Tea Party rally in Searchlight, Nevada. Credit: Wikimedia/US Border Patrol. Some rights reserved.
“Hi – I’m Arthur Peña, and I’m a gay Christian. I’m planning to vote for Barack Obama. I also consider myself a kind of libertarian-leaning Marxist”.
This may not have been the most promising introduction to the Tea Party, but there I was at a Tea Party rally in Napa, California, during the US Presidential election campaign in 2008.
What was I doing there?
A few days earlier, at the local community college where I taught, I attended a meeting of the local branch of Students for a Democratic Society. Someone mentioned that they had been staging a counter protest on the other side of the street from a Tea Party rally that was held there every week. When I discovered that they hadn’t met any of the people against whom they were protesting, my “trans-partisan” instincts kicked in, and I decided to go meet “the enemy” myself.
One man yelled in my face for twenty minutes as he harangued me for wanting to destroy the country with something he called “socialism” (a far cry from the “economic democracy” that Marxists envision). However, much to my surprise, more often than not I was received with a mixture of caution, genuine curiosity, and friendliness.
There were other surprises too. For example, the number of women in leadership positions in the Tea Party both behind the scenes and on the front lines; the conservative Catholic John Birch Society member who spoke of the dangers of institutional religion (“I’m spiritual,” she explained, “not religious”); the self-proclaimed “lesbian Democrat” Rosa Koire, who speaks against UN Agenda 21 at Tea Party rallies and Eagle Forum meetings on “God, Family, and Country;” and my new friend Raymond, an anti-communist “family values” evangelical preacher from Finland who calls me “brother” and speaks open-mindedly about Marxism.
Perhaps Raymond’s willingness to talk with me, like that of other Tea Party members, was due to my willingness to share doubts about my own ideology, and my appreciation for some aspects of theirs.
As our discussions progressed, common concerns emerged, especially with Tea Partiers who most clearly identified themselves as “libertarians:” the creeping growth of the surveillance state in the USA, for example; opposition to American military overreach abroad (though often for very different reasons); the need to expose “crony capitalism” and big business subsidies; and the subversion of democratic values by the revolving door that exists between Washington and Wall Street.
Shared opposition to crony capitalism is an area of particular agreement, and it defies the common perception that leftists and libertarians are always at opposite ends of the political spectrum. This is especially true when the ideas of each group are freed from the demonized and distorted versions that are propagated by the media and internalized in both camps. Could there be more room here for dialogue and cooperation, and if so, does that matter to the future of US politics? Or am I over-generalizing from my personal experience?
Answering these questions, I believe, requires a reframing of the assumed opposition between “far left” and “far right,” and a rejection of the “middle ground” it produces.
The usual metaphor for describing ideological positions is that of a straight and single line. Marxists are always placed “to the left” of Democrats on that line; socially conservative Tea Partiers are placed “to the right” of Republicans; and libertarian Tea Party members are situated “to the left” of many Democrats when it comes to social issues, and “to the right” of many Republicans when it comes to economics.
The limitations of this linear metaphor are obvious: Marxist and Tea Party viewpoints are automatically marginalized as extremes, because their complex ideological realities are defined primarily in relation to Democrats and Republicans who occupy the so-called “center-left” and “center-right.” By default, the “center ground” of American politics is situated between these two main parties, and this “center” is supposed to represent the majority of Americans.
But does it?
In the linear view of politics, compromise is raised to the level of a principle, as if it were somehow positive in and of itself instead of an occasional necessity. But it’s precisely in the “center” between Democrats and Republicans that crony capitalism thrives amidst their endlessly shifting ploys for re-election. Systemic bi-partisan compromises (often reached in reality if not in rhetoric) have facilitated many of the things that both Marxists and Tea Partiers decry, though sometimes for different reasons. They include “Obamacare,” in which the US government forces everyone to buy policies from for-profit health insurance companies, and Wall Street bailouts in which taxpayers pay the price for the sins of the financial capitalist class.
What more could crony capitalists want than a system of “compromise” that always results in more power for themselves and their interests? What better political metaphor for them than one that gives people only two options deemed to be “reasonable”, while branding as “extreme” any principled opposition to their rule?
What more ingenious system of control than getting half the population to aim their ire at Big Business, and the other half to target Big Government, while leaving crony capitalists to collude together below the political radar?
In the current political system, a few percentage points are sufficient to keep the reins of power swinging from one party to the other, providing just enough illusory hope of change to keep the masses from revolt. Were it necessary for either party to make a principled appeal to the electorate, and to follow up on their campaign promises in an environment that did not distort and demonize real alternatives to bi-partisan business-as-usual, then those few percentage points would not be sufficient to win an election.
As things stand, people are given the choice of whether to turn the “Ship of State” slightly to the “left” or slightly to the “right” every four years. Neither course correction is enough to avoid the iceberg of crony capitalism, because the process is rigged. The two major parties are in cahoots - not in rhetoric and not always consciously, but systemically in cahoots.
But what if we were to bend that single line into a square, as one libertarian website has done already? The result is that the “two ends” of the political spectrum become “four corners” instead. Changing the metaphor from one to two dimensions, from a line to a square, creates space for much more complex characterizations of where people stand in political terms. You can take a quiz here that will show you where you fit on the diagram below.
Might we gain even more if this diagram contained a few extra dimensions? Like discovering that the world is round rather than flat, terms like “far east” and “far west” no longer make sense. Linear thinking about politics obscures complex human and ideological realities, and it deprives people of real choices and opportunities for real debate.
Naturally, I think Marxists say it best, so here is Friedrich Engels’ observation about the American two-party system of government:
“Nowhere do ‘politicians’ form a more separate and powerful section of the nation than precisely in North America. . . . Americans have been striving for 30 years to shake off this yoke… and…in spite of all they can do they continue to sink ever deeper in this swamp of corruption. It is precisely in America that we see best how there takes place this process of the state power making itself independent in relation to society, whose mere instrument it was originally intended to be. Here there exists no dynasty, no nobility, no standing army, beyond the few men keeping watch on the Indians, no bureaucracy with permanent posts or the right to pensions. And nevertheless we find here two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt ends, and the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians, who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality dominate and plunder it.”
The Communist Manifesto asserts that individual liberty is the foundation of social well-being, a conviction that resonates deeply with the Tea Party:
“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
Taking their cue from these quotations, what would happen if people started talking to each other from a strong base in their own convictions instead of being lured into an alleged “center ground” from which they rarely benefit? While the rallying cry of “Libertarians and Marxists of the World Unite!” may be a tad premature, we might find that we have more in common with each other than we do with those who claim to represent us.
‘We have nothing to lose,' one might say, 'but the chains which bind us to our misconceptions of each other.'