Obama the Tea Party and the Future of American Politics with Theda Skocpol

Obama the Tea Party and the Future of American Politics with Theda Skocpol


(logo whooshing and tinkling) – [Announcer] This program is presented by University of California Television. Like what you learn? Visit our website, or follow
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channel, uctvprime, available only on YouTube. (energetic electronic music) – My talk today is about
Obama, the tea party, and the future of American politics. I think we can all recall the tumultuous, joyful scene in Grant Park in Chicago
on November 5th, 2008, when a massive crowd greeted Barack Obama, Joe Biden, their families, as the first African American
president of the United States was elected, and one who promised change that a very large majority
of Americans wanted at that point. It wasn’t, oh, two weeks later that Time magazine had a striking cover on its November 24th, 2008
issue, that was called The New New Deal: What Barack
Obama can learn from F.D.R. It had a picture of an open open convertible with a grinning Barack Obama with a fedora and a cigarette
hanging from his mouth, Franklin Roosevelt-style. The whole theme of that magazine was very similar to a lot of
the punditry, and the analysis, the breathless punditry at that moment, that we were on the verge
of a second New Deal, that the Democrats and Obama
were arriving in Washington, and were gonna change the
direction of American government, and the youthful coalition behind this youthful president was going to relegate the Republicans to permanent oblivion and take the country in a new direction. Okay, that was then, and
then, two years later, in November, 2010, the scene was very, very different. The Republican Party was not only not in oblivion, it had thundered back to one of biggest sweeping victories in any election in the 20th century, took 63 seats in the House to take the gavel from Nancy Pelosi and hand it to John Boehner. There were big gains in the Senate that brought the Republicans
within striking distance of grabbing the majority in 2012, and of course, in many
ways, even more important, the huge transformations
of state house posts and governorships in key states, including key states like
Wisconsin and Florida, Ohio, that Obama would need if he were to win reelection in 2012. So from them on, the question was, why? Did Obama and the Democrats fail to deliver the promised changes? I see people nodding their head yes, and you need to wait till
the end of the lecture to argue that. (audience chuckles) Or did something about what happened in this period reenergize the Republicans, and enable them to sweep around? I’m gonna be suggesting, in this lecture, that Obama actually accomplished quite a bit of what he promised, but in ways that provoked, and irritated, and enraged his enemies and opponents, and remained invisible, and largely disappointing to his friends. In any event, we can be sure that whatever changes
did or did not happen in that first two years
of Obama’s presidency, they did not lead to the
expected political payoffs for Democrats. So the sort of marrying
of policy redirection to the building of a
new political majority that had been envisaged at the time, by many analysts at the
time of the 2008 election, certainly did not occur. So what I am going to do in
my remarks today is, first, address the question of what
happened and didn’t happen. In other words, were there
major transformations that were accomplished
in the first two years? I can tell you that very
little has been accomplished in the last two years, so we can concentrate on 2009 and 2010, and then, to the degree that not as
much as might have happened, is that occurred, why? What were the limits on change, and why did it take certain channels during what I’m gonna call
Obama’s halfway New Deal? Secondly, what happened
to the Republican Party? Because during this period, we’ve seen the Republican
Party radicalize, and that’s not just me saying it. According to the quantitative measures that political scientists use to measure the ideological
positions of parties, the Republican Party has taken
the biggest leap to the right in any measurement in the 20th century. So we’ll talk about what Obama
did and didn’t accomplish, why it had this kind of
effect of frustrating friends and provoking and mobilizing enemies, what happened with the Republican
Party, and then finally, we’ll end it with some
reflections on what next, and next is pretty much now. We’re very close to next: not entirely, but the pivot to next is very closely upon us. So let me start by talking
about Obama’s halfway New Deal. Well, why was it that so many pundits, and even some analysts,
who were more sober, thought that there was an opening for a real redirection
of government policy, and a complementary building of a politics to support it and flow from it in 2008? Well, all right, the Democrats,
for the first time, really, since Clinton’s election in 1992, took the presidency and
both houses of Congress, and did so with more
substantial majorities, at least at the electoral in the presidential election for Obama. That’s a rare conjuncture, and it happened because both
the House and the Senate strengthened their majorities in 2008. The campaign itself had been fought with Obama being pretty clear that he wanted to change directions. In foreign policy, he promised
