Tea Party Nihilism vs. OWS Romantic Participatory Democracy


Here's Hendrik Hertzberg, whose enduring contribution to American political discourse remains Jimmy Carter's malaise speech, writing in The New Yorker about the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

When the Tea Party marched on America, we learn after several paragraphs of throat-clearing and haw-haw-haws about politics being show biz for ugly people, the results were somewhat akin to Sherman marching on Georgia:

…obstructionism descended into nihilism. Absent the Tea Party, a routine debt-ceiling squabble would never have metastasized into a terrifying episode of hostage-taking. Nor would a lineup of Republican Presidential candidates have unanimously rejected a debate moderator's hypothetical debt-reduction deal of ten dollars in spending cuts for every dollar in increased revenue.

That's rich cream, I tells you. Yes, it was a routine debt-ceiling squabble, despite the fact that the feds are spending roughly twice what they were spending 10 years ago and the "nihilistic" solution to the debt ceiling will add at least $7 trillion to the national debt over the coming decade. My god, how will we survive such austerity?

And note that the debate moderator's suggestion about a 10-to-1 ratio of cuts to tax increases is of necessity "hypothetical": Between Obama's awful budget proposal and Paul Ryan's GOP budget, neither includes any cuts to the levels of current spending. Rather, both envision budgets that are literally trillions of dollars bigger than they are today (and remember, today's budgets are about double what they were in 2001). That's nihilism, all right, but not in the way that Hertzberg thinks.

The Tea Party has been influential, yes: It's the only reason most of us now know there is a (hypothetical!) debt ceiling to what the government can borrow. But the conversation about out-of-control spending is barely getting started and so far, alas, the cuts just haven't happened at the federal level. It's not nihilistic to argue that cutting spending now is a good, meaningful choice, especially if you care about the future. In fact, that's pretty the opposite of nihilism.

What's Hertzberg's take on the cockeyed dreamers of the Occupy movement? They may just be a bunch of naive kids who don't understand politics and treated civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) with contempt, he says, but at least they've made a difference:

…the movement has achieved one obvious, and stunning, outward success. It has pierced the veil of silence that, for decades, has obscured the astounding growth of what can fairly be called plutocracy. Public opinion is beginning to realize that there are hard truths behind the Occupiers' "99 per cent."

The chief hard truth? That just like in the Roarin' Twenties, the rich get richer and the poor get… children. Or used fixed-gear bikes, or something. Or 10 years minimum to pay off student loans.

So what's the takeaway from the New Yorker's longtime observer? That when the Tea Party starts a conversation about debt-driven spending (for stuff like wars foreign and domestic, useless federal education mandates, and cheap drugs for old people irrespective of need), that's nihilism. But when Occupiers bitch and moan about student loans and restoring the Clinton tax rates on households pulling in $250,000 (despite the fact under Bush, top income-earners paid a higher share of total income taxes), that's a stunning, outward success.

Even better, folks like the OWS crowd. Really, really. Cue Sally Fields:

The pollsters tell us that Americans like O.W.S.'s essential message. They like the Occupiers, too—not as much as they like the message, but more than they like the Tea Party.

Read the whole thing. And then ask yourself why is it again that The New Yorker is known for smart, insightful writing.