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The race to buy American government

Wisconsonite Adam Sobchak on the Tea Party, institutional corruption, and the war on America’s unions

It doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out that politics in America have become seriously diseased. The new Republican majority in the House is intent on either gutting America’s social safety net or forcing a government shutdown. Here in Wisconsin, our Republican governor and his majorities in both chambers of the Capitol have declared war on public sector unions, the last true stronghold of trade unionism in the United States. His “budget repair” bill outlaws essentially all collective bargaining and forces unions to recertify each year by getting the support of 51 per cent of total workers. (Bear in mind that this governor was elected with 52 per cent of all those in Wisconsin who voted, which was a little less than 52 per cent of the state’s eligible voting population.)

Quite simply, this bill is meant to kill unions, and it probably was motivated more by the effect it could have on electoral politics than anything else. In an interview with Fox News recently, the Republican State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald let slip that “If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.”

Money talks, and unions make up three of the top ten fundraisers in American politics. Most notably, they are the only three in the top ten who gave the majority of their money to Democratic candidates and causes. There’s no secret to it. Republicans are trying to kill that counterweight, once and for all. The stakes are high, especially in a state with such a proud progressive history that it was the first to grant public sector bargaining rights at all. So how has it all come to this?

On the night of the 2010 midterm elections, I’d managed to hold out hope for our side until I was told by one of my colleagues on Russ Feingold’s re-election campaign that we were going to concede the race. Feingold, one of the most principled Senators of the past few decades, a man whose courage had gotten him through challenge after challenge, had come up short. We had come up short. I don’t remember much of the speech, except for a choice Bob Dylan reference that got even the most hardened campaign vets to start bawling. Then the drinking started.

I woke up sprawled on a carpeted beach of a hotel floor, marooned by the metaphorical “tidal wave” that had hit the elections. (The pundits were characteristically addicted to that phrase.) My captain had been washed away and the landscape seemed unrecognizable. Wisconsin had lost a Democratic governorship, both chambers of the legislature, and two long-serving legislative leaders of the American Left in the Senate and House. In their place came Scott Walker, who couldn’t graduate college; Rebecca Kleefisch, a former anchorwoman who has spent her time cold-calling businesses in Illinois and asking them to relocate to Wisconsin; Ron Johnson, a man whose only qualification for Senate seemed to be that he was completely unqualified; and Sean Duffy, a handsome lawyer and lumberjack champion who had been on the Boston season of MTV’s The Real World.

These people and others across the country made a perfect ensemble cast for our political zeitgeist – some made-for-TV pseudo-reality wobbling on that fine line between funny and sad. But this is apparently what happened when voters stopped being polite and started getting real. At least they definitely stopped being polite. But were they getting real? Any answer depends on your opinion of the Tea Party.

A lot has been written on the Tea Party: its language, its members, and its impact on the 2010 elections. We need to talk about the first two to understand the third. As far as its discourse goes, the Tea Party has done its utmost to delegitimize the federal government by using a collage of misinterpretations masquerading as history, xenophobic, and often violent rhetoric, and nostalgia for a nonsensical neverpast. The Tea Party are masters of allusion – drawing their speeches from a lexicon of metaphor, myth, and nostalgia. They use constant references to an imaginary group of pious, anti-intellectual “Founding Fathers” who loved guns and hated federalism mixed with nostalgia for the “simpler” times of the 1950s, when unionization was at its highest, a Republican president warned of the military-industrial complex, and the Supreme Court was just beginning to get active on matters of race. Wait, that’s not right. They were nostalgic for those other fifties, when Joe McCarthy had America on Red Alert and a black man couldn’t eat a sandwich in certain restaurants, much less be elected President.

The Tea Party’s effectiveness relies on reducing matters of great complexity – political philosophy, American history, and public policy – to a simplistic crusade of catch phrases rife with contradiction. It declared itself a movement of “Constitutional Conservatives,” simple purists rooted in a historical tradition of the Founding Fathers. They read the First Amendment as promoting public prayer but decidedly against any sort of mosque in lower Manhattan, and they intuited that the Founding Fathers had presciently wanted all true Americans to be armed with semi-automatic assault rifles at all times.

Much fuss was made of the ordinariness, the “real”-ness of the Tea Party. It represented “real” Americans: almost exclusively white, suburban, exurban, or rural folk with an indefatigable Christian fervor.

