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A centrist kind of moment for the Republican Party

Tea Partiers suffered setbacks in this month's GOP primaries. But the anger and populism that spawned the movement are still on the rise.
Senator Harry Reid can thank the tea party for his recent victory.

Senator Harry Reid can thank the tea party for his recent victory. Credit: Wikimedia

Recent U.S. primary election results were read, by and large, as a victory for mainstream Republicanism over Tea Partiers. But that was true only on the most superficial level.
 
Democrats held a U.S. Senate majority two years ago only because wacky and/or weak Tea Party-sponsored candidates won Republican primaries over their more centrist Republican rivals and, then, lost to vulnerable Democratic incumbents — most notably, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

The Tea Party, it could be said, saved five Democratic Senate seats.
 
Karl Rove, former political strategist for President George W. Bush, and other GOP pragmatists mobilized this year behind more centrist, more electable Republicans. In all cases this past Tuesday, these candidates beat their Tea Party rivals in primaries. That puts Republicans in better position to control both the Senate and U.S. House next January.
 
Will Tuesday's primary losers be sore losers and sit out the November election? A few will but, historically, that has not happened in even the most divided political parties such as, for instance, the 1948 and '68 Democrats who were split by emotional issues of race and war and peace.
 
History also tells us that third party and factional movements, from the early 20th century progressives to followers of Henry and George Wallace and Ross Perot, usually, and within a short period, get subsumed within the two major parties and their platforms. More importantly, what is happening in both the United States and Western Europe is the emergence of populist movements which are expressing their impatience with economic stagnation and immigration and their frustration with governing elites who are not interested in middle- and low-income citizens.
 
In Europe, the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis has led to forced austerity and shrinking welfare-state benefits. Slow economic and employment growth have fallen most heavily on those least able to deal with them. The ensuing populism has come with a dark side, marked by resentment, especially of immigrants from Muslim countries and eastern Europe. Moderate, centrist governing coalitions are weakened.
 
Here in the United States the slow economic recovery also has hit hardest those least able to cope. The wealthy and big investor classes have benefited generally from the recovery which has taken place. But middle- and low-income American workers continue to be victims of shifting labor markets and technological change. 
 
Democrats have believed that existing demographics will ensure electoral majorities for them over the next decades. But that presumes that voting groups maintain their present allegiances. The outlook appeared similar in 1965, after huge Democratic victories in the '64 presidential and congressional races. But come the late '60s and '70s, blue-collar and middle-income voters fled the party, becoming what are known as Reagan Democrats. Few saw it coming. 
 
The point: Don't presume that the future will proceed in a straight line from the present. Stuff happens.
 
The danger, here as in Europe,
is that working politicians will play to the fears and discontents of the disaffected in this rising populist era rather than offering agendas that address economic and social problems in a positive way. We see this happening now in the Republicans' continuing attacks not only on government programs such as Obamacare but on government itself.  Democrats, for their part, are using race, gender and class as wedge issues in dangerous ways.
 
No extreme right wing, race- or foreigner-baiting movement appears close to gaining power in Europe. But politicians are making hay with attacks on the European Union, the euro, moderate governance and institutions, and people who were broadly supported before the 2008 crash.  
 
Neither Europe's nor our own economic and financial systems have regained sufficient stability to generate political stability. 
 
We've seen what can happen when populist anger rises and the center does not hold. Europe in the 1930s gave rise to Nazism and extreme nationalism. The United States, led by a skillful President Franklin Roosevelt, had a near miss as significant parts of our population rallied behind totalitarian movements of Far Right and Left. FDR, at one time, said he "might be the last democratically elected President of the United States."
 
Tea Party anger and populism should be seen not just as something Republican mainstreamers fought back against this month. The Tea Party movement, per se, has been weakened. But anger and populism are still on the rise and bear watching.

Ted Van Dyk has been involved in, and written about, national policy and politics since 1961. His memoir of public life, Heroes, Hacks and Fools, was published by University of Washington Press. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Sun, May 25, 5:11 a.m. Inappropriate

We've seen what can happen when populist anger rises and the center does not hold...yes indeed, Obama.

Cameron

Posted Sun, May 25, 11:04 a.m. Inappropriate

Sometimes I wonder if Ted and I even live on the same planet.

2 points-

The tea party has driven the republican party so far to the right that to call the winners of these primaries "centrist" is very deceiving- take Thom Tillis, who won is NC- his recent public statements about how retirees on social security should look down on people on disability, his bragging about personally blocking medicare expansion in his state so many people could not get health care, his branding himself as a "conservative revolutionary" while voting against education funding, abortion rights, and voting rights- this guy is not a centrist in any way shape or form.
He is just not a complete nutjob John Bircher.
The tea party has managed to shift your perspective so much that someone like this, who is well to the right of Goldwater, is now "centrist"?
Several of the other Republican primary winners are equally waaay over on the right hand margins, just not as far as the birthers, flat earthers, and Clive Bundy fans.
But that doesnt make them "centrist".

Obama is a center right politician.
These guys are so far to starboard the deck is tilting.

And in the UK, UKIP won heavily in local elections, as well as the above mentioned European Parliament elections- and UKIP is, most certainly, rascist, extreme right wing, and foreigner "baiting" (really, I think you meant "beating", as in physically).

Ries

Posted Sun, May 25, 4:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Democrats, for their part, are using race, gender and class as wedge issues in dangerous ways

Okay, I'll bite: what are those dangerous ways?

Calling out rich people who own companies that don't pay their fair share of taxes?

Calling out conservatives for the (apparently) racist and sexist comments (that they can't seem to stop themselves from making)?

