David Coates

Diluting the Tea Party: The Importance of Supping With a Long Spoon


Elections happen very quickly when they come, but they are not won, or indeed lost, simply in the moment of voting. Winning and losing elections is the business of the space between elections. We are in such a space now; and if we are not careful, the business we are now in will prove to be the business of losing.

Why? Because progressive forces in the United States currently face an unusually coherent and assertive conservative opposition – one that cannot readily be pushed back by politics as usual. It can only be restrained by the assertion of an equally cohesive and assertive liberalism. We do not live in an age of consensus. We live in an age of profound ideological disagreement. The kind of conservatism currently on offer in Washington DC is built upon a qualitatively different view of the role of government to that prevalent in liberal circles. Because it is, the arrival of so many Tea Party-influenced Republicans in Congress precludes any possibility of meaningful bipartisan politics there. Meaningful bipartisanship is not possible between competing ideological positions because what is at stake in the conversation between them is not just the detail of policy. What is at stake is the entire relationship between the public and the private in America’s future. The way to win the progressive case in the context of ideological differences of this sharpness is not to deny the fundamental disagreements in play. It is to make a more powerful case than that of our conservative opponents, the better to win genuine and large-scale support for the creation of a future that we think worth winning.

Ideas and framing are therefore critical at such moments of ideological rancor, as the more intelligent of our political opponents know only too well. This month’s offerings from the Conservative Book Club, for example, includes three new attempts at a right-wing framing of the problems and politics currently before us:  a new volume by Mike Huckabee entitled A Simple Government; one from Thomas E. Wood Jr., Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before The Coming Fiscal Crisis; and a third from Rand Paul, The Tea Party Goes to Washington.[1] In each of them, the conventional wisdom of the conservative rank and file are everywhere center-stage: that federal spending is the single major source of our problems, rather than a crucial part of any civilized solution to them; that federal spending is too high, and that it and taxes must be cut; that public sector unions are holding the states to ransom and must be brought to heal; that Social Security must be pruned back and health care reform reversed; that the federal reserve system should be abolished, and that an older Constitutional balance between states and the federal government must be restored.

Conventional wisdom of this kind, so extensively canvassed by a richly-supported conservative media machine, must inevitably become the dominant understandings of the day unless they are challenged with equal potency by a conventional wisdom of the Left. Indeed they are rapidly becoming the conventional wisdoms of the day. E.J. Dionne is quite right: for all the fun poked at them by liberal commentators, the reality on the ground is that “the Tea Party is winning” command of the political agenda, and that more progressive voices, not least that of the President, are currently “in danger of losing control of the national narrative again.”[2] Given the imbalance of resources between conservative and liberal causes in this country, that loss of control is always a potential reality. Progressive forces in this country lack a well-funded dissemination machine to match that supplied by the Koch brothers and their kind; but progressives are not powerless. On the contrary, their voices are a powerful presence in the heart of the capital. Liberals do still have a minority presence in the House, a slim formal majority in the Senate, and a President in control of the White House bully pulpit. Given the loss of control of the House, and the number of closet conservatives among Senate Democrats, the last of these is particularly critical in this battle of ideas. For when the President speaks, the nation listens. Both what he says and what he does not say, what framework of policy problems he articulates and what principles he brings to government, all these are heard in the wider electorate – and all help to shape popular consciousness there. Limbaugh, Beck, Boehner, Ryan, Huckabee, Paul …their voices are strident and their underlying message is clear and consistent. Government is the problem. Government must be cut. The President is also heard, but is his message equally clear and consistent? No, sadly at the moment it is not.

