Friday, December 04, 2015

Campus Event: Theda Skocpol on "Obama's Presidency, Tea Party Republicans, and the Future of American Politics"

This lecture was part of Berea College's Convocation series. The lecture took place on November 5, 2015, which by the way was right after the disastrous Election Day 2015 in Kentucky. At any rate, part of the reason I am posting my notes on the lecture is to prepare for the review of her book (the one on the Tea Party) that I will post soon. These are my notes from the lecture; most of this is what she said. I will keep any personal comments in parenthesis.

Speaker: Dr. Theda Skocpol
Topic: "Obama's Presidency, Tea Party Republicans, and the Future of American Politics"

She opens with three questions: 
  • What happened to so many observer expectations, re: Obama's election in 2008? 
  • What has happened to the Republican Party, especially in light of Obama's election? (Given what is currently happening, do we really need to ask?)
  • What does it all mean? 
Observers initially saw Obama as comparable to FDR, both elected in times of crisis in the United States. This was in 2008. In 2010, Democrats saw a debacle at the ballot box.

Possible lesson: it is better for a president to come into office in the midst of an economic crisis, as FDR did, than in the beginning of one, as Obama did.

Obama pretty much faced Republican opposition from the beginning. (I think she is putting this mildly). Cynically, they did not want to be seen as collaborating with Obama. A bad economy to Republicans meant they would do better in the 2010 elections. Basically, Obama's enemies mobilized. (Some of) Obama's measures, though they had benefit, many of those benefiting saw  little of it initially or right away. Meanwhile, the wealthy including bankers who were asked to accept less subsidies or such knew their loses right away; they mobilized the GOP right away to block Obama and the Democrats.

Remember: the American electorate is not a single entity. Those in presidential elections are very different than those in mid-term and state elections.
  • A big impulse for Republicans: the angry white guys of the Tea Party. 
    • The Tea Party started out of various factions from grassroots to astroturf. 
    • It was mostly to express themselves as angry and scared Obama  was taking their country away (also known as whining over loss of privilege). However, to researchers, they express their racism and anti-intellectualism in coded, barely veiled language. 
    • Half of Tea Party members are Christian fundamentalists; the other half are libertarians. And they got a lot of funding from various wealthy right wing interests. 
    • While low lever Tea Party members are scared of immigration, elite Tea Partiers are more interested in cutting any public spending for the needy and keeping the tax breaks for the rich. 
    • (So far, she has not said anything most of us do not know already. OK, I will grant many of the students caught in their academic bubble may not know a lot of this, but anyone paying attention does). 
This means a continued period of conflict and confrontation (in other words, teabaggers will continue throwing tantrums and making life impossible for the rest of us as they keep pressuring the GOP to keep the gridlocks going).
  • Those angry old white Tea Party members are not dying off any time soon.  (But die off they will). 
  • But they are pushing very unpopular policy among the young and diverse. (Problem is since a lot of those young and diverse are too damn lazy to vote, you can expect the conflicts to continue). A danger here is disillusion by the young and diverse. 

From the Q&A:

  • There is an issue with the media and how it performs. The media often does the "he said/she said" even when sides are NOT equal (they play false equivalency regularly for the sake of their precious rating without regard for actually presenting facts). 
  • Activists need to have a presence where political discussions happen, close to the ground. Democrats have basically ceded ground to the GOP and the Tea Party. 
  • Policy is not just something you implement. It has to be explained to the people so they will be engaged. (Again, this is where the Democrats and the Left in general have failed miserably). 
  • Tea Party members are very cynical about the GOP even if they vote for it. They figure if they do not vote (for the GOP), things could get worse (for them). Contrast this, to say, the Occupy Movement who often see political involvement as dirty or not worth it. 
  • Skocpol sees Bernie Sanders' candidacy as shifting the debate and conversations nationally and for the Democratic Party. Still, it is pretty likely that Hillary Clinton will be their nominee. (This is all nice, but it is more of business as usual for pundits. Sure, Clinton is competent, but at the end of the day, pundits and the party are pretty much doing a coronation for her.)
  • On the use of the word "fascism." In the 1930s, fascism did rise in democracies. What makes more sense in the U.S. is the concept of nativism, a concept that is very present in the Tea Party. (Western Europe has seen a rise in nativism too, but in Europe, those movements are often found in 3rd, 4th, 5th parties). In the U.S., Donald Trump is a distilled nativist.
  • On a side note, in her words, it is almost impossible for a third party to make any headway in the  United States. Skocpol advocates picking one or the other of the major parties. (Talk about depressing and fatalist.) 

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