Left Critiques of the Tea Party

Ari Melber has a great piece in The Nation about the Tea Party. He identifies what at first looks like an interesting puzzle about the critiques by the left of the Tea Party, namely that “liberal attacks on the tea party echo attacks on liberals.”

What’s unrealistic to one voter is inspiring to another. Tea Party leaders, just like purist libertarians or radical progressives, like to begin with first principles and aim for fundamental reform. It is curious, really, how progressive critiques of the tea party so often sound like laundered attacks on progressives – you’re not being realistic, that’s not how government really works, the numbers won’t add up, and, of course, your entire movement should be dismissed based on your most fringe members.

First, these types of critiques by the right on the left have been effective attacks at moving center-left positions outside of the Overton Window and marginalizing them, especially with the national media. What’s good for the goose, etc…

Second, and I think this is more relevant, the critiques of the left on the Tea Party are in fact true. Melber notes Congressman Anthony Weiner rebutting some basic Tea Party budgetary assumptions, showing their numbers do not in fact add up:

Beyond experts and participants, the panel also included one member of the loyal opposition to the loyal opposition: Anthony Weiner. The New York congressman has staked out a role several steps to the left – and decibels above – President Obama. True to form, Weiner dispatched tea party tenets with substance and relish. Since the vast majority of the federal budget goes to defense and permanent entitlement programs, he argued, the tea party simply cannot legislate its anti-spending rage unless it slashes the Pentagon or guts Social Security. (Weiner, in full wonk mode, made this point by saying that 91 percent of the federal budget is comprised of defense and non-discretionary spending. You get the idea.) Of course, Social Security reform couldn’t even get a scheduled vote from congressional Republicans in 2005, when (then-popular) President Bush spearheaded the effort. And electing Republicans to cut defense spending? You’d have better luck buying tempeh from a butcher in Weiner’s Brooklyn district.

To pick one example when it comes to the realism critique, the left called for health care reform, elected a president largely around promises of reforming health care in America, and watched as this promise was delivered, albeit imperfectly. Contrast that with Alaska Tea Party candidate, Kansan Joe Miller, who thinks wrongly that unemployment insurance is unconstitutional and Social Security should be left to the states. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that unemployment insurance is constitutional, while leaving Social Security to the states would require “America forbids its citizens from retiring in a different state than the one that they paid taxes in while working.” I’d say the odds of that happening are zero. That is, Miller and other Tea Party candidates are pushing an agenda that is demonstrably unachievable,  because it is based on flawed constitutional arguments and transparently broken ideas.

The last argument Melber identifies as being turned back from the left on the Tea Party – ” your entire movement should be dismissed based on your most fringe members” – is an interesting one. The notion of hypocrisy on this one would have to assume that there are, in fact, an equal proportion of fringe members with comparable extremism on both sides. Of course Melber knows there’s no comparison between the two and he isn’t suggesting that there is parity here. But when core parts of the Tea Party don’t believe that the President is an American or a Christian, when they want to abolish Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment insurance, when there are repeated calls for “Second Amendment remedies” to losing elections, the fringe nature of not just some members of the Tea Party but significant portions of this movement’s chosen candidates for federal office, it’s clear that there is pervasive extremism befitting of marginalization.

It’s true that the critiques the left make of the Tea Party sound like the attacks that have been leveled against the online progressive movement. But truth matters. While the left has been able to elected mainstream politicians who pursue policies actively supported by the left and most of the country passively, these ideas have been legislated and made into reality. By contrast, what the Tea Party puts forth is radical, unpalatable and impossible. So while attacks on the left on these lines should be promptly dismissed as inaccurate, the similar attacks on the Tea Party must be recognized for their veracity. Making a distinction like this isn’t hypocrisy, it’s what common sense and political awareness demand.

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