For in the strategic vision apparently still prevalent in the current White House, the pursuit of bipartisanship remains fully in play. So too does the associated belief that the crucial center ground of American electoral politics can be won back, not by the clear magnetic pull of well-articulated liberal refutations of Tea Party nonsense, but by the endless (and ultimately fruitless) pursuit of bipartisan agreement on individual policy details. Tacking to the right in pursuit of the center may seem the “statesmanlike” thing to do. It may seem “presidential” rather than “partisan”; but it is ultimately self-defeating for the politics of the center-left. The Administration would do well to remember the old adage about using a long spoon to sup with the devil.[3] The President’s endless pursuit of points of agreement with opponents who are set on his political destruction allows the ideological formations of the extreme right to frame the public conversation between them, and to define the terrain upon which any bipartisan deals are now to be struck. The pursuit of agreement across the ideological chasm misses the opportunity to clarify the underlying value-choice that is perennially at stake; and it opens the door to the arrival in the White House in 2012 of a genuinely conservative president who will be less interested in bipartisanship than in power. Currently the Right is talking philosophy and principles while the Administration is talking bipartisanship and negotiations. The only principles being articulated with any visibility and force in Washington DC these days are conservative ones; and in electoral politics, clearly-articulated principles invariably stump grubby back-room deals every time the two clash.

There was a brief moment late in 2008 when the Democratic Party commanded the narrative of American politics, when deregulation was discredited and Wall Street greed was universally condemned. That moment has been allowed to pass.[4] The dominant narratives swirling around us now are once more conservative ones, which is why this is no time to fudge the liberal counter-argument – why this is the time to replace defense with offense, time to win the narrative back:  the narrative that runs from FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to the unfinished business of the American social revolution. It is time to push back against the rising tide of Tea Party conservatism by arguing the principles, supporting the candidates, designing the programs, rebutting the critics, implementing the policies, that together can yet win for our children and grandchildren a better and a stronger America than the bleak and social divided alternative that the conservatives  currently have on offer.[5] It is time to articulate liberal principles again, and to do so with confidence and force. It is time, because time is rapidly running out; it is time, because the America that will emerge if liberalism does not prevail is an America that is simply too awful to contemplate.[6]


[1] Published by, respectively, Penguin Group (USA), Regnery Publishing Inc., and Center Street.

[2] E. J. Dionne, “The Tea Party is Winning,” The Washington Post, February 21, 2011.

[3] He must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil.—What tell’st thou me of supping? [1590 Shakespeare Comedy of Errors iv. iii. 59]

[4] “Alas, though, instead of making nation-building in America his overarching narrative and then fitting health care, energy, educational reform, infrastructure, competitiveness and deficit reduction under that rubric, the president has pursued each separately. This made each initiative appear to be just some stand-alone liberal obsession to pay off a Democratic constituency – not an essential ingredient of a nation-building strategy – and, therefore, they have proved to be easily obstructed, picked off or delegitimized by opponents and lobbyists.” (Thomas Friedman, “The Fat Lady Has Sung,The New York Times, February 21, 2010)

[5] This, from chapter 6 of Making the Progressive Case, New York: Continuum Books, 2011 forthcoming.

[6] David Smith put it this way. If “conservatives regain full power in 2012, hang on to your hats. If you liked the Panic of 2008, you’re going to love the return to crony capitalism, corporations run wild, widening gap between rich and poor, systemic deficits, financial instability economic calamity and endless war. Reports of the death of liberalism will prove to be ‘highly exaggerated’ when middle-class conservatives finally wake up to the fact that they are being played for dupes, tricked into voting against their own best interests by the rich and powerful elites selling snake oil in the guise of high-minded principles like ‘free enterprise,’ ‘personal freedom,’ and ‘fiscal responsibility’ while delivering precisely the opposite.”  (Conservatives Ruined the Economy and Now They’re Blaming Liberalism, posted on Alternet.org January 18, 2011: available at http://www/alternet.org/story/149574)

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

2 Responses to “Diluting the Tea Party: The Importance of Supping With a Long Spoon”

  1. Gerry Watson says:

    The situation so well summarized, and absolutely bang on. Thanks for saying it so well

  2. Danika Szeredy says:

    Useful stuff as per usual, ty. I certainly hope this kind of thing gets more exposure.

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