I agree; it will interesting to see how it all shakes out. The keys are getting out the vote (see Latinos and young people) and finding issues that resonate with voters (and conservatives seem tone-deaf to many of those like climate change).

westello

Posted Mon, May 26, 9:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Which ever party puts people back to work, wins. Right now both parties suck when it comes to jobs. Wall Street is doing wonderful, which is great for those who have money to gamble with, but main street isn't doing great.

Puget Sound Central is going great guns for some people, but the low enders are trying to get $15/hour for a reason. The trouble is neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are doing what's best for the country, but instead are focused on retaining power. It's normal politics for both parties; lies, more lies, and elected liars.

Djinn

Posted Tue, May 27, 5:35 a.m. Inappropriate

So the party that has been running things around here for three decades is a big supporter of illegal aliens and sanctuary. If you want to talk about jobs and wages then you need to address the subject of illegal aliens. According to the PEW CENTER illegal aliens hold 5% of the jobs in Washington State. Their numbers continue to grow (Over 250,000 est. last census). Jobs are not just in AG related industries, they are in construction, hospitality, health care, child care, landscaping, food service. If you want wages to grow organically, shrink the labor pool to include only those legally allowed to work in this country. Stop the State issuing drivers licenses, food handling permits, pesticide applicators licenses..ect.

Cameron

Posted Tue, May 27, 11:14 a.m. Inappropriate

This past weekend's election results in Europe validated the fact that
populism and anti-establishmentarianism there have growing support---but not enough to gain close to a governing majority. That could come but we're nowhere close to it yet.

We should take care in forming conclusions about domestic politics.
Committed partisans, and true believers at the edges of each party, find moral superiority in the belief that their opponents are evil or extremist.

I'm a lifetime Democrat and will remain so but I have little illusion about the tactics employed by a Democratic White House and national campaign in the 2012 election and since. A Presidential election normally is a referendum on the incumbency. Democrats in 2012 had trouble on that basis with a weak economy and unpopular Obamacare. So they instead opted for a fear campaign in which moderate Mitt Romney and the GOP in general were depicted as enemies of women, minorities, and all but the wealthy. It worked, narrowly. The tactic is still being used as isolated statements by a Republican, here and there, are cited as proof of institutional GOP racism, sexism, or contempt for middle-income or poor Americans. westello apparently is among those buying into it.

Tea Partiers began as a protest movement against deep federal debt and deficits which they believed were being unaddressed. They were and are joined in that belief by many moderate Republicans, Democrats, and independents. They went over the edge, however, with anger and an unwillingness to embrace even modest concessions in getting to compromise solutions (not unlike followers of Ross Perot in 1991-2). You can ask House Speaker Boehner about that. They've driven him and other outcome-oriented Republicans up the wall. Now the TP's influence is receding within the Republican Party although its populist anger lives on. That does not make them racist, anti-woman, or pro-wealthy. It simply makes them rigid and unrealistic.

I'm of the generation which entered politics on behalf of civil rights and social justice. We did something about it with concrete legislation and reforms. A lot tougher than carelessly attaching a "racist" label to those with whom we disagree. By any measure racism has been reduced dramatically in the U.S. over the past 50 years. So has discrimination in general---as witness broad general support today for gay marriage. The Democratic Party historically has been the party of tolerance. It should not become the party of
intolerance, conformity, and McCarthyist attachment of labels not just to extremists but to other Americans who may disagree with current policy. We need positive debate about competing ideas. Not empty exchanges vilifying the other guy.

Posted Tue, May 27, 2:52 p.m. Inappropriate

"The Democratic Party historically has been the party of tolerance."

Sorry Ted but the Dems are very late to the party. Historically the Democrats have been the party of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and a whole host of social ills. If you want to turn the clock back thirty years or so, then you would be partially correct, go further and the slide into intolerance increases. Mind you, the Republicans aren't much better, but there isn't a Lincoln in the Democrats history garage or anybody even close.

Djinn

Posted Thu, May 29, 6:35 p.m. Inappropriate

The Southern (Baptist) Democrats of the Civil War/Jim Crow era are now all Republicans. The Northern Democrats (Catholic) and Northern Republicans (Protestant, heirs to the Abolitionist Movement) are now mostly Democrats. Many western Democrats were once moderate Republicans.

Posted Thu, May 29, 6:21 p.m. Inappropriate

But those "centrists" are being pulled far to the right - they might not at heart be as extreme as a card-carrying TP'er, but they're also a good deal less honest. While they're not likely to want to tear the government down, they're also not likely to join with Democrats to make essential reforms, in fear of being labeled "rhinos". Gridlock will continue until the electorate decides who they trust the most (or least).

Posted Sat, May 31, 9:04 a.m. Inappropriate

There are a number of things wrong with the perspective behind this article. One, it too glibly identifies "radical," and "populism" may have had a meaning much different in earlier decades than it does now. And its reference about immigration has a conditioned-reflex sense that it is always about race or religion, and not about the many lies that are now pervasive about enforcement and non-enforcement of immigration laws (Obama's stating he has performed unprecedented enforcement is a pure lie, and he has, done so while systematically undermined the very meaning of illegal immigration),and the writer is apparently unaware of the unsustainability involved in the past absorbing of millions per year plus the effort now in pushing to substantively exacerbate that by increasing both illegal and legal immigration. The writer might look into the many impacts this is having on our society, and recognize that money and power is behind the present immigration policy and that is not in tune with traditional business support of the Republican party. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports Obama's laughable "immigration reform" because it thinks unlimited growth is possible while also providing union-breaking cheap labor. But it is now faced with fact that immigration is also a huge contributor to poverty and that feeds into the push for a $15 an hour minimum wage that upsets the apple cart.

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