Monday, July 18, 2011

Are Tea Party Republicans Anarchists?

NY Times columnist Timothy Egan’s recent article describes radical Republicans as anarchists, seeking to destroy the U.S. government. Their refusal to raise the debt limit, and refusal to deal at all with Obama and Democrats, threatens America with another financial crash and economic catastrophe. This “burn-it-all-down position” indicates that the Tea Party Republicans “didn’t go to Washington to find solutions; they went there to destroy the place.” Is Egan being fair in his description of radical Republicans?

Anarchy is the absence of government, a condition of complete freedom from government coercion. Anarchists are people who want to bring about this utopian condition. Tea Party republicans claim to want to reduce the size of government, not eliminate it entirely. So by the strict dictionary definition, radical Republicans aren’t anarchists. They are extremists, however, and this extremism threatens the stability and health of our government and society. It also threatens to bring about a condition of anarchy.

Extremists share some common attributes, whether they are anarchists, libertarians, communists, Nazis, sixties radicals, or religious zealots:
  1. Promoting extreme change
  2. Wanting the extreme change now
  3. Being unwilling to compromise
  4. Promoting violence

I’ll go over these attributes and see if the Tea Party Republicans fit these characteristics.
  1. Extreme change: The Tea Party Republicans claim to be conservative, wanting the federal government to return to its small pre-Great Deal size. But since so many people have become dependent on government programs, and we’ve had for decades a large military, progressive income tax, and widespread regulation of industry, a return to the way things were 80 or more years ago is an extreme change from the status quo. Thus I can conclude that radical Republicans promote extreme change.
  2. Wanting the extreme change now: Paul Ryan’s plan to overhaul Medicare doesn't take effect until 2022, exempting people 55 and older from the change. Although it proposes a radical change to Medicare, it’s not extremist in the sense of wanting the change now. The refusal to extend the debt limit in the absence of an immediate agreement to major cuts in government spending is, however, extremist. It threatens economic catastrophe unless changes are made now. While it’s true that changes are badly needed in Washington, threatening an economic crisis unless changes happen immediately is extremist and very dangerous. So I conclude that in the context of the debt crisis radical Republicans want extreme change now.
  3. Being unwilling to compromise: Tea Party Republicans are refusing to compromise with Obama and the Democrats on the issue of tax increases. They will not accept any deal that involves tax increases, even if the spending cuts vastly outnumber the tax increases, as is the case in the Obama plan. This “my way or the highway” attitude is definitely extremist. Tea Party Republicans have exuded this type of extremism since they began their term in office.
  4. Promoting violence: Tea party advocates and representatives so far haven’t advocated violence or committed any violent acts. But the other three extremist characteristics that describe Tea Party Republicans make it highly likely that violence will eventually happen. If one of the two major American political parties wants extreme change, wants it now, and is unwilling to compromise, then the legislative process will grind to a halt. We can see that happening already. If legislators cannot accomplish anything, then the government won’t be do anything, even to pay its bills. This will provoke a crisis.

While it’s possible that the crisis can be solved peacefully, I wouldn’t bet on it. Historically, economic crises have sometimes led to violent revolutions in other countries. The French Revolution and subsequent reign of terror was a product of a financial crisis. The Bolsheviks came to power in the context of the economic and political chaos of World War I.

A revolution can sometimes be a good thing, right? What about the American Revolution? The Tea Party Republicans may claim to be intellectual heirs of the American Revolution, but in reality they are far apart ideologically. Compared to other revolutions, the American Revolution was moderate. Before the revolution and after, Americans enjoyed the privileges of a representative government, freedom of expression and religion, a capitalistic economic system, and the absence of any hereditary aristocracy. The biggest change was the withdrawal from the British Empire and the establishment of a new republican political system. While this was a substantial change, it didn’t affect the daily life of most people. There was no widespread expropriation of property or political murders that characterized the contemporaneous French Revolution.

The Tea Party Republicans may not provoke a revolution at all. Since their dominant ideology is anti-government, if they succeed in bringing the economy and the federal government to their knees, we may end up with a condition of anarchy. The best contemporary example is Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Like the Iraqi government, the American government may become so weakened and ineffective that terrorists and criminals will basically take over the country. Anarchy is an unstable condition, so it won’t last forever, but as we’ve seen in some countries (e.g. Somalia) this could last for years and possibly decades.

I think that America has too much going for it (i.e. its wealth, history, political system, social structures) that we will become another Iraq or Somalia. But there’s a real chance of some major political and economic disruption that will affect the lives of millions. If the Tea Party Republicans get their way, this disruption will happen soon.