Full text of Senator Schumer's Remarks:
Remarks by Sen. Charles Schumer, as prepared for delivery:
I come before you today to address a question that has befuddled Democrats and most Americans since 2009: Why does the Tea Party, a group that seems to represent a small but extreme part of America, have such undue power, which, all too often, results in a stranglehold over our politics and policies?
Ever since its rise in 2009, the Tea Party’s influence has been undeniable. They’ve won elections, stymied Democratic priorities and taken a sledgehammer to programs that are important to tens of millions of Americans.
That sledgehammer approach has had a devastating effect on domestic investments like scientific research, education, and infrastructure.
And that’s only the beginning of their influence. Voting rights are being rolled back even though most Americans don’t support the changes. The Senate-passed immigration law was overwhelmingly supported by most Americans but it has been stonewalled thus far in the House. The Tea Party shut down the government in October and has blocked infrastructure bills that previously enjoyed bipartisan support. What gives this group such undue power?
The ascendency of the Tea Party can partially be explained through structural factors. The capacity of a select few to quickly spend millions of dollars on 501(c)(4)s, the ability of legislatures to gerrymander with reckless abandon, the power of a message machine led by Fox News, the Drudge Report and the Rush Limbaughs that can broadcast the same exaggerated and even false messages instantaneously all are the means that the Tea Party has used to gain ascendency.
Each of these are important, but the fundamental power of the Tea Party rests on a little explored and ultimately false premise that can be exploited to greatly weaken its power.
The Tea Party elites - with little rebuttal - have been able to make “government” the boogeyman. They have convinced too much of America that government is the explanation for their ills. Even though most Americans and even most Tea Party adherents like much of what the government does, the Tea Party elites proclaim that everything that is wrong, even non-economic and private sector problems, can be blamed on the government.
Their mantra “dramatically shrink government and our problems will end” is the fundamentally false, but not effectively challenged premise, that is the core weakness of the Tea Party, and one we can exploit to turn American politics around to the benefit of our nation.
The Tea Party fuse was lit by reactions to two events: the backlash against the emergency policy of bank rescue to avoid financial collapse and the backlash against election of Barack Obama, a Democrat, as President. The compounding friction of these two events caused the spark that ignited the Tea Party torch.
But the underlying unrest that allowed the movement to ascend can be found in economic as well as cultural and social forces that, in combination, have greatly unsettled the American psyche.
The first and most important force is a phenomenon that Democrats have recently begun to address: the decline in middle-class incomes.
Everyone knows middle class incomes are declining. It has been happening for decades, but the
issue has received greater attention in recent years because the Tea Party’s intransigence has
prevented all efforts to reverse the trend.
Elizabeth Warren, while still a professor at Harvard, was one of the first to sound the alarm bell on this issue and give it the attention it deserved. She showed that the decline in median income actually started during the years 2001-2007 - before the recession and at a time generally regarded as prosperous. This phenomenon was masked by the fact that average incomes were rising.
If you remember your high school mathematics you’ll recall the difference between mean and median. If you made $10 million dollars in 2001 and $20 million in 2007 you’d bring the national income average up but you wouldn’t affect the median income at all. The national average can be raised by a lucky few, but the median doesn’t lie.
So it’s time we deal with the reality that - for the first time in American history -middle-class American incomes have declined for almost a generation.
The effect of that decline is remarkable. Consider the fact that, since 2001, the median income has dropped at least 10%, an astoundingly large amount.
If you’re a family trying to put food on the table and save some money for the kids’ college, and
maybe put some away for one modest vacation each year, that drop can be devastating.
Optimism, growth, hard work and shared prosperity are bedrock American beliefs, but when middle class incomes decline over a period of time it changes the American psyche and character.
