The doctor shoved the syringe into the old man’s neck. He collapsed in convulsions before lying still. The Grim Reaper cackled surprisingly loudly in the background, as President Obama (or at least someone with a mask that looked like him) danced in celebration at the macabre spectacle. “There goes the media,” said one of the protesters in disgust as the cameramen predictably ran over to film the farce.
We were outside the Comcast Center at the University of Maryland, protesting President Obama’s latest attempt to smear some lipstick on his effort for healthcare “reform.” A hardy band of about 15 University of Maryland students, fiscal conservatives all, were joined by a protestor from DC FreeRepublic holding aloft the Stars and Stripes and the Gadsden flag. At some distance on one side were Randall Terry and his cadre of homicidal doctors and grisly Specters of Death. On the other side, holding the ubiquitous Obama-with-Hitler-mustache signs were a few of the thousand yard stares of LaRouche PAC. Despite rolling their eyes at the other protestors, the students were pleased with the action, confident that President Obama’s speech could at least not be reported as being received with unanimous support by the campus. The emotional pleas by several Campus Progress activists (wearing their official George Soros funded t-shirts) for the media to “stop covering them” went unheeded.
In miniature, this was the Taxpayers March on Washington on September 12, and pretty much every Tea Party protest that has surrounded the healthcare townhalls. There was even that same liberal guy with the giant Public Option Now sign and the shirt with slogans in Hebrew. Every possible facet of the Right has at least implicitly supported these actions, mostly because it centered on precisely the most wonkish, uncontroversial, easily controlled, and most unanimously supported aspect of modern conservatism—limited government. In other words, it centers on the kind of harmless tinkering with the welfare state that the Conservative Movement is all about. From the tax-cutting leftists at Cato, to LP members, to Sarah Palin-loving conservatives, to College Republicans, every single possible person and faction is showing up to these protests, with nary a disagreement between them. Everyone at the protests is reasonably satisfied about how they are going. At the same time, it has attracted those who the Movement either wants to keep some distance from or cast out from respectable society altogether. Hence, the faux horror of leftists who find a sign that upsets their tender sensibilities in a gathering of (depending who you believe) 70,000 to several hundred thousand people.
The reaction of the left and the respectable right has been predictable but also fascinating. There is a certain amount of “point and stutter.” (The now famous James O”Keefe defined activism for me years ago as. “Putting a camera in somebody’s face until they do something stupid.”) This strikes me as unfair as it is effective, especially with large-scale protests. It is so easy to exploit agent provocateurs, attention seekers, or outside groups riding off the work of other organizations. Still, the other side will always do this (as we always will to them) and there is no sense objecting.
Of course, particularly for Takimag writers and others on the Alternative Right, it is also so easy to simply say “screw respectability” and embrace those officialdom have sentenced to wailing and gnashing of teeth. The exaggerated declarations of shock and outrage, which always come across comically on the intertubes, make it difficult to take a respectability campaign seriously. On the other hand, somewhere around the time one of the LaRouchies (LaRouchites?) was telling me that it was actually the British monarchy behind the Obama “death panels,” I began to sympathize with the Jon Henkes of the world and began subtly maneuvering myself out of the frame as a cameraman attempted to take a picture of me reading a LaRouche flyer with a giant Obama/Hitler in the background.
All activism or modern political debate consists of is baiting, tricking, or capturing your political opponents doing or saying something outside the mainstream. Then you use manufactured moral outrage to limit his or her access to the public. That’s it. This is a huge disadvantage for the Right because our margin of respectability is so thin, whereas the leftists can almost say whatever they want, short of advocating child prostitution. It is not a great thing that there are looney groups at the Tea Party, but that is how these things work, and it is only the Right that is forced to apologize for them. Hence, being a member of a communist group called STORM is not extreme, but pointing it out is. The Conservative Movement should grow up, understand this, shrug off the name calling and rejoice in the irrational fear of the Left.
Still, as always, the Left gets it more than the Right. Huffington Post readers are obsessed with two things—sucking balls and the implicit whiteness of the crowds. People are taking to the streets who aren”t allowed to take to the streets. Even Rush Limbaugh is using rhetoric that speaks to the anger of a dispossessed class who openly state that they have lost their country and who are tired of being called racist for protesting taxes. Liberal blogs make encouraging reading these days, as they make it sound like the Buchanan Brigades have morphed into the Beck Brigades, have found the torches and pitchforks, and are rallying to storm DC. Frank Rich resembles a besieged lord in his latest column, which frets about populist anger “breaching” the secure barrier of the Capitol.