to withdraw from Iraq. He did promise to double
down in Afghanistan, so nobody can tell me that
he didn’t say that; he did, but he promised to withdraw from Iraq, and he also was promising to build a more bottom-up
political economy, rather than to double down
on the sort of trickle-down. He talked about taxes for the first time that
any Democrat had in eons, and actually stuck with it
when the fire got turned up, continued to insist that
he would raise taxes on people making more
that $250,000 a year. He promised, and redoubled
after he was inaugurated, to redirect health policy,
major health reform, education policy, environmental
policy, and energy policy, and that’s just a few of
the things he promised. This president was elected
with a youthful coalition that saw the highest
level of participation since the ’60s in a presidential election, with under-45-year-old
voters, minorities, women, and very much behind the president and the Democratic Party. The GOP appeared to be in total disarray after the election. Its leaders were in a state of shock. The victories that they
managed to eke out in 2008 were restricted to Southern states and to the Appalachian
Chain into the Ozarks. So a lot of pundits were thinking, too, that Americans would suddenly be open to strong governmental efforts, because of course all this coincided with a financial and economic meltdown, and Americans were telling pollsters that they were more open to
the government stepping in to do something. Now, I have to say that,
even at the moment, at the height of the hysteria that there would be a second New Deal, there were analysts, in my
profession of political science, such a dour profession, who were saying, wait a minute, and they were pointing to some things that I think even the White House, and probably a lot of people
in both political parties knew, which is that the 2010 election was gonna see a much less
of a turnout than 2012, that Americans will often say they want
government to do things, but are quite wary,
especially in crisis periods, when government appears
to be doing too much. So there were reasons to think that the Republicans were
gonna make more of a rebound than the Time magazine suggested, and that much of what was going to happen was going to happen quickly,
have to happen quickly, and might or might not be popular. The first months of
Obama’s presidency, though, seemed to underscore the positive narrative. His popularity remained sky-high. The Democrats put through a fairly sweeping American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and various other laws such as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that had been blocked under Republicans for the previous eight years. It looked as if, possibly, the president’s first budget was anything but the
usual snoozy document. It reiterated the promise to move forward with comprehensive health reform
that would expand coverage to the millions who didn’t have it, or were losing it in the economy. It committed to education reforms, and it committed to energy
and environmental legislation, including a version of cap-and-trade, and that’s only a few things. There were many other agendas being pressed by Democrats in Congress. So it looked, for a while, as if this kind of burst of
redirection in government policy might happen, and that popularity for Obama,
if not all the Democrats, might be sustained. But it didn’t take long
before things bogged down, and the popularity waned
as the economy plunged into the highest levels of unemployment, and the greatest levels of distress, particularly in the housing market, since the Great Depression. So I’d like to talk about what happened and what didn’t happen after that, by invoking a comparison to the first New Deal period of the 1930s. I’m not doing that to suggest that these two periods are the same, but to use the comparison to clarify what is different about the political and
institutional context in our time, and what was different about the crises. But they do invite comparison, because these are both moments
in the 20th, 21st century, in which reform-oriented
Democratic presidents, backed by large Democratic majorities, come to Washington in a moment of massive and profound
national economic crisis. And that brings me to the
first point I wanna make. We have to ask what
kind of economic crisis, and what the timing of the downturn was in relation to the arrival
of the reformist Democrat. In the Great Depression, I’m
tempted to say you’ll recall, but I don’t think any of us recall, but we recall from history. (audience chuckles) Roosevelt arrived three
years into the downturn. 25% national unemployment. So desperate were the
businesses, the farms, the homeowners, the
workers of the country, that the bills Roosevelt sent to Congress were passed by huge bipartisan majorities even before the written texts arrived. Didn’t last, but that’s the
way it was the first year. Obama, by comparison, arrived just as the crisis was starting, a financial crisis. He ended up, as it were, holding
hands with Herbert Hoover. Roosevelt had been very careful not to hold hands with Herbert Hoover. Obama had little choice because he was drawn into the negotiations to prevent the Wall Street meltdown from turning into a second
