Thursday, March 4, 2010

Useful Idiots or Dangerous Fools?

The NYT has a profile of the first Tea Party activist, and it's quite illuminating:
SEATTLE — Keli Carender has a pierced nose, performs improv on weekends and lives here in a neighborhood with more Mexican grocers than coffeehouses. You might mistake her for the kind of young person whose vote powered President Obama to the White House. You probably would not think of her as a Tea Party type. 
Apparently, having a pierced nose is now some sort of liberal marker. Also, living in a neighborhood that doesn't have coffeehouses makes it likely you are not a liberal. I have to admit, I'm a little confused. If you're going to use stereotypes, then you should at least know what the prevailing stereotypes are.
But leaders of the Tea Party movement credit her with being the first. 
A year ago, frustrated that every time she called her senators to urge them to vote against the $787 billion stimulus bill their mailboxes were full, and tired of wearing out the ear of her Obama-voting fiancé, Ms. Carender decided to hold a protest against what she called the “porkulus.” 
And here is the first sign of ignorance. Making up names for policies, positions, or people that just sound bad is a hallmark of, well, kindergarten reasoning. It's also a hallmark of conservative (ignorant) politics, because it's a way of showing disapproval for something which you do not understand well enough to oppose on factual grounds. "Porkulus", of course, was coined by Rush Limbaugh.

If someone asks you to explain your opposition to the stimulus bill, and you don't know anything about Keynesian economics, or what an output gap is, you can just say "porkulus" over and over again. And your uncurious and similarly ignorant friends will laugh and think to themselves "Wow! She's so clever! 'Pork' and 'Stimulus' put together make a funny sounding word! I don't really know what a stimulus is, but I think in politics pork is bad, so this must be bad! Plus, she has a pierced nose, so she's cool and edgy!" And as childish as that sounds, it works.

Debating the pros and cons of policy decisions is hard work, you see. It much easier to just call health care reform "Obamacare" then to actually discuss a piece of legislation that you know nothing about, other than the fact that it will set up "Death Panels."

The Times notes that many Tea Party activists are new to politics, and have never voted before. Are these people in any way qualified to say anything intelligent about what is going on in the world around them? At the risk of sounding like a condescending liberal, these people don't even know enough to realize they don't know anything.
The daughter of Democrats who became disaffected in the Clinton years, Ms. Carender, 30, began paying attention to politics during the 2008 campaign, but none of the candidates appealed to her. She had studied math at Western Washington University before earning a teaching certificate at Oxford — she teaches basic math to adult learners — and began reading more on economics, particularly the writings of Thomas Sowell, the libertarian economist, and National Review. 
Here is a perfect example. She became interested in politics less than two years ago. Her introduction to political economy came by way of Thomas Sowell, a libertarian economist whose free-market theories have been thoroughly discredited by real world experiences, and National Review. Has she ever read anything else? Has she ever bothered to understand the arguments made by either Sowell or NR? The answer is no, because it is simply not possible to understand and/or judge the validity of an economic theory less than two years after making the startling discovery that we live in a participatory democracy.

Reading about the stimulus, she said, “it didn’t make any sense to me to be spending all this money when we don’t have it.

She should have just stopped at "It didn't make any sense to me." Because the second half of that statement demonstrates a thorough lack of even basic familiarity with the concepts involved.
“It seems more logical to me that we create an atmosphere where private industry can start to grow again and create jobs,” she said. 
"And even though I know nothing about this issue, I'm going to take this talking point that 'seems' logical and start a national movement that advocates against a policy that I don't even begin to understand."
Ms. Carender is less certain when it comes to explaining, for instance, how to cut the deficit without cutting Medicaid and Medicare. 
“Well,” she said, thinking for a long time and then sighing. “Let’s see. Some days I’m very Randian. I feel like there shouldn’t be any of those programs, that it should all be charitable organizations. Sometimes I think, well, maybe it really should be just state, and there should be no federal part in it at all. I bounce around in my solutions to the problem.” 
So one day she thinks we should live in an anarcho-capitalist state where the strong devour the weak, and the next she thinks government should handle all health care - just not the federal government. The incoherence is breathtaking.

Here she is on Sarah Palin. "She will have to campaign on Tea Party ideas if she wants Tea Party support. And if she were elected, she’d have to govern on those principles or be fired.”

What principles? One moment she's daring government to tax her to pay for someone else's health care, the next she's worried about cutting Medicare.

Look, I'm not trying to pick on Carender, who I'm sure is a very nice woman. But the last thing we need here are more useful idiots. This is what I'd like to tell her: I know that the spotlight is great, and I realize that you want to do something, but please go away for a while and learn something about the issues you say you care about.

I realize that all Tea Party people don't think alike. But if there's one thing that stands out when thye are interviewed is their complete ignorance of the way the world around them works.

This doesn't mean they're evil, of course. But people like this are profoundly uncurious, and are more interested in having some sort of narrative to hang their hats on. And the reason that they gravitate towards right-wing or libertarian economics and politics is because the the hallmark of those theories is simplicity. And simplicity appeals to people who just want a narrative right now, and don't have the time, patience, ability, and/or desire to actually try to find out the truth.

It wil be interesting to see whether people like Carender are curious enough about the contradictions in their positions to explore them further. Will their anger at bank bailouts push them to discover the truth about class warfare? Will this in turn lead them to question their free-market ideology? Will a curiosity about Medicare inefficiency lead them to learn more about how health care markets work, both here and in other countries? Will their anger at "porkulus" lead them to gain a rudimentary understanding of Keynesian economics?

I think for the most part the answer is no. People who haven't taken the time to learn anything about these issues until now are probably just not naturally curious, and will probably always be susceptible to simplistic, but wrong ideas. They will be the useful idiots that the Republican party needs.

Our best and only hope may well be to introduce doubt at every opportunity.

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