Opposition Politics in the USA

Here are some incredibly perceptive thoughts from an Australian colleague (who wishes to remain anonymous) on the current scope of political opposition politics in the United States — the remnants of the Ron Paul Revolution, of the Tea Party, and of Occupy Wall Street. I believe the analysis here is perhaps the most cogent and concise statement of the state of American opposition political reality I have read in the past decade.


I have been trying to clarify my understanding of the Tea Party group in the light of the recent debt ceiling brouhaha in the US. Some Australian commentators here describe them as libertarian. Some refer to Ron Paul as the intellectual grandfather of the Tea Party. My take is that these commentators have just got it wrong, don’t understand libertarianism and have confused rhetorical similarities for policy similarities. To use an impolite example, this would be like assuming 1930s Communists and 1930s Nazis were allies because they both spoke of revolution and socialism.

Ron Paul’s movement and the Tea Party movement may have some overlap but only in the same sense that Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement  (and the Paulians and the OWS) also have some overlap. All three movements grew in reaction to the bailouts and US economic crisis of 2008 and the corporate/political class response to that crisis. In a sense these are three rival movements vying both against one another but also against the ‘establishment’ GOP/Democratic power bases. At the same time as these movements compete among themselves and oppose the establishment, the relevant GOP and Dem establishment wings both attempt – with varying degrees of success – to deflect, contain,  isolate, defeat and placate, exploit and co-opt these rival insurgent populist movements.

The Paulians are basically libertarian favouring small government across the board, opposing both military and social expenditure, as well as bailout style corporate welfare. The Paulians put radical financial monetary reforms at the centre of their agenda, along with radical military / imperial retrenchment demands. This makes them the radical opposition at present.  If anything the Paulians are willing to temporarily protect the value of existing social safety net programs until a more deep cut reform of military and corporate welfare is put into effect. They see this, plus finance system and microeconomic reforms, and a radically reduced tax burden, as reducing the need for government provided social safety nets.

(Paulians weakness and strength has been the personality of Ron Paul. Paul sustained, inspired and energised the movement. His son Rand Paul however has sought to merge the Paulians and the Tea Partiers but in all likelihood will not be able to ride both horses at once. Rand’s organisational team is essentially Tea Party not Paulian. Rand Paul may have been able to unify the Paulian and TP movements but the prospects of that have reduced over time and Rand Paul has generally chosen to ride the TP horse at every divergence.)

The Occupy Wall Streeters are essentially socialists, in principle opposed to corporate welfare, they are really in favour of more extreme corporate regulation and increased social welfare. The are more pro-corporate regulation than anti-corporate welfare. In practice this means they want to make additional regulation the price for the additional corporate welfare. They are also in principle in favour of some moderation of military spending although even from the start this was a  minor part of their stated agenda. Their anti-war/ anti-militiary stance is only applied during GOP presidencies.  The were anti-corporate, pro-state but basically effectively pro-military. The OWSers use a mix of progressive and socialist class warfare rhetoric but from time to time sprinkle it with some libertarian rhetoric although less so than the TPs.

(OWS, despite some pioneering anarcho-leftist/ultra-leftist leadership at the start was soon completely overtaken by establishment Democratic Party aligned forces often associated with labor union organisations and the left wing of the party establishment. They have now been incorporated into the Progressive wing of the party as rank and file infantry. This has weakened, at least relatively speaking, the quasi-conservative or blue dog Democrat voice within the Democrats. This blue dog group has had difficulty gaining ground against Progressives within the party and Tea Party rivals without. The decline of the blue dogs is a neglected factor in the increased polarisation of US politics. Establishment Dem forces see increased polarisation as wholly TP related but overlook the decline of blue dogs and increased Progressive strength within the Dems as a factor.

The merger / takeover of OWS by Democratic establishment forces has effectively neutralised OWS as an insurgent force against the corporate establishment. Their energies have been diverted to defence of the Obama administration. The radical edge of their corporate regulation agenda has been totally declawed and basically forgotten. The Dem establishment is tied to medium doses of corporate establishment friendly – light regulation along with large doses of corporate welfare to help the medicine go down. This strategy is mirrored by the GOP establishment whose prescription is a slightly lighter dose of regulation but a comparable dose of corporate welfare and a possibly larger dose of military welfare. The OWS/Dems have favoured changing the tax burden more heavily against ‘the rich’ but do not support broadening the tax base. Exactly how much additional revenue this strategy can accrue is debatable considering the success of the rich in the past to evade more graduated taxes in the past. In practice this program must amount to higher taxation on the middle class )

The Tea Party are essentially conservatives and middle class oriented groups who have been outside of the recent round of corporate welfare and social welfare expansion. They advocate smaller government but have for the most part exempted military spending from their retrenchment agenda. So their program falls most heavily on opposition to social safety net spending, especially new or additional social programs like Obamacare rather than long established programs. Their supporter base expanded following widespread opposition to the bank bailouts and the bipartisan support of Wall Street welfare by the GOP and Dem establishments. In effect they represent a slice of the traditional conservative voter base who were excluded from the corporate welfare explosion of the Bush / Obama era and who had little to gain from the Obama social welfare expansion. They do not accept the ‘tax the rich’ strategy of the Dems, mainly because they have heard it before and know it amounts to additional middle class taxation. They have appropriated a significant amount of libertarian rhetoric but their fealty to those concepts is at best described as unproven or weak.

(The TP group despite some insurgent origins have, like OWS, been to a large co-opted by the GOP establishment. There is still more tension in the TP / GOP establishment relationship than in the OWS / Dem establishment relationship. The GOP party establishment would willing accept a major defeat if it looked as if TP groups threatened their control over the GOP. The establishment is essentially hoping to assimilate them eventually but has not done so yet. Where the OWS and Dem establishment have collaborated around supporting the Obama administration, the TP and GOP establishment have failed to cooperate as no unity ticket presidential candidacy was negotiated that had any grassroot credibility. Attempts to date have focused on having vice presidential candidates meant to appeal to TP base although this strategy failed. The GOP establishment has to some extent attempted to placate the TP by providing support for some militant tactics by the TP caucus in Congress.)