worldwide Great Depression, even before he took office, and continuing after he
moved into the White House. So he didn’t arrive at a moment when most Americans understood the need for massive emergency
action by government, and he certainly didn’t arrive at a moment when both parties were prepared to support his emergency efforts. Furthermore, his involvement in preventing the Wall Street meltdown almost certainly influenced his
choice of economic advisors, and his choice of
Secretary of the Treasury. He picked people with ties to Wall Street. Many on the left really
think that’s just awful, and maybe it is, but
it was understandable. Those were the people he
had been dealing with. Those were the people
that he probably hoped could talk these institutions
into righting the ship before it completely broke apart. So, from the point of view
of ordinary Americans, they ended up conflating the stimulus with the bailout of Wall Street, thinking of them as one and the same, and the president himself
appeared to be saving the big boys while allowing all of the rest of America to suffer losses in family income and, in many cases, employment. In many ways, middle class America began to wonder, what is this all about, and is this really addressing
what we care about? Obama did not stress investments and jobs, even though many of the
investments in the Recovery Act were about creating or saving jobs. Now, the second big thing, of
course, is GOP obstruction. Unlike the Republicans
and conservative Democrats who went along with the early stages of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, certainly they turned against
it by ’34, but the first part, Obama faced almost a solid wall of deliberate opposition
from Republican leaders from the moment he moved
into the White House. We now know that they had a dinner the night of the inauguration to set in motion this plan. It was a cold-blooded
but rational calculus on the part of the congressional leaders of the Republican Party:
McConnell and Boehner. They were dealing with a
demoralized, angry base being whipped into fear and anger by Rush Limbaugh and others
in the right-wing media, and they didn’t see any percentage in cooperating with efforts to limit the economic downturn, because they didn’t think they’d
get credit for cooperation, and they thought if the
economy turned up quickly, that would merely help
to reelect a president that they very much wanted to displace. Obama was slow to recognize,
I think it’s fair to say, that he wasn’t getting any
cooperation from these folks, but it’s empirically
obvious from the record. The stimulus was cut back, and barely eked through after a few of what counted at that time as moderate Republicans were allowed to take much of the spending out of the measure, and place more emphasis on tax cuts, which are not as stimulative of growth. And we know, we all know, that the long battle for
the Affordable Care Act, which passed only 15 months
into Obama’s presidency, was greatly slowed down by the willingness of
Republican leaders in the Senate to crack the whip, and
impede every single move, on every appointment,
every legislative step, about that bill and everything else, grinding the Senate to a virtual halt during and after that struggle. So that’s a second difference. Now, another difference
from the ’30s would be, not so much that there there were conflicts between conservatives and
liberals in the 1930s, and much of the rhetoric
of politics in the 1930s was just as, shall we say, unlimited in its demonization of the opponent as anything we hear now. There’s nothing about American politics that’s really a tea party, if I can say so in that tea party sense, the old tea party sense. It’s a contact sport, and there’s a lot of vituperation in periods of mobilization and crisis. But the difference in the 1930s was that ideological polarization and partisan polarization
did not perfectly line up. There were moderate to
liberal Republicans, who went along with parts of the New Deal. There were certainly a conservative bloc in the Democratic Party, which ended up being the arbiter of how far things like labor law reform, or the shape of Social Security, how many groups it included
in the society, went. And you might say, well, what
difference does that make? There’s polarization in both cases, between conservatives and liberals, but what I would argue
that in the Obama period, by the time he had
already arrived in office, this had already happened, the sharp polarization that lines up conservatives
with Republicans, and liberals and moderates with Democrats, was so extreme already, that that gave party leaders
in the Republican Party a more effective means for disciplining their cohorts, who were like-minded, and more of an ability to line up a message of opposition that is highly ideological, with the wielding of congressional power. So it does matter. It also matters, given the
norms of parts of the media, which will always give equal time to Democrats and Republicans, and so the message that would be heard, especially from the Republican side, would be consistent in
certain ideological terms, in our period. Now, that brings me into another
factor that really matters, and that’s the structure of our media, of mass media, of communications. Both Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama were innovators in