This emphasis on realness served two purposes. First, it leant an air of legitimacy to the movement necessary for the resonance of its aims and message. Its pursuit of legitimacy also yielded a second benefit. Implicit in determining the “real” America was identifying the foil of a non-real America. Immigrants are not “real” America. Muslim-Americans are not “real” America. Even the President of the United States isn’t “real” America.

All this loaded language, misplaced nostalgia, and emphasis on “authenticity” convinced me that the Tea Party is no more than a well-crafted brand. And like any good brand it evokes a wealth of emotions, memories, and desires. The Tea Party brand and all of its code words – the veiled threats, the victimized “taxpayer,” the nostalgia for a simpler time that never really existed, the populism – was one hell of a brand.

And it took a hell of a brand to convince the people who had once clamoured for the profligate Bush administration that they were now fiscal spendthrifts. The Tea Party was just the latest repackaging from the best brain trust in political branding – the natural outcome of that one Morning in America™ when the Straight Talk Express™ stopped on Main Street USA™ to pick up all the Joe Six-Packs™ before following the Road Map for America’s Future™ all the way to Washington. And it wouldn’t be a brand if it didn’t convince people to buy a product.

That product was a slate of candidates that were either ridiculously under-qualified or so drastically re-invented that they were hardly recognizable as the traditional American politicians who, for better or worse, reeked of the proverbial sausage factory. I shed no tears for the decline of the old guard of the GOP, but the new breed didn’t even seem to understand the contours of the playing field. Flip on the TV in mid-October and you’d see Christine “I’m Not a Witch” O’Donnell in a heated debate against her Democratic opponent, demanding, “Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?” You would see Ron “Global Warming is Caused by Sunspots” Johnson lamenting gerrymandered Senate districts before summing up his sophistic ideology by referring to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as his foundational book. Johnson and O’Donnell were just a taste of the zany cast of Real World: America, now being broadcast live 24 hours a day by CNN, NBC, CBS, Fox News, and every other media outlet you can think of.

But these characters were not only real; they were threatening to win with the best campaign machines that money could buy. All around the country, Tea Party candidates hired former Bush administration officials and all manner of other elitists in the name of their campaigns for “real” America. You can learn a lot about a candidate from who they hire. Look at it this way. Everyone in Washington wears pretty nice clothes. Any commenter being honest with themselves should know that the vast majority of Tea Party candidates weren’t drawing their staff from the supposedly “real” America. Those around them came from the good ole boys of the Grand Ole Party: lobbyists, strategists, and consultants. Make no mistake: a Tea Party candidate is your run-of-the-mill Republican, just packaged in the 2010 Tea Party brand.

So the real Republicans were putting up fake candidates aimed at appealing to a somewhat fake populist movement. But these fakes needed money. Money to mobilize people behind the Tea Party, money to swamp the airwaves with attack ads, and money to support candidates who had a lot of trouble garnering actual financial support from the citizens supporting them. Then in January 2010 came the Supreme Court ruling on the Citizens United case, which reversed a century’s worth of legislation in its ruling that corporate entities could essentially spend as much money as they could raise on getting candidates elected. In the words of the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, “Citizens United created an environment in which it is perfectly legal for a shell non-profit corporation to engage in election-related spending on behalf of a hidden interest.”

There were two groups who seem to have benefitted the most from the decision. The first were traditional corporations and lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who could now spend at will on relatively unregulated political communications. If they manage to survive the next few years, unions will be included in this group as well. They are the only real counterweight to corporate Republican financiers. Then there were non-profit groups with banal, inoffensive names like Americans for Prosperity or Citizens United. But these two groups weren’t as separate as they appeared.

Americans for Prosperity is a political front group for Koch Industries, a huge conglomerate run by an arch-conservative family with extensive interests in rolling back environmental protections, costs of labour, and corporate taxation. The seemingly innocuous political group has spent ridiculous amounts of money to draw susceptible Tea Partiers into faux-grassroots shows of force in order to create the illusion of middle-class populism, thus legitimizing corporatist legislation.

The impact of all the Citizens United cash on the 2010 election cannot possibly be overstated. Feingold’s first re-election campaign ran on a budget of around $4 million, and he did his best to avoid running attack ads. In 2010, our campaign was spending around $13 million, just to keep up with Ron Johnson, the self-financing Republican candidate who spent $14 million, of which about $9 million came from his own fortune. Johnson additionally raised far more corporate donations than Feingold.