There is a statue in the harbor of the city I represent, a beautiful lady holding a torch. The torch represents the American dream. And if you ask average Americans what the American dream means to them, they wouldn’t put it in fancy textbook language or academic terms. They’d say, “It means if I work hard I’ll be doing better in 10 years than I’m doing today, and the odds are even higher my
kids will be doing better than me.”
However, if that light flickers or the torch is no longer lit, we become a different more sour America.
In their hearts, Americans are a naturally optimistic people. Optimism is woven into the very fabric of our sense of who we are as a people, the core belief in the exceptionalism of our society and the unique role our nation plays in the world.
And Americans are not a jealous people. They don’t mind if incomes of people at the top go up 20% as long as theirs go up 3-4%
This is different than most countries. Felix Rohatyn, the famous New York banker who spent much of his youth in France, once articulated to me the difference between the American character and the French character. To paraphrase Felix, In America, when Joe Bailey, a typical American, wins the lottery, the average American says "Hey that’s great! Joe and his family are set for life."
But when Pierre DuPont, the typical Frenchman, wins the lottery, the average Frenchman says,
"That Pierre he doesn’t deserve that. I should have won."?Americans don’t begrudge the successful, but they do expect to share in the prosperity.
So if middle class incomes continue to decline, we will have a dramatically different America, a less
optimistic, more sour America.
A recent news story I read quoted a college student as saying the American Dream was not having a crushing debt load at some point in the future. It took my breath away: If the American Dream is being defined down so that treading water is success, then we have a very serious problem.
The second deep-seated force that fueled the emergence of the Tea Party is the rapid pace of change in America’s cultural, technological and demographic makeup.
These changes have created an eye-popping revolution in our social construct, which in turn has fostered deep-rooted uncertainty: globalization, deindustrialization, and automation; the collapse of private sector unionization; massive demographic changes; shifting public and entertainment values and mores; and the exhilarating, yet terrifying, innovation of the information age, to name but a few.
This reaction against social and cultural changes isn’t new to us. Edward Shils, a professor from the
University of Chicago, wrote about the Temperance Movement identifying that it was about much more than abolishing liquor.
In the 1880s the U.S. was a rural country and people were on farms and small towns living a clean, God-fearing life. By 1920, America had been urbanized and diversified because of manufacturing, immigration, and so many other forces. And the cities were a totally different way of life with slums, bars and dance clubs, emerging suburbs and country clubs.
Prohibition was not simply about abolishing alcohol; it was an attempt by rural Americans to pull their country back to a Jeffersonian agricultural ideal that was being rapidly replaced by a new cultural and economic order.
Today, we see the Tea Party doing much of the same thing.?Tea Party adherents see an America that's not reflective of themselves, and the America they have
known, and they just don’t like it.
Just consider the changes in the past few decades. Technologically, our world is absolutely unrecognizable to the world when Reagan entered the White House – what some have labeled, “The Second Machine Age” – a transformation of work, leisure and life that is every bit as profound and far reaching as the Industrial Revolution.
The distribution of power is changing. Women are still under-represented but far, far better- represented in both the House and the Senate; an African-American sits in the Oval Office and more Latinos are running for office than ever before.
Mores and values are changing: marriage equality has gone from anathema to accepted in state- after-state in record time.
Yes, things have changed. White Anglo-Saxon men are not exclusively running the country anymore. President Obama lost the white male vote 35%-62%, yet he recaptured the presidency – by 5 million votes and a resounding Electoral College margin. And more profoundly, only 1 in 10 GOP voters were non-white.
The truth is America is ever-changing and that’s a tribute to the foresight of our forefathers. They anticipated our evolution and they created a political system through which we could harness it and best put it to use.
But this fear of a changing America helps explain why a faction that was ostensibly founded on the principle of reducing the deficit and spurring free market entrepreneurial growth has had such a hold on the many who actually believe in government programs like Medicare, infrastructure building, pensions and making it easier to pay for college.