presidential communication. Franklin Roosevelt was famous for his radio chats
with the American people, fireside chats, in which he hopped over
the newspaper editors, who were mostly opposed to him, and got right into people’s
homes through the radio. Obama, as you know, does these weekly Internet video chats that are pretty good. They get to a lot of people and allow him to bypass the scrum that would take the message
in another direction. But that’s where the similarity ends, because by the time you get to our era, the 20th century norms of balance, in which newspapers, and
television outlets after the ’60s, kind of say, well, there’s
two sides to every story. Actually, it’s not just
two sides to every story, but that’s what they’ve
said for many decades: there are two sides to everybody’s story, so we’re gonna have one
Democrat and one Republican to tell those stories, or one pro and one con
to tell those stories. Well, we still have parts of our media, some newspapers, to the degree
that they’re hobbling on, in economic circumstances, some television networks that try for that, but we also have the growth
of a right-wing media sector around Fox News that is much more like 19th
century American politics. In 19th century American politics, media outlets were overtly aligned with one political party or the other, and frankly presented a
combination of propaganda and news. Everybody knew they were. That’s the way it worked. So now what we have is frank propaganda combined with information,
or disinformation, in the Fox Network, which is reinforced by a
network of radio talk hosts around the country that
echo those messages. That, coexisting with
economically-stressed, increasingly fragmented media outlets, some of them Internet,
some of them newspapers, that are still trying to do a
little bit of this and that. That combination of 19th century media and 20th century
institutions under stress, and increasingly fragmented, leads to a situation in which the right-wing
can set the agenda. Time and time again, Fox and the talk radio people raise some accusation or scandal, and the rest of the media
spends time discussing it. The New York Times
always waits a few days, and then has an article about how, what are we, sort of meta? (audience chuckles) But should we really be talking
about death panels, I mean, in the health care act? Now, my point would be that
that makes it very difficult for a government official, president, Congress, who are trying to promote
fairly complicated changes, to even get an explanation
of what they’re trying to do through the hubbub, and all the more so because the citizens are
partly aligning themselves by age group and by
partisan identification, with different sets of media outlets, so that people aren’t even
hearing the same facts or the same realities at all. Now, that brings me to
the final big difference I wanna draw between FDR and Obama, between the first New Deal and
the attempt at a second one, and that is there’s a huge difference between trying to expand federal government
interventions and benefits into new sectors of
social and economic life for the first time in peacetime, and trying to remake already deeply-entrenched
sets of regulations, benefits, taxes, and tax credits. When Roosevelt and the New Dealers were putting in place Social Security, some of the first labor laws, some of the first financial regulations, there was certainly intense argument about whether it should be done, but people had an idea that
something was happening, that something new was happening, and some sense of what it was, and that was true both
among the opponents, and among the proponents, and
the possible beneficiaries. Now, Obama arrives in 2008. He is proposing to move social policy and tax policy in a somewhat more middle-class and lower-income-friendly direction, and to make it a little bit less tilted toward business and the very wealthy, but he’s proposing to do that in an era of tight fiscal constraints, with a budget very much out
of balance before he arrived, after the Bush wars and social policy measures had busted the deficit
picture for the long run, and he is proposing to change things that are already embedded in the life of business sectors, and in the lives of
families and communities, but often in ways they don’t see. So for example, in higher education loans, Obama set to work to
remove subsidies from banks that they were using to channel loans through college financial aid offices, recapture some of those resources to expand the Pell Grants
for low-income students, and make more loans to
middle-class families at a lower expense to
the federal government. Sounds logical, but in
a situation like that, which was repeated, by the
way, in the health-care arena, a very complicated public-private
health-care system, in which Obama was going to retrieve some resources committed
to Medicare and Medicaid, some of the subsidies
being given to hospitals, pharmaceutical companies,
medical devices manufacturers, and unionized workers, and take those resources and redirect them to the
expansion of coverage for low and lower-middle-income people. In both of those cases, the people whose toes were
going to be stepped on, the businesses that were going to lose regulated profit
opportunities or subsidies, the wealthy people who were gonna be asked to
