America of manufacturing jobs and shipping them abroad in search of cheap labor. This is the fatal fissure within the right-wing story that invites exploitation.
The Need for Realignment
A political realignment needs to occur for the division between Main and Wall Streets to reopen and widen. One key is to split off a significant portion of the small business sector from the global financial alliance. The current crisis provides an opportunity for that to happen. The right-wing Tea Party’s intransigence is already beginning to make the small business lobbies uneasy.
Barack Obama and the Democrats could take advantage of this opening by proposing a further federal economic recovery plan that is not primarily aimed at the usual large institutions. Rather, they should seek to make life easier for entrepreneurs and small businesses – beginning with more startup loans, simplified bureaucratic paperwork, rapid depreciation incentives, workable small firm health care coverage, and restructuring the punitive and regressive self-employment tax.
This approach would comprise a Democratic recovery plan that targets and benefits an important segment of the current GOP base; Republican politicians would oppose only it at the risk of alienating Main Street. It would begin to undercut the false perception that the interests of Main Street and Wall Street are identical – a debilitating illusion that is central to maintaining the present state of political gridlock.
The dynamics of Wall Street and Main Street are fundamentally different. In the bigger picture, Main Street promotes community and local economic activity – while Wall Street destroys them. For an element of sanity and balance to return to this country, the influence of Wall Street must be circumscribed and reduced. The first step is to loosen Wall Street’s grip on those other components of society that have been deluded into believing that the financial sector’s global agenda supports and complements their own.
Stafford Smith has a law background. In the 1970s, he mostly worked for small Northwest Indian tribes. Since the early 1980s, he has been involved with land use and environmental issues, both in private practice and as a hearing officer for local municipalities. In 2007 I spent a semester in Lviv, Ukraine, teaching international environmental law on a Fulbright fellowship.