The Spectacle Blog

When ‘Political Realism’ Becomes Unrealistic

By on 2.26.14 | 11:18AM

Rod Dreher claims to understand that populist movements only have to be “credible,” not “flawless,” though I’m skeptical he even holds that position. He writes at the American Conservative:

[Tea Party groups] have failed to appeal beyond a hard core, in part because they are so highly and unrealistically ideological. They seem to exist as a protest movement, not as a movement that can actually get things done. I’ve talked to some Tea Partiers who are reasonable, even if I don’t share their passion or their ideology. But many Tea Partiers of my experience are like better organized version of Occupy: long on outrage, but short on any serious idea about what might be done to fix the (very real) problems that provoked their outrage.

Dreher is expecting too much. The point of a populist movement is to spark mass attention to a specific cause and mobilize. It’s the job of those who agree with the group’s basic ideas—and are politically savvy—to articulate the message and see it translated into policy.

He cites “combativeness, inability to tolerate dissent, and reliance on sloganeering” as the political flaws of the Tea Party. But politics, in a democracy, is a combative and sloganeering sport. Deep, nuanced discussion has no place in Republican or Democrat campaigns.

Not only is the idea of a populist movement that consists of moderately tempered and intellectually rigorous advocates too idealistic, it also offers no political fuel. Passion, not dialogue, moves masses of voters.

I sympathize with Dreher that some strategic choices of Tea Party politicians have been suspect, but blaming a populist movement for a strategic disaster is misguided. It’s true that vulnerable Republicans were forced to support the shutdown in order to stand a chance against 2014 primary challengers, but the goal of the Tea Party was a defunded or weakened Obamacare, not a shutdown for the sake thereof; the shutdown was the proposed solution. There was dissent even on the strategy. Sen. Tom Coburn, one of the most adamant critics of Obamacare, criticized the shutdown. Sen. Rand Paul, one of its supporters, later called it a “dumb idea. It’s been common to claim that the Tea Party’s stubborn attitude on Obamacare caused the uncompromising shutdown, but stubbornness is not something unique to one movement over another. All movements are stubborn. Burkean temperaments are fashionable in elite discourse and policymaking, but they don't have a home in grass-roots organizing.

In fact, the Tea Party seems to have made a home at the American Conservative. Paul, a self-proclaimed Crunchy Con like Dreher, co-authored The Tea Party Goes to Washington. Justin Amash wrote an op-ed for the American Conservative. TAC’s Jonathan Coppage defended Mike Lee’s tax proposal and Daniel Larison spoke highly of Coburn when he announced his retirement.

What’s most notable is that Tea Party favorites have not organized a third party, but made the politically smart move of working through the extant system, introducing change internally. Even Ron Paul realized that real change would only come by playing on the established political landscape, not outside of it. Consider the diverse politicians that have emerged as favorites: Tom Coburn, Mike Lee, Justin Amash, Rand Paul, Jim DeMint, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.

Expecting populist movements to be politically tactful and free of ideology is idealistic, to the point that believing that prudence alone is a coherent political philosophy becomes a sort of ideology itself—the thing Dreher finds most caustic in the Tea Party movement. The prudent action is to make do with the current political landscape, and through, not opposed to it, develop good policy and strategy.

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