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Paul G. Buchanan: Is Being All Against Enough?

All For Being Against--but is Being All Against Enough?

by Paul G. Buchanan

A Word From Afar is a regular column that analyses political/strategic/international interest.

One simple way of distinguishing between political ideologies and political movements is to focus on whether they are proactive or reactive in nature. That is to say, the dividing line is drawn by whether they are founded upon being for or against something. Proactive political movements are for something. They champion a cause, be it an issue, a belief, a policy or a commitment. Reactive political movements define themselves by what they oppose, be it policy, government, an ideology, other social groups or any mixture of contrary views. A simple dichotomy illustrates the divide: a political movement is defined by whether it is pro- or anti-.

Whereas proactive political movements bring a positive connotation to their cause (“this is what we stand for!”), reactive political movements suffer the reverse. The latter are defined by what they are against, in opposition to and in negation of an already constituted “other,” and therefore bring a negative connotation to their cause. Although it may be easier for political groups to define themselves by what they oppose rather than what they propose, it also limits their appeal to other groups or potential recruits who may not have strong feelings about the foundational question that motivated the group’s creation. This dilemma forces some originally reactive political groups to rebrand themselves in positive terms in order to secure broader appeal. Thus the anti-abortion movement became “pro-life.” Anti-communist guerrillas became “freedom fighters.” Machine gun enthusiasts in the US become Second Amendment defenders. Homophobic groups become “traditional values” advocates. Some anti-Semites cloak their sentiments in pro-Palestinian and pro-Iranian advocacy (admitting that not all pro-Iranian or pro-Palestinian sentiment is anti-Semetic). 9/11 conspiracy theorists call themselves “Truthers.”

Yet, even rebranding cannot overcome the initial reactive premise upon which many a political movement is founded. Changing the label of an anti-gay rights group to that of being pro- “traditional” marriage or pro-“traditional” families does not alter its fundamental character, which is rooted (at a minimum) in a conscious acceptance of discrimination based upon a negation of the acceptability of variable sexual preference. Similarly, calling a political party New Zealand First, as positive as that may sound, cannot disguise the anti-immigrant bias that permeates its constitution, nor is the Reconstituted National Party of South Africa (HNP) able to disguise the racist beliefs that tied it to the more notorious Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) whose long time leader Eugene Terre’Blanch recently received his inevitable just desserts. Calling a country the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea does not disguise the fact that it is a party dictatorship with a paranoid leadership style and limited popular consent (in fact, it is a joke in political science that any country name with the words “Democratic,” Peoples” and/or “Popular” in it is bound to be despotic). Positive re-branding, in other words, does not always make for a proactive political movement.

Nor are all proactive groups progressive in nature. Any number of conservative-reactionary militias, fringe parties and political movements have proactive names, all the more to put a more acceptable PR face on their activities. Think of the various Minutemen units patrolling the southern US border. The patriotic name disguises the xenophobic and racist character of many of these outfits, which in actuality appear to be less concerned about securing the US borders than with the ethnicity of those crossing them (otherwise they would be concentrated along the US-Canadian border as well as the US-Mexico border). Hence, while proactive groups have a better chance of pushing their message onto a larger audience, not all of the messages being imparted are necessarily positive.

Even so, if accepted by the larger audience in a democracy that is the voting public, a proactive message provides a better platform for garnering support and governing than does a reactive message. One speaks about what needs to be done and how to do it (even if specifics are sketchy); the other speaks about what is wrong but not necessarily how to fix it. The advantage is strategic as well. Proactive movements have a better chance of defining the terms of political debate than do reactive movements. The side that determines the terms of debate has the dominant position in it. Proactive messages speak to what should be, while reactive messages speak to what should not be. Proactive movements initiate public discussion on a given set of issues whereas reactive movements respond in the negative to an established discourse.

That brings up the phenomenon of the Tea Party movement. Whether it is an Astroturf creation or a genuine grassroots mobilization (or a mixture of both), the Tea Party movement is a classic example of a reactive political movement. The entire premise underpinning it is opposition to something: Big Government, Public Health, Higher Taxes, Corporate Bailouts, Big Banks, Deficit Spending, a Kenyan in the Oval Office, Socialism, Gun Control, Gay Rights, Secular Progressivism, Environmental Protection, Nuclear Arms Control, the UN, World Government, the Trilateral Commission, Muslims—the number of things opposed is as varied as those that espouse the Tea Party cause. Therein lies its problem.

