Friday, June 27, 2014

The Perils of Purity

St George and the Dragon by Raphael

George Orwell repeatedly condemned the leftists of his time and place – 1930’s England – for their thoughtless and irresponsible rhetoric: their unreflective pacifism in the face of the fascist menace, their self-deluded justifications of Stalinist brutality, their blithe dismissals of patriotism and middle-class virtue.  Orwell’s insight was that they spoke irresponsibly because they knew they would never achieve any real political power.  Power may corrupt, but marginality breeds recklessness.  And power and marginality distort judgment for the same reason: they insulate one from public accountability.  They both alienate.  Keep that dynamic in mind when you consider the ongoing struggle between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party insurgency.

The Tea Party has lost most of the battles recently, with establishment candidates winning primary elections in Kentucky, North Carolina and Georgia, but the Tea Party forced a runoff in Mississippi (which they just narrowly and bitterly lost).  And on June 10th one of the pillars of the establishment, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor unthinkably lost his primary race to David Brat, an unknown, hard right economics professor.  Many on the right heralded Cantor’s defeat as a win for the people against the powerful, as David slaying Goliath.  But it was the conservative grass roots that sent Cantor – who is quite conservative – to Congress to fight the right fight, and now they perceive him as a big-government sellout?  In the last few years the Tea Party has successfully moved the Establishment to the right, and there is now precious little programmatic difference between the two.  As John Nichols of the Nation perceives, both rival GOP primary candidates in Mississippi “oppose abortion rights and marriage equality, support restrictive Voter ID laws, promise to oppose minimum-wage hikes, rip ‘Obamacare,’ the IRS, the EPA and OSHA and trash ‘entitlement’ programs.”

But if the fondest desire of both groups is to curtail the welfare state and reduce the national debt, why do Tea Partiers hate their own leaders so?  It’s seems the conflict is largely symbolic and temperamental.  That is, the Establishment sees the national debt and the welfare state as complex realities to be prudentially and incrementally blunted and reduced, while the Tea Party sees them as monsters to be slain.  The grassroots hungers for a crusade.  They love Republican Senator Ted Cruz because he tried to kill Obamacare by shutting down the government and threatening debt default; and they hate Eric Cantor because he buckled and voted to end Cruz’s threat.  But the Establishment doesn’t understand; they want the same things, so why does a mere difference in tactics elicit such acrimony and demand such purity?  Erick Erickson of has an answer:

What the circle of jerks in Washington sees as a conservative quest for purity, many of those in flyover country see as fighting against out of touch, entrenched elements in their party who’ve grown far too cozy with lobbyists and Wall Street. The conservative fight in Mississippi, Virginia, Texas, and elsewhere is mocked and ridiculed by a left-leaning and establishment-oriented press when, in reality, it is overwhelmingly a response to a Washington that has grown out of touch. Yes, the grassroots want more conservative members of Congress, but they want them because they believe the people there are in the pockets of special interests and the politicians have abandoned their core beliefs for cash and connections.

That is, Cantor only pretended to want what Cruz wants.  He tried to hoodwink the base with slogans and dishonest ads, but he was more interested in a profitable career of accommodation and obeisance to Wall Street money and Washington power.  But the Tea Party is finally hip to that game.  The GOP pretends to be fighting against the federal Leviathan but only the conservative base really wants to slay the monster.  They pursue purity not out of temperamental indulgence or ideological dogmatism, but out of necessity.  Only the chaste heart, nurtured on the common sense of the common folk, inspired by the love of Constitutional freedom, eager for battle against aristocracies of privilege and power – only such a knight in shining armor can resist the Whore of Babylon that elite America has become.  Purity isn’t the Tea Party’s goal, it’s their weapon.  Righteousness – and the ideological clarity that flows from it – protects them.

It does seem the Tea Party is more serious than the Establishment about ending the welfare state.  But Erickson is kidding himself that purity is merely an instrument for conservatives.  Purity has always been at the heart of American conservatism.  No one can yearn for crusades who isn’t dazzled by his own purity.  To the conservative common folk, America has been corrupted and polluted by sexual license, godlessness, illegal aliens, liberals, the welfare state, etc.  The failure of the Bush administration and the successes of the Obama administration have convinced them that the Republican Party is complicit in that corruption.  What’s the point of a Republican Party if it can’t stop Obamacare?  The Tea Party, as the more perfect distillation of those conservative impulses, is predicated upon the notion that sufficient purification is the solution to all our problems, that purity can be won only by the pure.  Thus their infamous aversion to compromise and conciliation; compromise only pollutes good with evil.  It is the American essence itself that has been compromised and that needs to be purified.  But the GOP must be cleansed before it can become the vehicle for that purification.