If only! The protests are at least partially inspired by Glenn Beck and the Ron Paul Revolution, as the libertarian Right continues its smooth transition into the mainstream. Neocons fret, with reason, that the Republican Party has become the Ron Paul Party. However, these forces are so scattered ideologically that they are limited in what they can accomplish. Just as David Sirota finds flag-waving reactionaries humbly petitioning the federal government to come save them as evidence of an anti-government militia, so too are leftists finding protesters loosely organized by the fascists over at FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity as the equivalent of a peasant rebellion.
These organizations do great work and I agree with them, but the fiscal conservatism that unites these protestors is irrelevant. There is a greater chance that the Mencken Club becomes a governing junta within six months than the size of the federal budget is cut one iota in any of our lifetimes. The confused ideology of the Tea Partiers, Glenn Beck fans, Palinistas, and all the rest is irrelevant. Even the healthcare issue itself is irrelevant—there is little chance of stopping some kind of healthcare reform that will expand government involvement and generally make things worse. If McCain had been elected, we would probably have already passed a healthcare bill pretty similar to whatever Obama is able to get through. At best, on the policy and electoral side, all these protests and activism may help the GOP in Congressional elections in 2010, assuming people remember them that long.
What is important about the protests is who these people are—a combination of a radicalized conservative base and the possible return of the Middle American Radicals who understand, albeit in a confused form, that the rich and powerful of this society are not something that even conservatives should defend. Frank Rich is right in that the real question to all of this is who will funnel this populist anger and this developing constituency. Obama’s status as The Man and his dependence upon the Wall Street establishment make him an unlikely champion of this rebellion. There is no populist right figure like Pat Buchanan on the scene that could harness populism as an explicit political strategy. The Moral Majority that could pull behind a traditional values, limited-government, fusionist candidate like a Sarah Palin does not exist anymore. The “Birthers” and all the rest will always be there, but do not have a real political organization behind them.
The newly found anti-system mentality of the GOP is also hard to take seriously—even Joe Wilson’s status as a populist right champion has more to do with the Republicans” minority status than with principled opposition to the welfare state or even benefits for illegal immigrants specifically. What role the Conservative Establishment has in promoting and organizing these protests will vanish once Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee or whatever champion of the Right emerges to cut George Soros’s taxes. The limited respectability granted the Beck Brigades will also be quickly withdrawn once Republicans are inevitably elected again. Bob McDonnell’s falling fortunes in Virginia also indicate that the political spectrum has not opened up sufficiently to forgive dissent from liberal orthodoxy, even when it’s from a 20-year-old college paper and even when your opponent has no idea what he is talking about when it comes to the budget.
The only large scale organized force that is in but not of the Republican coalition is the Campaign for Liberty and the candidates and institutions that it is creating and inspiring. Much will depend on the campaign of Rand Paul to determine if the Liberty movement has any kind of power at the ballot box. Failing the limited potential of C4L, there is simply no new place for this populism to go, except on the pages of the New York Times to scare liberals who forever think the Michigan Militia is about to march up Fifth Avenue. Where it will go is where it always goes—to the next Republican candidate who can save the country from Obama, or Clinton, or Gore, or whoever else the threat of the day is. From where we sit now, I do not see a single GOP candidate who can win an election against Obama.
The protests are simply the newest expression of a very old phenomenon—a party base that is more radical than its leadership and has no champion and no outlet except talk radio. The only way it could possibly lead anywhere is if Republicans at the national level do not recapture the majority, and the GOP base continues to see itself as dispossessed. The Bush years are what conservatives can do when we have an absolute majority in the federal government. If that is what “a conservatism that can win again“ is trying to go back to, here’s hoping we never win. Unfortunately for the GOP, I do not think we can.
In contrast, the Tea Parties are what conservatives can do when all aspects of the movement are working together and are united in opposition around issues that everyone agrees on. It will not change policy, but it has mobilized a constituency that wasn”t mobilized before. Conservatism as it exists today does not have an ideology or a champion to organize these people. The question is not what they do after the march. The question is what they do after conservatism.