On top of this, outside parties were running so many attack ads that my girlfriend and I couldn’t have a simple, apolitical YouTube chill out without being told that my boss loved the national debt and thus hated America.

Oftentimes the ads would contradict each other, but boy were they effective. A day before the election, I ended up on the phone with an older woman who had called the office to ask about an ad she’d seen that claimed Feingold had voted for $500 billion worth of cuts to America’s federally funded health coverage for senior citizens. It took me less than two minutes to explain the fallacy to the voter, whose vote changed in that two minutes. But we didn’t have two minutes with every voter. Only in Real World: America could Ron Johnson’s TV ads claim that Feingold was “the only Great Lakes senator” to vote against banning drilling in the Great Lakes.  The bill in question was the 2005 Energy Policy Act, also known as the Cheney Energy Act. Primarily known for its massive environmental deregulation, the bill also included a minor provision putting a moratorium on new drilling in the Great Lakes. Feingold voted against the bill, the outcomes of which were last seen gushing out of a blown out well in the Gulf of Mexico. We just couldn’t win.

So we lost. And Real World: America has stayed true to its tragicomic formula into its second season. Johnson was so concerned with “real” Americans that he didn’t bother making a website for his first two months in office, and my phone calls to him didn’t even catch a voicemail machine. He hired a veteran lobbyist as his chief of staff a few days after winning as a “citizen legislator” and has yet to sponsor a single bill in the Senate. This wasn’t really surprising. Like many Tea Party candidates, the man seemed to have no idea what the job actually consisted of. He memorized a few talking points and spoke in convincing generalities. When asked about the plight of homeless veterans, he famously responded that “the election wasn’t about the details.”

Not to worry, though. The new Tea Partiers will inevitably come to rely on those who truly got them there: corporations, lobbyists, and members of the traditional Republican establishment. They won’t bring any new perspective to Washington – they’re just new spokespeople for the same old policies. They are unable to make real change, even if they want to, because they don’t know how. So while the vast majority of the people of real America – the people who get poorer and poorer, whose healthcare costs get higher and higher, who work more and more for less pay – struggle to pay their bills, corporations expand their influence over government more and more.

I’m sitting against a marble column in my state’s beautiful Capitol rotunda. Our college dropout governor, Scott Walker, has thrust Wisconsin into an all-out class war, and this is ground zero. His campaign, like all successful Republican campaigns, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporations and Political Action Committees and now he’s making good on his quid pro quos. It’s Sunday, February 27, the day that the Republican-controlled administrative committee has determined that they will clear out the encampment of peaceful protesters that have lived in the Capitol non-stop for almost two weeks. It is an organic, beautiful thing. Protest signs cover the walls, and a group of dedicated volunteers organize support for the demonstrators, including food and medical services. Wisconsin’s lifeblood of thousands of workers, students, and professionals now double as the state’s class consciousness.

While the national media has dropped the ball in reporting this story in a number of ways, the one story line that really gets me pissed is the false equivalency some commentators have tried to draw between this and the Tea Party. What’s going on here is not a corporatist snow job trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. This is not astroturf. Though the media has sometimes tried to paint it as mass mobilization by the big, bad unions, or president Obama’s Organizing for America organization, I can say that this is a genuine, organic, grassroots movement the likes of which I have never seen before. Unlike the re-branded Republican Party, this is not a facelift or a marketing scheme for the Democrats. At one point, a couple thousand Tea Partiers showed up, listened to a speech by Joe the Plumber™, then left in the buses that Americans for Prosperity provided for them.

Twenty minutes before the 4 p.m. deadline that the police have set for clearing the building, an Assembly Democrat who has tried the hardest to hitch his wagon to this movement gets on “the people’s microphone” (I know, I know) to tell us that we should leave with him at 4 o’clock. Most listen respectfully. Some shout “shame!” Six-hundred or so people listen before ignoring his pleas. This movement doesn’t have clear leaders and it doesn’t have the cults of personality.

More than 100,000 of our ranks remained and returned, day after day. It’s easy for us because we live here and we’re the ones with everything to lose. And it takes more than the Democratic lawmaker who’s been yelling the loudest to convince us to leave. This may actually be the real America I’ve been waiting for.

*Adam Sobchak is a pseudonym.