It also explains why so many on the right vehemently opposed the Senate immigration bill, a bill that actually embodies many conservative, non-governmental principals: reducing our deficit by billions, growing our economy, creating jobs and spurring new entrepreneurial activity. In a pre-Tea Party world, the Senate immigration bill would have been welcomed by House Republicans.
However, the Tea Party rank and file know it's a different America. It looks different; it prays different; it works different. This is unsettling and angering to some.
So, in parts of America, the powder keg was ripe to explode, and the Tea Party elites decided to light the fuse.
Those elites recognized that people were angry and frustrated and they proffered government as the
reason, the cause, of people’s frustration and anger. They proposed a simple remedy: greatly shrink
or even eliminate government and your problems would vanish.
Just as the temperance movement at the turn of the last century convinced its millions of followers that if you simply got rid of alcohol, America would almost magically revert back to the American they preferred, the Tea Party elite have manipulated their millions of grassroots followers to believe the same about government at this moment in time.
Unfortunately, we Democrats really didn’t have much of an antidote to this quack medicine;? we let
the argument go basically unchallenged. It was an ingenious, well-executed plan.
Here’s an example: somehow the Tea Party elite managed to switch cause and effect of the financial
crisis. The deficit, which was caused by Republican policy decisions to not pay for two wars, a Medicare prescription drug bill and regressive tax cuts, and the necessary and emergency policy responses by both President Bush and Obama – became the cause of the Financial Meltdown, not the result.
And they said, if the deficit is the problem that caused all our financial and economic troubles, the only solution can be to dramatically slash government across the board. Almost every government program or approach is evil.
It was a superficial but very believable theory with an easy scapegoat: those Washington politicians and bureaucrats who created all this government to benefit themselves are to blame for all of your ills and anxieties.
It allowed the Tea Party to fill the vacuum and capture the anger that was bubbling in the land. Democrats and most of America didn’t respond forcefully to their argument. We were otherwise occupied and let this premise take deep hold, virtually unanswered.
In late 2008 and 2009, we were busy fighting economic collapse, both with the financial rescue and the stimulus. The average American didn’t really understand what was happening. And, frankly, we Democrats didn’t do a good enough job explaining the nature, causes, severity of the financial crisis. Neither did we explain how the stimulus and government spending would help ameliorate the problem. Instead, we let the Right focus on a few isolated instances of misspending, like a shaky solar company or highway signs, less than one percent of the stimulus bill to make the stimulus seem like a big waste of money.
In another example, we let them blame Fannie and Freddie for the housing bubble, when it really was the private sector banks and financial services that led the charge. Fannie and Freddie merely followed, but they managed to blame Fannie and Freddie for the crisis.
Additionally, after we addressed the financial crisis, we turned our attention towards healthcare
reform instead of the growing problem of income inequality. It was a worthy goal but it wasn’t at the top of most Americans’ to-do lists. It’s not that they were against reforming our healthcare system, but for the 90% who had employer sponsored health care or government healthcare- Medicare or Medicaid, it seemed beside the point.
Their income and their lives were declining. Healthcare didn’t address most of their immediate issues;? they weren’t focused on it because they weren’t unhappy with the health care they had.
And while we were carefully crafting a healthcare bill that would ultimately reduce costs and improve healthcare in America, we allowed them to capture the negative. False scares of: “you’ll lose your Medicare or you’ll lose your employer-based healthcare if Obamacare passes,” combined with the message: “healthcare = more government = disaster” predominated.
Finally, and most importantly, there was no effective defense of government. When the Tea Party
elite came in and said “government is your problem”, we didn’t say: “No, it isn’t. It’s part of your solution.”
Instead we accepted too easily the primacy of the deficit. Yes, we would cut less drastically, but we agreed the deficit was the number one problem. In reality, while deficits were indeed important, and the Tea Party deserves good credit for its focus, the decrease in middle class incomes was the number one problem facing America.
The American people became frustrated, sour and angry and the Tea Party leadership, an elite group, unchallenged, tapped into that anger with their Pied Piper solution.