But only if real conservatives come to power.  So then why is the man who is replacing Cantor as Majority Leader not a Tea Party purist?  Two ambitious House Tea Partiers made half-hearted attempts, but they were bested by a better-connected and better-organized moderate conservative backed by the Establishment.  As Dana Millbank so nicely explains, a true believer will never learn to work the system as well as a pragmatist.  The failure of the Tea Party to capture Cantor’s post is widely seen as a simple expression of Tea Party weakness within the Republican caucus: there just aren’t enough of them.  But Tea Partiers everywhere were quite angry that Cantor’s primary loss didn’t result in the elevation of one of their own.  They’re even angry at their own Tea Party House conservatives who, as Erick Erickson says, “refused to step up and make a play for leadership, choosing instead to just obstruct.”  The grassroots is ever more eager to topple more GOP leaders.

But maybe that’s why no Tea Partier took the post, because once one does there’s a target on one’s back.  Purity is never sated.  The conservative populism that sees regular folk as pure and Washington and Wall Street as corrupt automatically makes any elected leader – even a Tea Party leader – suspect.  As Michael Warren of the conservative Weekly Standard writes:

As majority leader, Cantor likely expected Republican voters to appreciate their congressman’s proximity to the center of political power in this country. But that’s not what Nancy Russell [chair of one county’s GOP in Cantor’s district] heard from her fellow Virginia Republicans. “I almost feel like they’d rather not have their representative in the leadership,” she says. In a cautionary tale for any ambitious member of Congress, Cantor’s success in Washington was, back home, his ultimate undoing.

The base is so hyper-aware of the temptations of political life – influence-peddling, elitism, cronyism – and so dogmatically and habitually hostile toward any concentration of power that, like right-wing commissars, they constantly scrutinize their leaders for signs of deviationism.  It’s easy to imagine that many Tea Party Congressmen don’t believe leadership is worth the scrutiny.

And the realities of the legislative process demand from its leaders just the sort of compromise and deal-making that the base finds so repellent.  True believers will still come to Congress, maybe even in greater numbers, but true believers make unproductive legislators.  They only make good obstructionists (much to Erickson’s disappointment).  They can shut down the government and refuse to raise the debt ceiling but at the last minute the grown ups have to step in and make sure that the world keeps running.  The less purist, more career-oriented, more realistic conservatives like John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell understood that Obamacare could not really be stopped and the debt ceiling could not really be breached.  They may be careerists – with Cantor the most slippery and repulsive careerist of them all – but careerism forces them to govern prudentially.  The Tea Partiers – unfettered with the responsibility of actual governance – are free to make outrageous demands and release fire-breathing denunciations of the capitulators.  Pressure from the base may compel even the more sensible leaders to grandstand and take us all to the brink of disaster, but as bearers of responsibility they understood that the business community, the American people, and simple reality dictated their capitulation.

And on some level the purist conservatives must understand that they can only act so irresponsibly because they don’t control the Congress.  On some level they must be grateful that those more pragmatic leaders saved them from their own reckless and irresponsible actions.  And the shrewdest ones among them must know that the American people don’t really want Leviathan to be slain, that most people are happy to receive their Social Security checks and their Medicare reimbursements.  The conservative base is still being conned, but now they’re being conned by their own pure heroes.  And really, of course, they’re conning themselves.  Tea Party hopes are simply incompatible with American political and fiscal reality.  Tea Party Congressmen, demanding government shutdowns and calling their own leaders squishes and RINO’s, are doing the most they can given the present circumstances.  One can either be a purist or a responsible legislator, one cannot be both.  During the campaign Cantor complained to a conservative crowd about Brat’s cheap criticism: “It is easy to sit in the rarefied environs of academia, in the ivory towers of a college campus, with no accountability and no consequence.”  He was answered with jeers.  But how is the Tea Party back bench any less of an ivory tower?

We clearly see the fundamental Tea Party ambivalence toward power.  They desire it and they fear it. They wish to acquire federal power so that federal power can be subdued.  They know they need power to purify America but they’re excessively fearful of the corruption it brings and they’re insufficiently respectful of the responsibility it demands.  And they fear democracy.  They fear its ends – the maintenance and expansion of the welfare state – and they fear its means – compromise, deal-making.  Democracy, like responsibility, is messy and confusing and disillusioning.  It is incompatible with purity.  The Tea Party’s goals are unreachable, their means are romantic and their populism is visceral and immature.  Their only real accomplishment has been to hamper responsible and productive governance. 

And to eat their own.  Brat slew Cantor as David slew Goliath, but he could easily become the next Goliath himself.  He will soon face the choice whether to remain pure or to become effective.  If he chooses the former he consigns himself to futility, though it can easily be a noisy and gratifying futility in which the conservative media complex hails him as a hero.  If he chooses the latter, however, in a few years we’ll be reading bitter right-wing denunciations of “Brat the RINO” and “Brat the sellout” and beholding his primary demise at the hands of a genuine, true, pure, immaculate candidate to his right.  And Eric Cantor will smile.