No Deal: How the Tea Party Has Helped to Stall Obama’s New Deal

Charlotte Cavaille reports on a recent Harvard panel about the politics of the Tea Party and the Obama social agenda

Commentators and political scientists trying to document the Obama presidency face the following puzzle: why, despite an impressive list of achievements, is Obama facing so much disillusion among voters who voted for him in 2008 and such a strong backlash from voters who did not?

Theda Skocpol disputes the view that the Obama presidency has been a missed opportunity and points to the Affordable Care Act, the reform of student loans (which eliminated the expensive middlemen), the stimulus package and the financial regulation bill as examples of ambitious legislative activism. Why, then, such a turnaround in the 2010 mid-term elections?

This absence of payoff, Skocpol argues, can be explained by the institutional characteristics of the American system which have derailed Obama’s wave of reforms and as a result undermined the majority that had carried him to power. She also argues that Obama’s policies have triggered a backlash among a section of the GOP’s electorate. The emergence of an important grassroots movement, the existence of resource-rich business and libertarian umbrella organizations, and the fragmentation of the American media landscape have combined to bring out what is now called the Tea Party, a constellation of conservative activists, united in their opposition to Obama. This heterogenous movement has in turn pulled the Republican party to the right, worsening the legislative gridlock that has crippled the Obama presidency.

Obama versus FDR

Skocpol provides an interesting comparison between the situation Obama faced when coming to power in 2008 and that encountered by FDR in his first term. She points to four main differences between the two presidencies. First, FDR arrived in power four years into the Recession, with 25 percent of workers unemployed, Americans were, in Skocpol’s words ,“desperate for anything to happen.” Obama on the other hand arrived while the crisis was still unfolding. His actions were identified with the previous regime and the necessity of confronting the financial crisis in the first place brought him too close to Wall Street.

Second, Obama, unlike FDR, had to deal with unprecedented GOP obstruction. Republicans, following their 2008 defeat, unified in opposition to Obama, waiting for the political payoffs that an extended crisis would provide to anyone not associated to the majority party. The mid-term elections has validated this analysis. Skocpol also points to differences in the level of political polarization in the 1930′s and today: liberal republicans and conservative democrats have all but disappeared in Congress (for those interested in measure of political polarization see Polarized America). This polarization, when combined with the rules and institutions of the US Congress (such as the need for 60 votes in the Senate to pass a bill), has stalled legislative action.

Third, while FDR faced unified opposition among the media, Obama has had to deal with a fragmented media. This fragmentation feeds into a competitive dynamic which leads to dramatic escalations to the right of the media landscape. In addition, each networks caters to a specific public with very few areas of overlap. People see and hear was they believe, both among conservative and progressive media. This, in turn magnifies polarizing tendencies among the electorate.

Finally, while in the 1930′s state intervention to regulate the economy was relatively new, today, Obama has to deal with a century of cumulative regulations, agencies and programs. FDR’s actions were visible and did not compete with established policies and institutions. Obama, on the other hand, had to revise existing policies and try to tweak a complex set of regulations and subsidies that have created important interests groups ready to fight to preserve the status-quo. The most famous example is the trade unions refusal to eliminate tax breaks on employees as part of general overhaul of health insurance.

Invisible Government, Invisible Benefits

On this point, comments from Suzanne Mettler, professor at Cornell University are enlightening. She describes the American welfare state as “submerged state”, which functions not be sending out checks and extending state bureaucracy but by providing incentives through tax cuts, subsidies and regulations. She recently conducted survey research on the impact of such channels of state intervention on people’s perception of government. She finds that 60 % of respondents who indicated receiving tax deductions for home mortgage payments declared that they had never benefited from a government social program. This number was 40 % for medicare beneficiaries. Obama thus faces a double “visibility” hurdle: 1) having to tweak existing programs instead of creating new ones, and 2) not being to rely on constituencies that benefit from existing government programs as a support for his reformist agenda. As a result, commentators and voters that had envisioned a possible “new New Deal” have not seen their hopes met.

Enter the Tea Party

The Tea Party, a section of the conservative electorate, have been unnerved by Obama’s legislative activity. Thanks to fieldwork done early in 2009 and 2010, Skocpol provides a nice insight into the hearts and minds of tea party activists. They are usually white middle age or seniors Americans who feel very strongly about government regulation and budget deficits. They fear that Obama’s policies will increase their taxes, and understand reforms such as the Affordable Healthcare Act to be transferring resources to “non-deserving” individuals such as immigrants, low-income workers (a high proportion of which are black) and young people. Obama’s election, in Skocpol’s words “crystallized a sense of decline” that permeates this demographic groups’ vision of America.

Tea Partiers, however, are not simply disgruntled pensioners. They are very savvy grassroots organizers that have a long history of community volunteering. This grassroots movement has been partly unified through the funding activities of important umbrella organizations such as “Freedom Works”, “Tea Party express” or “Tea Party patriots” and “rogue” politicians such as Sarah Palin. The association between the grassroots movements and these advocacy groups is better understood as instrumental more than “fusional”. One brings the hard cash to fund rallies and conference calls while the other brings legitimacy. Fox news comes into the picture as the main communication channel that links activists around the country, to public figures such as Palin and to Washington politics.

Skocpol has several interesting observations about these developments: Tea Party organizers are very good at understanding how to influence politics in the US. They have found in the republican primaries the perfect channel allowing the maximum impact in the minimum amount of time. As currently shown with the budget stalemate, Tea Party backed candidate play a disproportionate role in the republican parties insider politics. While the movement is slowly institutionalizing itself, it mainly limits itself to being a watchdog, signaling again their deep understanding of American politics, where a third party has little chance of influencing the political game (they also seem well aware of Sarah Palin’s limits as a potential candidate).

Why is the Tea Party Effective?

Tea Partiers have also exercised influence on more moderate Republicans by signaling to them that votes  in Congress will have important consequences for their re-election bid. Conversely, rhe Republican Party and the umbrella organizations that provide funding do not have a tight control over these voters whose emergence. In other words, these developments were far from planned. While Tea Parties are mainly upper middle class and white they are not the usual evangelical right that everyone associates with Bush Junior and encompass less religious voters.

The tea party’s political clout rests on the relative intensity of their mobilization capacity (when compared to young voters and minority groups). Obama’s recent turnaround is as much due to tea party activism than to democratic de-mobilization. Part of the following Q & A session was thus focused on understanding where the left had gone. A comment by Vanessa Williamson, co-author of the tea party study, neatly summed up the situation: while tea party members seem to understand the political process very well, they hardly know anything about the policies themselves (as the death panels and cuts to Medicare paranoia illustrate). On the other hand, liberal activists who have a good understanding of the policies seem to have no idea of how one is to influence a fragmented American political system, filled with veto points and prone to high levels of political polarization.

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