However there is a glaring weakness, one very weak link in the Tea Party’s armor, which is an inherent contradiction within the Tea Party that I believe can be exposed to greatly weaken their hold on the policy debate.
The fundamental weakness in the Tea Party machine is the stark difference between what the leaders of the Tea Party elite, plutocrats like the Koch Brothers, want and what the average grassroots Tea Party follower wants.
To the plutocrats and their allies, government is the enemy. These people are wealthy, hard right, selfish, narrow;? people who don’t want to pay taxes and don’t want government interfering with their companies no matter what damage their companies may do to their workers, to the environment or to anybody else.
These are people who say “I created my business all by myself, how dare your government tell me what to do with it; I made my money all by myself, how dare your government try to take that away in taxes.” To them government is truly the enemy. Take government away, there will be less taxes, less regulation and they, though certainly not America, will benefit.
Of course the plutocrats and their friends never acknowledge where government helped them. Government paved the roads and built the railroads and airports so they can ship their products. Government educated the workers that make their companies run and purchase their products.
Government protected their rule of law and protected their physical and intellectual property so they could profit from their products. However, in their almost fanatical desire to reduce taxes and regulation on their companies, they ignore those facts.
I’m not saying they didn’t build it. I’m saying they were able to build it because the society in which
they operated was designed to foster such an entrepreneurial spirit. That fact is lost on the Tea Party elite.
Over the years, they built a powerful and successful message machine that amplified and sold this antigovernment theory to their followers and to many other Americans. The Rush Limbaughs and the Fox Newses agree with the plutocrats and spread their propaganda to the masses. Their message machine spends virtually all its time – not in delivering objective news – but in tearing down government.
They spend countless hours magnifying the smallest of government foibles and virtually no time recounting any government successes.
They blame the failures of society on government, often with convoluted but convincing illogic.
This message machine and the spin masters were ready to pounce in 2009 to channel the anger of average Americans into a philosophy which painted government as the root of their problems and anxieties and the dramatic reduction of government as the solution to their ills.
Fed by their message machine, the word government quickly became the shibboleth for everything
that Tea Party grassrooters and many other Americans didn’t like, regardless of whether
government was responsible for those problems.
The very real social and economic anxiety was the petri dish in which the Tea Party elite could let
their message grow and mature, and they directed the public’s anxiety and anger at their favorite
boogeyman: government.?They gave people a phony explanation for why their incomes were declining, why good paying jobs
were dwindling, why society was changing and they called it all “government.”
Technology and globalization are largely private sector phenomena that most economists agree are the foremost reasons for the decline of manufacturing jobs. But Tea Party leaders managed to convince their followers that government regulation of companies was the main cause.
The internet, again a largely private sector enterprise, allows kids to see and interact with all kinds of people and things their parents might not approve of, but the Tea Party leaders convinced the grassroots that government permissiveness was to blame.
The list could go on and on. They framed the debate: government was the problem and shrinking it was the solution.
The fundamental contradiction here is not only that government didn’t cause many of the problems, but that the average citizen and even the average Tea Party member likes and wants to retain most of what government does, especially when it is broken down into its component parts. The average Tea Party member, like the average American, likes government run Medicare, likes government built highways, and likes government support for education, both higher and lower.
I came to realize this while engaging the Tea Party members who would routinely come to picket my events during the Healthcare debate. I’d approach them and immediately someone would shout: “Get your government’s hands out of my pockets!” If it was an elderly person who said this, I would ask what kind of health care they had and often they’d shoot back “Medicare - don’t you touch it.”
Or if they simply said “Medicare” I’d ask them what they thought of it. They would inevitably say they wanted to keep it as it was. “Don’t let Obamacare touch it.”