Whatever strands of negation may bind the Tea Party movement together as a whole (say, opposition to “Obamacare”), they still do not make for a coherent basis on which to promote a viable alternative. The Tea Party movement continues to be defined by what it is against rather than what it is for. Although it is an axiom of politics that it easier to be in opposition because a party or group can merely oppose government policy without having to offer an alternative (since policy is harder to craft and implement in a heterogeneous polity with a system of constitutional checks and balances), it is also harder for groups founded on reactive principles to turn around and reorganize and redirect on proactive grounds. Moreover, if a reactive group’s opposition is successful, then its reason for being ceases to exist unless it has a proactive follow-up. That poses another problem, because reorganizing around a proactive program means moving beyond, and often deviating from, the original reactive premises upon which the movement was founded (since the latter are couched in absolutist or idealistic terms that are not practicable given the realities of democratic politics in advanced capitalist societies characterized by heterogeneous constituencies). To put the issue in sports allegoric terms: it is one thing to heckle from the stands; it is quite another to get out on the field and play.

The Tea Party movement sits on the horns of this dilemma. Its entire thrust is negative, as it is self-defined as being against the US political-economic status quo. Its language is overtly reactive, using phrases such as “repeal,” “reject,” “replace” and somewhat alarmingly (in Sarah Palin’s famous word), “reload.” It can broadly agree on what it does not like but not necessarily on what it does like, and it has offered no coherent solutions, much less a strategy for action or proactive policies for positive change in the event that it moves out of opposition and into a position of policy-making influence (be it directly or via the Republicans that its backs in elections). For all the talk of small government, freedom and choice, there is little in the Tea Party discourse that proposes as an alternative approach to governing a country as large, diverse and important in world affairs as is the US. To the contrary. Beyond the rallying points of opposition to business as usual within the Beltway and negation of the primacy of centralized government as represented by Washington DC, the variegated strands of Tea Party philosophy (such as it is) are not only disparate—they are also often contradictory, parochial and short-sighted.

That is its weakness. Until such a time as the Tea Party movement moves to advocating something other than what it is against, its strength may be more apparent than real, symbolic more than substantive. It may be able to help elect politicians that pander to its reactive discourse, but it has no platform upon which to proactively govern. That means that even if Tea Party-backed Republicans re-take the majority of one or both houses of Congress in 2010, they will only return the legislative branch to the partisan gridlock witnessed during Newt Gingrich’s time as House Speaker in the 1990s (it is telling of the state of the Republican Party that Gingrich is now considered an elder statesman in spite of the scandal and controversy that enveloped his personal and professional life when he was in office). In fact, given the polarizing rhetoric of the Tea Party movement, it is likely that, should the GOP regain a majority in Congress, the next round of Congressional stalemate will make the Gingrich years seem quaint (which, when we recall that Gingrich’s machinations against the Clinton administration forced the closure of the federal government three times, should give pause for thought).

Seen from a broader comparative perspective, this scenario is a US version of what is known as the “impossible game” of democratic politics: each side can stymie the projects of the other, but neither can advance its own. The result is policy-making paralysis. Hence, even should the Tea Party movement succeed in installing a Congressional demographic more favourable to its reactive principles, it loses in the measure that nothing proactive gets done.

All of which to say that, regardless of the trumpeting of media acolytes and conservative politicians that it represents the new voice of US politics (and there is some truth to that, although there is also historical precedents for it as well), the Tea Party movement as presently constituted faces an existential crisis: the more it adopts a proactive policy platform, the further it deviates from its original mandate, yet the more it succeeds in achieving its original goals, the more it draws closer to its own end.


Paul G. Buchanan writes about comparative, international and strategic politics. He is a member of the collective and founder of the Foreign Risk Assessment Group, Ltd., a political risk, media commentary and market intelligence consulting agency.


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