Berg strains his Tea on US Republican Right
US Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour old-skool filibuster in protest against the Obama administration’s attack on civil liberties got everyone talking — and got Chris Berg sweaty under the armpits over at The Drum. Paul’s stand was evidence the Tea Party is libertarian, he said, arguing:
“Our ideas of the Tea Party are pretty entrenched. Either you think that the Tea Party is a white, racist, gun-toting, revolt of the middle class, or … well … in Australia it’s not clear there is an alternative view.”
Actually, if Berg looked at your correspondent’s views of the Tea Party in the 2010 and 2012 elections, he’d find, ohhhhh, tens of thousands of words on how the Tea Party was a hybrid beast, with a mix of conservative, libertarian and anarchist traces. He’d also benefit from some basic facts about the movement.
By and large, the Tea Party isn’t libertarian to any significant degree — not even in the limited constitutionalist sense it has in America (minimal laws and maximum rights at home, no interest in human rights beyond borders). It is overwhelmingly a conservative authoritarian movement, pro-war-on-drugs, pro-prison, anti-euthanasia, anti-abortion-rights, in favour of active restrictions on Muslims at home (no mosques, for example) and of US military involvement abroad.
Its “libertarianism” is largely confined to property rights. Even here it wimps out — it has made no defence of Washington state and Colorado, which have both voted for the full legalisation of marijuana, bringing them smack up against federal law. If that ain’t a constitutional libertarian cause, what is? When Paul was deprived of dozens of delegates at the 2012 Republican Convention by a post-hoc rules change, the Tea Party raised nary a peep.
True, it had a libertarian spark at its very beginning, when the proto-movement was formed by Paul activists. Then it was subject to a double hijacking — first by the Republican Right, led by the delightfully named former congressman Dick Armey, and secondly by a “Tea Party caucus” of reps and Senators, many of whom predated its foundation, professional politicians acquiring its anti-establishment gloss. The “libertarian” credentials can be seen by comparing a list of the caucus, and then a list of Republicans who voted for an extension of the Patriot Act without amendment — and seeing that there’s about an 80% overlap.
The truth is Paul and a group around him are playing a complex game: they would like to be Paulite in their politics, but realise that’s a bridge too far for most Republicans. So they are in an alliance with the Republican Right, branded as the Tea Party, even though they would be diametrically opposed to many of its positions.
Should Paul and others be able to get stuff going about drones, the everyday “soft” restrictions on liberty in the US (by the TSA for example), etc, then more power to their arm. But I doubt they will tackle the real problems head-on: the “war on drugs”, the prison-industrial complex, the vast informal powers of the police in the land of the free, and the liberty-sapping maintenance of empire. Should they do so, it’ll be a toofer — not only will the issues get raised, but the Republican Party will be consumed in a years-long internal war, with no guarantee of unified survival at the end.
Berg is either unaware of these complexities — in which case he really shouldn’t be writing about the Tea Party — or he’s ignoring them in order to project a cartoonish vision of a heroic freedom-loving Right, for domestic purposes. Either way, this tea is a little strained.
Want more from Crikey’s incomparable writer-at-large Guy Rundle? Sign up for a free trial to read his essays on a decade after the Iraq invasion, the death of Hugo Chavez, the Bradley Manning trial and more from around the world …