The fundamental and stark contradiction between the Tea Party elite and their followers really hit home for me a few months ago at an event on southern Staten Island in a working class, blue collar and very Republican community. I was at a sidewalk event talking about prescription drug abuse with other legislators, Democrat and Republican, and a group came there to heckle us.
The heckling was led by one very angry and very impolite gentleman. He kept interrupting us using all the standard Rush Limbaugh talking points:
“Your government is wasting our money! What are you doing about the Obama Phones? How are your friends the trial lawyers?” He was quite agitated and his band of followers were nodding in agreement at his every word. So I finally said to him please let us finish and then I’ll sit down and talk about what’s really bothering you.
When we first sat down I asked him “Do you like Medicare?” He answered: “Yeah I like Medicare I don’t think you should change that.” And then he went on about how bad Obamacare was and that it would ruin Medicare. I asked him if he had ever personally encountered or even talked to a trial lawyer;? he said no. Then I explained to him the myth of Obama phones. He said “I don’t believe you; I read it in the newspapers and heard it on TV.” It was very clear he was just mouthing the Tea Party/Rush Limbaugh talking points.
So finally I said to him “what’s really bugging you?” and he said, “I am a retired state prison guard and you guys – meaning the government - just cut my benefits. That really makes me angry.”
Amazing! Here was a gentleman who had spent his career as a public servant in a good government job with a good government pension -which, by the way, he thought wasn’t generous enough - and here he was on the front line of the government haters. I tried to explain to him that if the Tea Party, the plutocrats and Rush Limbaugh had their way he might not have had his government job and he almost certainly wouldn’t have had his government pension.
He said, “Oh that’s a lot of left wing propaganda,” and walked away. But it dawned on me: he wasn’t angry because government was doing too little. He was angry because government wasn’t doing enough for him. He actually wanted a stronger government, not a weaker one.
That conversation is probably replicated one way or another across the country many times each day; it embodies the fundamental contradiction of the Tea Party.
When anger and angst sweep across the country, when incomes decline and society rapidly changes – there are two ways Americans can go.
They can turn towards negative, divisive and ultimately unfulfilling politics like those practiced by the Tea Party. Or they can come together and find solutions that actually solve their problems which inevitably involve an effective government.
The former is the route of the Know-Nothings, Prohibitionists, Father Coughlins and the Huey Longs, towards anger, negativity and even hatred. The latter is the route of the Lincolns, the Wilsons, the Roosevelts and the Clintons, eras that prospered because people appreciated and sought constructive solutions that inevitably involved government.
It is up to us to aggressively pave the way so people will take the later, constructive route. It is up to
us to channel people’s often justifiable anger at solutions that will actually work and improve their
lives. It is up to us to answer the Tea Party and expose its fundamental contradictions that government is not always the problem and is often the solution to middle class woes.
We have not taken the anger and directed it constructively as well as Roosevelt, Truman or Clinton did, and that’s what we have to do.
Here are 4 ways to make that happen:
First, we must stop playing defense and go on offense when it comes to the need for government. We must state loudly and repeatedly that we believe government is often a necessary force for good.
If there is one thing that unites Democrats, from the most liberal to the most moderate, it is that we
believe government is a necessary and irreplaceable force for improving people’s lot in life.
Since the progressive and populist eras, Democrats have believed that without a strong, smart, and forceful government, the people suffer. With government, society can advance.
Republicans generally believe the opposite. But since the days of Ronald Reagan, we have been quiet, defensive, and even ashamed of our view.
Bill Clinton, for instance, clearly believed in an active government and loved new government policies and programs he could create and enact, but he felt compelled in 1996 to state that the era of big government is over.
In the last several years, Democrats joined Republicans in allowing deficit reduction – the shrinking of government – to be our number one fiscal, and even overall, issue.
We didn’t want to shrink government as much and as broadly as Republicans did, but we certainly
agreed it should shrink.
But the times are now ripe for a renewed and robust defense of government. For the near future, the deficit has been, in good part, tamed.
