Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Retrospective On the Tea Party

Its important to distinguish between agonism and antagonism in a democracy. The former mode is a form of political and argumentative contestation which understands there to be a shared space between interlocutors. In the latter, the drive to win an argument outweighs the necessity of preserving a shared argumentative space: conflict happens but without recourse to any kind of shared space. For argumentation theorists, what anchors agonistic conflict are "facts:" a set of agreed-upon propositions that make possible the exchange of disagreement between different points of view, as distinguished from disagreements between different places, thought of in terms of political space as a discursively instituted and performatively calcified zone.

America has to do away with the permanent campaign if it wants to promote a politics of agonism rather than a politics of antagonism. As I begin to finish up my research project on new American conservatism, I was drawn again to the events of February 2009. Remember when Rick Santelli freaked out on CNBC's Morning "Sqwawk Box" with the rant that launched the Tea Party?  Commentators at The Weekly Standard and National Review fell all over themselves to praise Santelli's defense of productive and active Americans a "new Silent Majority" that was a "pretty good cross-section of America." The seemingly spontaneous nature of Santelli's rant captured the conservative imagination, something I have written about elsewhere.

But I also want to note something else: Santelli's rant happened less than a month after Barack Obama was officially inaugurated. And it seems Santelli's speech was an effort coordinated by right wing organizing groups (I apologize for the unfortunate title of the linked article). Once the Tea Party exploded, there were droves of articles calling the movement a grassroots, organic expression of disenchantment with the presidency of Barack Obama. Now, I admit to having an awful lot of faith in the power of democratic protest. But the idea of a mass, spontaneous movement emerging almost overnight (before the president had hardly done anything) strains credulity. That said, once started, the Tea Party did draw in a lot of people who were legitimate and sincerely concerned about the direction of the country. Whether or not their reasons for concern were based on good arguments will be the subject for another post, but suffice it to say I take their world that they believed it.

Making a populist argument is a version of blackmail. "The American people believe this..." is a loaded argument, because disagreement from it creates a presumption that one is NOT a member of the American people. One can of course make a counterargument: "Actually, the American people believe this and that..." but what this overlooks is that there is no single sovereign judge or jury to pass comment on the "Americanness" of certain arguments.

A quick glance at the current party platforms is revealing: the Democratic platform references the "American people" around nine times. The GOP platform refers to the American people that many times in its first two pages, and includes innumerable more mentions throughout. The Democratic platform shows a persistent unwillingness to beat up their opponents with what Jeremy Engels has called a "demophilic" argumentative strategy, preferring instead to assemble their political coalition through particularized rhetoric which inductively proves their status as the political party of the American people (or we might say "persons.") The incentive to promote a permanent campaign led the GOP to begin a massive campaign on a populist basis less than 30 days after the new president had been inaugurated. Now there was a good deal of bellyaching on the left following Bush v. Gore, but it would be a stretch to say that it produced the kind of political resistance engendered by the current Republican leadership: and that was after someone won the popular vote but lost the election.

Party of the people? Methinks the GOP doth protest too much.

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