pay a smidgen more in taxes, the Medicare, wealthy Medicare people who might have to pay a little bit more, as you will recall, the unions, whose workers might have to take a little bit less generous tax subsidy for 10 years from now in their health benefits. So this is not really just partisan. All the players with
the embedded advantages knew their toes were being stepped on, and could mobilize
instantly in opposition. But many of the beneficiaries couldn’t see what they would get, either because the
transformations were occurring in things they didn’t even
know they were getting in the first place. There’s a lot good research now that shows that Pell Grant recipients don’t even know they’re
getting a Pell Grant, whereas GI benefits after World War II, every GI knew, and that’s a direct benefit, but it’s so embedded in
the layers of tax credits, and loan subsidies, and
letters that nobody can read, that aren’t in English,
that they don’t know. And certainly, large numbers of people who were going to be beneficiaries of the Affordable Care Act, the 30 million who were going to get expanded, affordable health
coverage through Medicaid, or through subsidies on the
health insurance exchanges, they didn’t know what
they were going to get. So there’s a huge difference between putting into place fairly clear, direct government benefits and regulations in the first place, and trying to rework a
forest of regulations, subsidies, and benefits, that include many invisible tax credits and subsidies for businesses
to deliver things, or non-profits to deliver
things to people indirectly. There’s a huge difference, and Obama, in many ways,
has paid the price, because his enemies knew, and his friends still
don’t know, in many cases, what they stand to get, or
what they have already gotten. Now, that brings me to what
I wanna talk about next, which is the tea party
and the Republican Party. I’ve talked about all
this stuff about Obama, but in the long run of history, people may look back
at this period and say, the real story here was not the Democrats, not their attempts to
change things in Washington, but the radicalization
and the mobilization of the Republican Party. It’s certainly not Dwight Eisenhower’s
Republican Party anymore. It’s not Richard Nixon’s Republican Party. It’s not even John
McCain’s Republican Party, because remember, in 2008 John McCain said global
warming was a serious issue, sorta advocated cap-and-trade, he was a little vague on that, and he certainly reiterated
that Republicans, too, wanted to get health
insurance to everyone, it’s just that they had a
different way of doing it. That’s not where we are now
with the Republican Party. There has been a documentable
leap to the right in what party leaders,
candidates, and officeholders are prepared to say about
all of these issues, and in the quantitative measures that political scientists use to measure their voting behavior. So what happened? In many ways, this was a period in which the cold-blooded
leadership calculation, that’s nevertheless rational,
that I described in 2009, that the Republican
leaders in Congress took, to oppose Obama and hope for
the best in the next election, that was reinforced by the eruption and the pincer movement of the tea party. Now, what do I mean by that? It was just a few weeks
into Obama’s presidency when a rant, as it came to
be called, occurred on CNBC. Rick Santelli, a financial commentator, went into an emotional rant
in his television program, invoking the founding
fathers, including Jefferson. Is there a bust of Jefferson? No. To condemn mortgage assistance being put out by the Obama
administration to losers, neighbors that were freeloading on the real Americans, and he called for tea party protests, and within weeks there were
regional demonstrations cheered on by Fox News and
right-wing radio commentators, and we saw older people carrying signs denouncing Obama as a
communist, a socialist, a Nazi, all at once. (audience chuckling) It’s almost as if the pact
had returned temporarily. And within weeks after that, by late spring and through
the summer of 2009, while the regional
demonstrations were going on, and building to the big one in Washington that was held in September
of 2009 for the first time, tea partiers were taking
another step which, to a student of American
civic life like myself, is quite extraordinary. Across the country,
they started organizing, regularly meeting local tea parties that met once a week, or once a month. In our book, Vanessa
Williamson and I have a map showing that they were all
across the United States. They were put together by people who often met each
other for the first time during some of the protests, and they were quite an
achievement in this era, where locally-meeting
citizens groups rarely happen, and are not usually newly created. By 2010, tea partiers were beginning
to influence elections. They were credited with part
of the Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts, which really sent a cannon
shot through Washington DC, and they were certainly
responsible for, say, Crist being, the moderate Republican Crist, being defeated in Florida, and Marco Rubio displacing
him in the Republican ticket. They went on, during the course of 2009, to influence quite a few substitutions of very, very conservative Republicans, for merely very conservative Republicans, and were credited with a lot of the energy that helped the sweep of the Republicans that I described earlier,
