By now everybody in the blogosphere has surely seen the clip from Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect show in which Christine O’Donnell, the Republican, aka Tea Party, senate candidate from Delaware admits that she “dabbled in witchcraft” when she was younger. You’d think that that would be enough to sink the candidacy of someone who pays the rent on her apartment with campaign contributions. Indeed, in one recent poll, her opponent, Chris Coons, was leading by 54% to 39%, with a margin of error of 3%. If she does lose by a double-digit margin, her defeat will have major implications in 2012 for Republicans in general, and her mentor Sarah Palin in particular.
But to talk about Christine O’Donnell and the other Tea Partiers as symptoms of voter anger, as a matter of philosophical differences between left and right in American politics, is to refuse to see the big picture. It is to do what O’Donnell herself did when she canceled appearances on the national talk shows. She did so because, she said, her focus was “on Delaware,” as though Delaware and the Senate to which she aspires were not connected to big-time politics.
Fortunately, we don’t have to do any research to understand the big picture, to make the connection between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Journalist Jane Mayer has done that for us in her recent New Yorker article, “Covert Operations,” subheaded “The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama.” In it she shows in compelling detail that two billionaire brothers from Wichita, David and Charles Koch, are funding many of the Tea Party’s organizations and candidates. Mayer describes the situation with irrefutable documentation, and what she says is beyond serious dispute. The question is, what does the subsidizing of the Tea Party by a couple of billionaires mean? How can we make what seems like an unlikely connection between Christine O’Donnell’s alleged “focus on Delaware” and the Koch brothers’ enormous fortunes?
We will never answer this question in any satisfactory way if we take political ideology seriously, whether it’s the ideology of O’Donnell (if any), or that of the Koch brothers (libertarian). It’s all much, much simpler than that.
At this critical moment, when the future of American politics could tip either way, we would do well to take Deep Throat’s advice. Remember that great scene in the creepy parking garage from All the President’s Men? In it, Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat confronts Robert Redford as Bob Woodward. Deep Throat stands behind a concrete pillar and says, “Follow the money.” Woodward and Bernstein took Deep Throat’s advice; they followed the money, and the rest is history. After all, this is America, and money talks. So what new understanding do we get when we take Deep Throat’s advice and follow the money in 2010?
We get a new understanding of coded phrases, that’s what we get. In the past, Republicans used phrases like “law and order” to appeal to their constituents by covert means. Today the phrase that’s the equivalent of law and order is “small government.” Republicans in general, and Tea Partiers in particular, proclaim to all and sundry that they are against “big government.”
An indicative example of this, which gave the game away, was the objection of some Republicans to the health care reform bill; they said it was “too long.” As though this immensely complicated matter could be presented as a page or two of bullet points. The real objection of people who said this was that the bill was a boring read. What they were saying is that the health care reform bill lacked drama, the drama of sporting events and movies, the drama that pits good guys against bad guys.
When the Tea Partiers object to “big government,” what they are really objecting to is the inevitably tedious process of government: the position papers, the committee meetings, the political horse-trading, and all the rest of the humdrum business that fills up politicians’ time. They believe that political relationships should be like the relationships that they are most familiar with, the relationships among friends and families. These are the relationships that make sense to them, yet the media keep reminding them that the world outside those relationships remains complicated, puzzling, and threatening. No wonder that the Tea Partiers are so unhappy. Enter the Koch brothers.
The Koch brothers believe in small government, too, so it’s in their interests to subsidize groups and candidates who also advocate small government. Only, for the Koch brothers, small government doesn’t mean cozy relationships among those near and dear to them. For the Koch brothers, small government means tax breaks and the easing of regulations on their various polluting companies. If you were a greedy, amoral billionaire, you’d be for small government, too.
The big picture, then, is that the phrase small government means radically different things to the Tea Partiers on one hand, and their patrons, the Koch brothers, on the other. This unnoticed difference has allowed the Koch brothers to bewitch even Tea Partiers who have never dabbled into other forms of witchcraft besides libertarianism to do their bidding. For Christine O’Donnell, the transition from witchcraft to Tea Partyism must have been an easy and natural one.
If we look at the even bigger picture, we notice that this specific dynamic has happened before in American politics. Sociologist Todd Gitlin’s 1980 book, The Whole World Is Watching provides a key example. Gitlin shows how media coverage of the New Left in the sixties made the movement understandable to middle class Americans by casting its leaders as celebrities. The media coverage that turned the leaders of the New Left into celebrities also estranged them from their followers, and thereby greatly weakened the movement as a whole. Sarah Palin’s rise to fame and fortune offers an instructive contemporary analogy.
Unlike the Tea Partiers, the New Left had no sugar daddies like the Koch brothers; still, the similarities are striking and instructive. In the case of both the New Left and the Tea Partiers, a group of people with no political experience who are agitated about social issues create a movement based on shared ideals and personal relationships. The movement attracts media coverage as it gains supporters, and that media coverage fundamentally transforms it. Of course, the history of the Tea Party differs from that of the New Left in that the Koch brothers’ subsidy system preceded the movement as such, but the pervasive similarities remain.
And there’s another, more general analogy, because Christine O’Donnell and the other Tea Partiers who are serving as willing tools for the Koch brothers are more the norm than the exception. As a matter of fact, if we consider the political history of the world over the last hundred years, without regard to slogans and ideologies, we find that this same process occurs over and over again. For a long time now, powerful men (Sarah Palin is a rare exception) have been seizing upon the fears and anxieties of ordinary people. They have been offering them comforting solutions to complicated problems in the form of marketing slogans. These marketing slogans have made people feel so good that they have willingly given their time and energy to work for the cause. Yet no matter what phrases or code words are employed, their ultimate purpose is, and always has been, to make rich men richer and powerful men more powerful.
The thing to remember in this political season is that money and power are addictive, more addictive than crack cocaine. The Koch brothers have an enormous amount of money, and they have the power that enormous amounts of money give you in America. But just as cocaine addicts will never have enough cocaine, the Koch brothers will never have enough money and power. So their willing tools, the Tea Partiers, are doing their best to provide them with more of both. Unfortunately for the Koch brothers, a political train wreck like Christine O’Donnell may not deliver for them.
But there’s always another election cycle, and there are always more frightened, confused people for the Kochs to take advantage of.