Ben Bernanke, no flaming liberal, estimates the ratio of deficit to GDP will actually decline over the next five years, even if the current fiscal policies remain in place.
This has happened primarily because of cuts in government already made, and Obamacare’s partial
success in curbing the rate of the skyrocketing growth in health care costs.
More importantly, the decline in middle-class incomes, the slow growth of good-paying jobs, and the idea that too little of our productivity benefits wages is becoming the dominant issue. The issue of middle-class incomes and jobs and what to do about them will dominate the 2014 election. The issue of the deficit - and of Obamacare - will be less important in determining who wins these elections.
And when middle-class jobs and growth come to the fore, the need for government to be more activist and robust in resolving this dominant problem gains the high ground.
Even Republicans seem to sniff that something different is in the air. Within the last few weeks both Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio gave economic speeches not focused on the deficit but on reducing poverty.
The best way to deal with the Tea Party’s obsessive anti-government mania is to confront it directly, by showing the people the need for government to help them out of their morass.
Let’s remind people that the reason they’re frustrated with Washington and government is not that government is doing too much, but that it is gridlocked and not doing enough for them!
Of course we should always strive to root out and eliminate waste in government and we should also acknowledge that government makes its share of mistakes; it is hardly a perfect enterprise. But we should compare how we treat private sector mistakes with how the Tea Party and its messengers treat government foibles.
When a CSX train derails, creating a horrible explosion, do we say let’s shrink or abolish CSX and all railway companies? When Target’s data is breached, do we say let’s shrink and even abolish Target, or get rid of all discount stores?
Well a similar standard should apply to government. When government makes mistakes, let’s not ignore them, let’s fix them. Let’s come down hard on the people who messed up.
But don’t, as in years past, use it as an excuse to shrink or curtail the many greater and necessary
Given the anguish of the middle class, a robust defense of government will help magnify the internal contradictions in the Tea Party ideology.
Second, we must focus, this year, on four or five simple but compelling examples of where government can help the average family.
While the Tea Party leaders have convinced Tea Party grass roots and many other Americans that government in the abstract is bad or even evil, they have not been able to dissuade them from liking specific government programs.
Our defense of a robust government in general terms will not survive unless we buttress it by focusing on a few specific, popular issues where it is clear that government is on the side of people who need help, and has public support.
The issues should be apparent and intuitive. Trying to explain a complicated or abstract government
program will not break the hold the Tea Party’s generalized ideology has on its sympathizers.
We have already started to do this with the extension of unemployment insurance. In this recession, more than others, the average middle-class person knows someone who was employed for decades, lost their job, and has been diligently and assiduously, but unsuccessfully looking for work. The new, long-term type of unemployment has made the extension of unemployment benefits a winning issue.
Even Republicans are no longer saying it is unnecessary, but rather quibble about how to pay for it (back to the deficit once again).
Led by Senator Jack Reed, we will bring this issue up on the floor of the Senate repeatedly, highlighting Tea Party and Republican opposition, until the benefits extension passes.
Beyond unemployment extension, each of the four or five issues that we choose must be examples of instances when government is clearly needed to do good. If we tie these issues together, linked by the same thread of a need that only government can fulfill, these issues will give flesh and blood to the generalized theory that government is needed, and that it is not extraneous evil, but a necessary and essential good.
Talking about issues, and tying them into a rubric of positive thought and rhetoric about government is essential to shining light on the fundamental contradictions in Tea Party orthodoxy and debunking their dogma.
Below are my suggestions of the five issues we should focus on. Of course there are others, and the list could change. The important thing is that they be simple and easily explained, that they show almost intuitively the need for government and the contrast between the Tea Party/Republican thinking and ours, that they be talked about by Democrats repeatedly, that they be voted on in Congress several times between now and November, and that we not wander into discussing too many extraneous issues that interrupt this dialogue over the next ten months.