in November, 2010. Now, one of my graduate students,
Vanessa Williamson, and I were working on other projects
as all this began to unfold. I was working on the Obama presidency, and we obviously noticed
something is happening here, and we were very interested
to figure out what it was. So we set out to do the research that’s been published
in the tea party book, and we threw every possible
research method at it. We collected all the surveys that asked who tea partiers
were, what they thought, what other Americans thought of them, and arrayed them over time. We studied media coverage
of the tea party, Fox News and CNN. We pulled together electoral statistics, and we commissioned a
couple of undergraduates to help us put together a database of the 900 tea parties around the country, by studying their websites,
so we know where they are and what they’re saying on their websites. But we also wanted to take another step. We wanted to talk to tea partiers. Now, that was a new one for me (audience chuckles) I’ve talked to policymakers, but I’ve never talked
to grassroots actors, particularly those who think
that professors are demons. (audience laughs) And I can tell you that in tea party land, Harvard professors are pretty bad, pretty high on the list, and it doesn’t take much
clicking around on the Web to find out that I’m a
known New Deal liberal. (audience chuckles) I mean, you know. One tea partier that we were set to visit
her tea party in Minnesota. We’d gotten the governor, or the Republican who ran for
governor unsuccessfully on the with tea party support, he had arranged for us
to visit a tea party outside of Minneapolis. We were all set to go when
she clicked on her website on her computer one Saturday afternoon, and discovered who Theda Skocpol was, and it tells you something
about local tea partiers that she immediately
canceled the engagement. It didn’t matter that elites in her state thought she should cooperate. She wasn’t about to do that when she She wrote me an email, said,
your views are not ours. Don’t come. Well, we didn’t go. But we did go to visit and observe local tea parties
in several parts of Virginia, several parts of New England, and Arizona, and when tea partiers would allow us to come, I mean these are public
meetings, so you can go, and I went to one of them incognito. I’ll tell you about it
in the question period. But we usually asked, and when they allowed us to come, and when they allowed, agreed,
a certain proportion of them, to sit down with us for
one-on-one, personal, confidential interviews, they
were utterly gracious to us. We, of course, put aside our Harvard-ness (audience chuckles) for the occasion, and showed
respect to our fellow citizens, and that wasn’t hard to do, because the people we were interviewing were devoted citizens. They had organized volunteer meetings. They threw in their own money. Tea parties do not receive
checks from the Koch brothers. They are run like Methodist
church gatherings, in which ladies sell baked goods, and people put money in a basket, or they sell things like
beautiful tea party pins. I should have brought my tea party pin. Or biographies of Sarah
Palin, for a proportion of the The tea party pins are lovely. They’re made in China. (audience chuckles) But that’s how they raise money. So anyway, we visited these places, and interviewed people individually, and here’s what we found out by putting together our interviews with the survey research
and the other resources. Tea partiers are all older white
conservative-minded people. They always vote for
Republicans against Democrats, but they are suspicious of the established Republican leadership, officeholders, and Karl
Rove, for that matter. They feel very strongly against regulation and spending, but when you sit down and
talk with them one-on-one, you get a more nuanced view than you’re gonna get out
of any national survey. We, for example, were curious what they thought about
government regulation, and we had people whispering in our ear to find out if they
were against Wall Street and willing to regulate business abuses. Well, I can report to you that we never heard a single
tea partier criticize business in any way whatsoever, and although they didn’t like the bailout, they blamed the politicians,
not Wall Street. When it comes to regulation, they’re completely opposed to
any regulation of business, or any regulation of
private property homeowners, but they are very much in favor of cracking down on immigrants. All tea partiers in all
parts of the country believe the United States is being
overrun by illegal immigrants who are crowding into our
emergency rooms and our schools, and taking taxpayer-funded resources that they don’t have a right to, and they want the toughest
possible enforcement, at the border and in their communities, against immigrants who are not documented. About half of tea partiers are
also Christian conservatives, and they wanna crack down on homosexuals, abortion,
and family behavior. What about spending? Now, I will admit that Vanessa and I, going into this research, were skeptical that a lot of older people, and most tea partiers, I fit right in, most tea partiers are 45
and above, almost all, and most are 55, or 60, or above, and when you go to a tea party meeting, you arrive there and there
