“Wall Street owns our government,” [Glenn] Beck declared in one rant this July. “Our government and these gigantic corporations have merged.” He drew a chart to dramatize the revolving door between Washington and Goldman Sachs in both the Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner Treasury departments. A couple of weeks later, Beck mockingly replaced the stars on the American flag with the logos of corporate giants like G.E., General Motors, Wal-Mart and Citigroup (as well as the right’s usual nemesis, the Service Employees International Union). Little of it would be out of place in a Matt Taibbi article in Rolling Stone. Or, we can assume, in Michael Moore’s coming film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” which reportedly takes on Goldman and the Obama economic team along with conservative targets.
Far more interesting than Beck himself is the increasingly futile effort to classify the protest movement to which he has connected himself. Here, too, confusion reigns. In part, this is due to the fact that these “tea party” and “9/12” protests are composed of factions with wildly divergent views about most everything. From paleoconservatives to Ron-Paul-libertarians to LaRouchians to Confederacy-loving, race-driven Southerners to Christianist social conservatives to single-issue fanatics (abortion, guns, gays) to standard Limbaugh-following, Bush-loving Republicans, these protests are an incoherent mishmash without any cohesive view other than: “Barack Obama is bad.” There are unquestionably some highly noxious elements in these groups, but they are far from homogeneous. Many of these people despised the Bush-led GOP and many of them loved it.
But all that said, there are some identifiable — and plainly valid — underlying causes to these protests that are neither Republican nor Democratic, or even left or right. That’s when conventional political language ceases to be useful.
It’s been obvious for quite some time that the US government is a tool of a small and increasingly exclusive elite. Making matters even more discouraging is the fact that the main source of “resistance” to this establishment is coming from the millenarian right instead of (what remains) of the American left. The right insists on remaining blind to the role played by the business and financial establishments in the destruction of the once prosperous American middle class, preferring to instead blame an imaginary cabal of powerful socialists, subversives and radicals for the nation’s decline. It is certainly true that the Obama administration is captive to a small clique. But it is not that of ACORN, Alinsky or any of the other bogeymen commonly identified. Rather, it is the same band of neoliberal DLC Beltway-insiders that have held sway in the Democratic Party since Clinton. The difference here is crucial and should rule out any possible alliance–even a temporary one of convenience–between those interested in a democratic, egalitarian society and the ideologues of the Tea Party movement.
One of the shrewdest tactics the anti-Obama right has engaged in lately is to accuse him of being a crony capitalist based on favoritism towards certain private businesses. Of course, this type of patronage through public-private “partnerships” and the outsourcing of government services has been a hallmark of all neoliberal regimes everywhere. By identifying the Obama administration (and his supposed cadre of closet revolutionaries) in the public eye as the sole perpetrator of this corruption, it rather brilliantly turns decades of lefty railing against corporate welfare and governmental collusion with big business on its head. In the right-wing version, the capitalist system is absolved of most of the blame since any government intervention in the economy is seen as an impure influence in the free market. If there is corruption, it is not “true” capitalism.
So, instead of the 2008 financial collapse being caused by financial sector deregulation and lax oversight of mortage securitization, we are left with a dizzying array of libertarian theories on how a real free market would have never let such a crisis happen. The narratives differ and often contradict each other. In one version, the government used the Community Reinvestment Act strong-armed hapless banks into making loans to shiftless borrowers who would never be able to pay them back. In an overlapping version, the banks were offered a perverse incentive by Fannie Mae and Freddie to give out loans and securitize mortages in a reckless manner. Some of these rightist narratives portray the private banks in a much more negative light, but only to the extent that they took part in liberal, “do-gooder” programs. Very few of these story-lines mention the 1999 repeal of the Glass–Steagall Act, which eliminated the de jure barrier between investment and commercial banking. This willful ignorance is necessary to maintain the false narrative that liberal government programs were the main cause of the crisis. It also allows the right to maintain a careful distance from the much loathed bankers of Wall Street. If the Tea Party could be overtly identified as apologists for the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act, I imagine it would lose much of its populist edge.
I suppose it just figures that leftist theories about the power elite and corporate oligarchy only became effective at rallying a mass political movement when the right made slight alterations and adopted them as their own.