Many issues are important, but nothing is more important to restoring the economic health of the middle-class and America generally, than bringing back a renewed faith in government’s ability to do good.
It will help us win the election in the next ten months to boot.
Raising the minimum wage should be at the top of the list. It is easily understood and broadly popular. The overwhelming majority of Americans and even large numbers of Tea Party and Republicans grass roots activists believe that if you work hard, you should at least be able to provide a modicum of decency for your family.
There’s a clear division between us and the other side on this issue, it needs little explanation, and
will have great resonance beyond the seven million who are now being paid the minimum wage and will benefit.
In fact, many people who need an increase in the minimum wage are working two or three jobs right now – so this issue affects many middle-class families whose incomes is greater than that of a single forty hour minimum wage worker.
Two – paying for college. Americans of all political ideologies know that some college education is becoming more and more essential for their children’s and our country’s success.
Americans know that America loses when a young man or young woman can’t afford to go to college or has to go to a school that’s wrong for them solely due to financial considerations Americans know that the student loses, their family loses, and America loses.
But college is becoming more and more out of reach for average Americans with the increase in tuition and the decrease in middle-class incomes. Parents in middle-class families sit around the dinner table Friday night, soon after their kids are born, trying to figure out how they’re going to pay for college.
As a result, the overwhelming majority of Americans strongly support government programs that help families, way into the middle-class, pay for college.
We must come up with a simple, concrete, government-funded program that makes it a lot easier for people to afford college and show that government is the answer, not the problem. It will resonate and show our America who is on which side.
We should also consider increased aid for K-12 education. The property tax is the bane of the middle class yet our schools have new needs. Greater Federal assistance and tying that assistant to reasonable standards (without bashing teachers) is something that might also be considered in the education sphere.
Third – we must renew our commitment to revitalizing our national infrastructure. Americans widely accept the view that our crumbling infrastructure hurts our economy and the economic future of average Americans. They accept the fact that government spending to build roads, highways, bridges, water and sewer systems, as well as newer infrastructure like power grids and broadband makes overwhelming sense.
Infrastructure projects help the economy in the near-term by creating jobs and in the long-term by providing avenues for commerce.
That’s why, when our Tea Party colleagues lead the charge against spending for these programs, Americans scratch their heads in wonderment. We must tie the overwhelming popularity of such programs to the need for government. Again, we should come up with a succinct, simple, but broad- based plan to revitalize our infrastructure and create employment, particularly in the construction industry.
It could be a direct spending program, it could be an infrastructure bank that guarantees adequate
wages, but it’s a program that needs to be a must on our list.
Fourth – equal pay for women. Our politics is still male dominated and not enough politicians appreciate the concern, frustration, and even anguish of women when they do equal work but don’t get equal pay.
This is an example of government regulation of industry that is fair, right, and broadly popular.
And fifth – Americans know that while many of the jobs that are lost overseas are due to technological change and globalization, America, under both Republican and Democratic administrations has not been strong enough when other countries, most notably China, have failed to play by the rules.
Tea Party members instinctively understand this issue, but we can show them that if left to private, global corporations, that situation will never improve. Only an active and strong government that believes in free trade but spends more effort making it fair can rectify the many injustices and millions of jobs lost because of unfair trade practices.
This is a natural path that can help convince Tea Party members that government is helpful, if not a necessity.
Of course, other issues could take the place of those mentioned: universal Pre-K and childcare affordability which recognizes the burden placed on single-parent families and families where both parents work.
Dealing with job training and the skills gap could be another: the average person knows that there
are millions of jobs going unfilled because people aren’t properly prepared with the skills they need,
and people understand that investing in our community colleges to help them train workers could be the key here.
Many people are thinking about ways to expand our national manufacturing base including ideas to provide manufacturers with the capital to expand and hire.
And closing corporate tax loopholes: where again there is an instinctive understanding that it is government that is needed to prevent the private sector from gaming the system.