are big, Buick-like cars with bumper stickers like, Redistribute My Work Ethic, Keep Working: Millions
on Welfare Depend on You, things like that, or ones attacking Obama, and they are older couples, men and women, who are attending these meetings
together, in most cases. And so we were skeptical that
that demographic, if you will, was completely against
government spending. I mean, they’re on
Social Security (laughs) (audience laughs) They’re on Medicare, and they
are on veterans benefits, and they know those are
government benefits. Don’t let anybody tell you
these are stupid people who don’t know. They know, and they
think they deserve them, just like most Americans, they think they’ve worked a lifetime, and they’ve paid their taxes, and they deserve these
benefits, they’ve earned them. So what kind of government
spending are they against? Well, it turns out they’re
against government spending for freeloaders and moochers. I think we’ve heard this just recently, and who are the freeloaders
and the moochers? I mean, we wanted to
know, so we were all ears, and I have to tell you that in these interviews we just listened. We’d ask the softball-est questions, and just wrote down the answers
no matter what they were. So obviously illegal immigrants. They’re big on the
moocher/freeloader scale. Next would be lower-income people who, given the way they’re talked about, are often people of color, although people were very
careful in interviews with us never to overtly make racist statements. Except against Muslims;
no holds barred there. And young people. Young people. That was one of the most
surprising things we discovered in the interviews. People would cite their own grandkids and their own grandnephews
as examples of freeloaders. (audience chuckles) They wanted Pell Grants. They wanted food stamps. They wanted help going to college. They were moving in back
home with Mom and Dad, and not finding jobs, and
they supported that Obama, (audience chuckles) in a lot of cases. Now, older people, I can tell you, do sit around and gripe
about young people. It happens. But in tea party circles, it has a harder edge to it. It’s tied to a political fear that those people are asking
for taxpayer-supported benefits that they don’t deserve, that they’re getting ahead of themselves. Now obviously, hatred of Barack Obama brings together all of
these things at once. He’s a Democrat: that’s
his biggest problem, and remember, the
right-wing in this country went after Clinton with
just as much ferocity. So frankly, whenever one party takes
everything in Washington, that mobilizes the activists
of the opposite party, and when George W. Bush moved into the White House with two houses of Republicans behind him, there was despair in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, I can report that. People didn’t mobilize as
fast, perhaps, but they were they thought they’d lost their country, and that’s what these conservatives think, when all Democrats move in,
that they’ve lost their country, and I think it was even more shocking that they’d lost it to somebody
named Barack Hussein Obama. His black skin may be part of it, but I think his foreign
father is a bigger part of it, because of the sense that
America’s place in the world is changing, and that he might be tied to the Muslims, and that he’s young, that he’s a constitutional law professor who hangs out with Henry
Louis Gates at Harvard, that he is adored by the young. One woman said to us, “Two million young people
yelling, Obama, Obama, Obama!” You could hear in her voice the fear about what that
could possibly mean. So he is the perfect storm. He represents all the
changes: generational, racial, immigrant, moral, that these people fear
and want to fend off. Our country is being taken away from us. That’s what they say, and
that’s what they feel, and when you interview them individually, what you hear is not
so much anger as fear, and fear is a powerful,
powerful political mobilizer. Now, the other part of the tea party that I haven’t mentioned, I will quickly, has nothing to do with
grassroots anger or fear. It’s longstanding, ultra-free-market, billionaire-backed advocacy
groups that, for decades, have been working to turn
Social Security and Medicare into private subsidies
for insurance companies, to privatize them, or Wall Street, that wanna get rid of all regulations, that above all wanna block environmental regulations of any kind, and dismantle the EPA. Dick Armey and FreedomWorks,
the Koch brothers, and Americans for Prosperity, and various other very professionally-run, very opulently-backed advocacy groups, that, when this eruption
emerged, jumped on the bandwagon, renamed part of themselves
the tea party, in many cases, and put their elites
in front of the camera to speak for what the tea party wanted. So soon we have the
70-year-old Dick Armey, a former Republican leader in the House, a 15-year lobbyist for business interests, presenting himself as
a revolutionary leader in front of the media, to
tell the media, after 2010, media needs spokespeople
for the tea party, and the decentralized, grassroots groups are no good for that, so they
put the Dick Armeys up there, and they tell everybody the tea party wants to get rid of Social
Security and Medicare. Think of the irony of that. All right, now let me
