Center for American Progress

Heads, the Tea Party Wins; Tails, the Tea Party Wins

Heads, the Tea Party Wins; Tails, the Tea Party Wins

The debate over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling demonstrates how Tea Party extremists, despite their unpopularity, enjoy a stranglehold on our politics.

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Tea Party supporter William Temple of Brunswick, Georgia, protests against President Barack Obama's health care law outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday, June 28, 2012. (AP/David Goldman)
Tea Party supporter William Temple of Brunswick, Georgia, protests against President Barack Obama's health care law outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday, June 28, 2012. (AP/David Goldman)

Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum recently suggested that Americans would be less apt to hold Republicans responsible for the government shutdown than they did in 1995 because of the help Republicans could expect to receive from Fox News. She was wrong about this; indeed, she and Fox News host Brit Hume were typically wrong about almost everything. For instance, MacCallum said that:

Fox News Channel was just beginning. People are very—it’s a different world in terms of what people understand about what’s going on. In those days, it was much easier to pin the problems in this on the Republicans … I’m not sure that they’re going to punish the Republicans to the extent that they did last time around.

Those government shutdowns occurred during the winter of 1995 and 1996. The first lasted five days in November 1995, and the second lasted 21 days, from December 15, 1995, to January 6, 1996. Fox News was launched on October 7, 1996, so Fox is even wrong about how long it has existed. Media Matters observes that Fox News has “undertaken a campaign of false equivalency by assigning blame to both Republicans and President Obama on the government shutdown. But congressional experts have noted that the Republicans’ extreme positions have led to the current government shutdown.” And the public agrees. According to a poll by ABC News and The Washington Post, 74 percent of Americans hold Republicans responsible for the shutdown and disapprove of their actions, and 54 percent have a “strongly” negative view of Republicans.

Originally, many conservatives were more than willing to take responsibility for the shutdown. Wall Street Journal editorial argued that shutdown had excised some “burdens on the private economy,” and might be “helping.” It also said that “one benefit of the shutdown is that it has reminded the country that it can function well without the dozens of federal bodies that exist solely to layer more burdens on the private economy.” This was nonsense, of course. According to a Moody’s Analytics Inc. estimate, a three-to-four-week shutdown was likely to cut economic growth by 1.4 percentage points in the fourth quarter alone.

If you are wondering how we reached this point—where the former party of big business is purposely sabotaging the economy—University of Michigan Professor Mark Mizruchi, author of a new book titled The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite, has an answer for you. He explained to The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein that in the late 1970s, “big American companies saw themselves as under siege, and they mounted a counteroffensive.” Mizruchi argues that it took the form of “big businesses funding organizations like the American Enterprise Institute, and there was the formation of the Heritage Foundation, and they started becoming very aggressive against what they saw as intrusive government regulation and labor unions in a way that they hadn’t before.”

Their efforts were largely successful in rolling back liberal gains of the 1960s and early 1970s, and, according to Mizruchi, “by the late 1970s, they were very successful. Corporate taxes decreased, government regulation became much more lax. The very forces that had led big business to be organized in the first place were significantly weakened.” Ronald Reagan then became president and reoriented American policy in their direction.

A generation later, in the mid-1990s, conservatives grew even more ambitious. Republicans, as John Judis noted in The New Republic, created a new political strategy that combined the interests of big business with those of Christian fundamentalists, the latter of whom had to make due with mere friendly rhetoric during the Reagan and Bush presidencies. As Judis notes:

Many people contributed to the strategy including Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Paul Coverdell, Paul Weyrich, and Ralph Reed, but the chief architect was probably Grover Norquist, a political operative who, along with Rove and Reed, came of age in the early Reagan years. The strategy was based on creating an alliance between business, which had sometimes divided its loyalties between Republicans and Democrats, and the array of social and economic interest groups that had begun backing Republicans. … Business could provide the money, and the single-issue and evangelical groups [had] the grassroots energy to win elections.

However, this coalition began to strain as the decline of campaign-finance legislation allowed wealthy individuals such as the Koch brothers to take a larger and larger role in determining the content of the Republican Party’s positions and the candidates who could be successfully funded—especially in safely gerrymandered Republican districts. This had the effect of radicalizing the party even further, since it diminished the role of congressional leadership and gave the radical tail an opportunity to wag the establishment dog. The power of established business interests declined, and those of the wealthy funders and their Tea Party foot soldiers increased proportionately. That is how the Tea Party, whose approval rating is a mere 22 percent among the larger public and 38 percent among Republicans, took over the steering wheel of America’s political direction.

No matter how the shutdown is settled, a right-wing victory is nearly assured, despite the tiny minority of Americans who share their views. As the Center for American Progress’s Neera Tanden and Michael Linden note:

By extending last year’s post-sequester levels, Speaker Boehner is trying to lock those additional spending cuts into place and create a new baseline from which future negotiations must begin. … Having Congress adopt those levels in the short term is likely to make it easier for conservatives to keep those cuts in place for the long term.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs, taking a longer view, points out that “Discretionary spending has fallen relative to mandatory spending from 10.9% of GDP in 1971 to 9.2% in 2010, accounting on average for 8.5% of GDP.” According to recent budget projections, discretionary outlays will fall to 6.3 percent in 2019, the final year of the 2009 10-year budget framework. “Why,” Sachs asks, “would a progressive president plan for deep cuts in discretionary spending relative to GDP even as he advocates larger investments in health, education, infrastructure, clean energy, science and technology, job training, early childhood development and more?”

The answer lies in the stranglehold that Tea Party extremists continue to exercise on American politics. And the party will continue to do so until it is exposed as the extremist, anti-democratic organization it is. That’s the mainstream media’s job, and with a little luck, the damage the Tea Party has caused in the current shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis will allow the narrative to show this simple, profound fact.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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