Each of these could be on the list.
Beyond issues, the third way we can constructively channel frustrations is to address the damage
done by the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision. One of the great advantages the Tea Party has
is the huge holes in our campaign finance laws created this ill-advised decision. Obviously, the Tea Party elites gained extraordinary influence by being able to funnel millions of dollars into campaigns with ads that distort the truth and attack government.
This is not the place for a broad discussion of this issue, and it is clear that we will not pass anything legislatively as long as the House of Representatives is in Republican control, but there are many things that can be done administratively by the IRS and other government agencies – we must redouble those efforts immediately.
Tea Party members realize importance of this issue. In the recent budget negotiations House Republicans nearly blew up the entire agreement because we would not put in the bill a provision that would prevent the IRS from moving forward and administratively closing some of the Citizens United loopholes.
Finally, we have to look at electoral reform. I add this to the list with some hesitation but I think it must be explored.
Our very electoral structure has been rigged to favor Tea Party candidates in Republican primaries, even when the district or the state may not be that red. It has happened for two reasons: first primaries, and then redistricting.
The primacy of primaries in determining who is nominated by each party is more pervasive now than it was thirty to forty years ago, before the McGovern reforms.
And the people who turn out in the primaries tend to be not moderates, but people closer to the extremes. If you lined up the American electorate from the most liberal to the most conservative, the political scientists would tell us that it’s quite healthy. The third most liberal are Democrats, the third in the middle are independents, and the third most conservative are Republicans.
But it is the third of the third most to the right on the Republican side and the third of the third most to the left on the Democratic side who come out to vote in primaries.
This has had a particularly strong effect in the Republican primaries, where the Tea Party machine and activists can turn out more than half of a greatly diminished primary voting electorate.
Exacerbating the problem is gerrymandering – where Republicans have learned to capture state legislatures and then use innovative technology to draw districts where a Democrat could never be elected. Hence the Republican House member only has to look over his right shoulder and moves much further to the right than the average voter in his or her district would want. The same phenomenon can occur in Democratic primaries but, at the moment, it is far more exaggerated on the Republican side.
A way to lessen the grip of the Tea Party on the electoral process would be to do what a handful of states have done and have a primary where all voters, members of every party, can vote and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then enter a run-off.
This would prevent a hard-right candidate from gaining office with only 22% of the vote. It would force the most extreme candidates in Republican districts to move closer to the middle to pick up more moderate Republicans and independents in order to be one of the top two vote-getters and enter the run off.
This was tried in California for the first time last year, and while the ratio of Democrats to
Republicans in Congress and in the state legislature didn’t change, candidates, particularly on the
Republican side who were elected were considerably more moderate.
It is premature to embrace this approach until we see more evidence of how it works but it is something worth thinking about.
In conclusion, the bottom line is clear: Economic and social change which has been developing over the past two decades has accelerated and become more apparent in the past few years. The economic changes have caused middle-class incomes to decline significantly and reduced the number of good paying jobs. The social changes have exacerbated the frustrations, fear and anger of many average Americans.
Recognizing these frustrations, the Tea Party elites swooped in and sold many Americans on a simple nostrum: that “government” was to blame for all their problems, economic and even non- economic; that government was the boogeyman.
However, that elixir has not solved the problems as promised and the reality of the decline of middle class jobs and incomes is sinking in.
The decline of the deficit and Obamacare as the most salient electoral issues and the prominence in
the issues of government’s ability to help restore and build the middle class provides us a golden
opportunity to expose what has always been a fault line in the Tea Party: that the obsessively antigovernment philosophy of the Tea Party elites does not meet the actual needs of the Tea Party membership.
By proudly and repeatedly voicing a generalized philosophy that government is a force for good and highlighting specific issues which demonstrate how government can be part of the solution, not the problem, we can take America back to a place where gridlock fades, smart government-oriented solutions pass, and the middle class can reclaim the American Dream.