bring us to the present, and stop so that we can have a discussion. Obviously, American politics
is not dull in our period. We went from the sweep into power of a pair of reform-oriented Democrats, perhaps on their way to building
strong majorities in 2008, to this backlash that was not
just a swing to Republicans, but something surprising
to political scientists, a swing to Republicans who
were, at the same time, being pulled far to the right, and where a pincer’s movement of big money interests
and grassroots activists were enforcing a new kind
of anti-compromise orthodoxy on Republicans running for
office, or Republicans in office. You really only have to
knock a few Richard Lugars, or Bob Inglises, or I’m forgetting the
man in Utah, Bob Bennett, you only need to knock a few of them off to terrify all of them in Washington. And then they suddenly
stopped voting for anything that could be construed in
any way as a compromise. And that was the point. That was the point of the grassroots mobilization from below, of half the Republican base, half, and the more attentive half, the half that knows what’s being debated, goes to the public debates, that sends delegations
to congressional offices, that sends letters, all the things citizens are
supposed to do, by the way, they do them. And you combine that with the money that can
flow into any election to fund a challenger to a
too-moderate Republican, and that’s where you get
to the situation we’ve had in the last two years, where Republicans refuse
to compromise on anything. Came very close to pushing the United States
of America into default, and the local tea partiers
I knew in Virginia, who lovely people, a lot of
the really lovely people, they were all for it, on
the grounds that, well, things were a mess already, so
why not just go all the way? The last time I heard that was when I was a new leftist in my 20s, and there were Leninist arguing that, and it was stupid then,
and it’s stupid now, but that’s the kind of pressure that Republican officeholders
and candidates are getting, and which Republicans, office-seekers, have not held up against. And a case in point is
a man named Mitt Romney, who has signed on to
every extreme grassroots and elite tea party
priority that there is. I thought he was doing it stealthily. I wrote an op-ed in April calling him the stealth
tea party candidate. Forget the stealth. He’s open about it. He’s both endorsing the
crackdown on immigrants that the grassroots prioritize, and the rollback of the
New Deal and Great Society, and the privatization of
Social Security and Medicare, which is what Ryan stands for, who is a protege of the Koch brothers, brought up in the Americans
for Prosperity network in the Midwest. So this is quite a turnaround, and what’s gonna happen next? Well, you know as well as I do. I can’t predict. All I can tell you is what
the possibilities are. It turns out that the 2012 election is an even more important
election that 2008. It’s one of the most important elections in American history, because it really is going to determine whether the attempts to, with difficulty, transform the direction of American tax, social policy, regulatory policy, that Obama haltingly
and imperfectly launched after 2008, will survive, the parts, like Affordable
Care, that passed, and proceed, or whether we’re gonna see, not just at rollback of Affordable Care and the other Obama reforms, like the Wall Street regulations, however imperfect they may be, but a radical rollback of the place of government in providing security and opportunity. I haven’t even talked about
educational investments. Those are all there in the radicalized GOP and Mitt Romney program, and believe me, if they control the presidency,
the House, and the Senate, they’ll do it in three months. Filibusters will not matter;
they’ll be overridden. The Congressional Budget
Office will not matter; it will be set aside. It’ll happen very fast, because they think it’s their last chance. They see generational, and racial, and social changes in the United States that are going to make it impossible to realize these conservative goals, which are heartfelt
for most conservatives, if they wait even one more election. So they’re not gonna wait. On the other hand, if Obama is reelected, the major accomplishments of
what I call halfway New Deal, which really were major,
the Affordable Care Act, I don’t care if it doesn’t
have a public option, it is one of the most
redistributive pieces of legislation ever to pass in modern America. It taxes the wealthy
and business interests to provide health insurance to millions of low-income and lower-middle-income working families. Its opponent know exactly what it is, and they understand that if
it is implemented after 2014, Americans will want to
keep its major parts. All of its specific parts
except the individual mandate are highly popular. Once they’re actually in place, along with the Medicare drug benefit, the 26-year-olds on
the parents’ insurance, the new rules of the game
for insurance companies, they will cement a new relationship between the however-muddling
Democratic Party that passed them, and the American majority, and so a lot is at stake politically, as well as socioeconomically, in the mere survival of that law. It will survive if Democrats
survive one of the three. It won’t if they’re swept. And that’s just the beginning. The EPA may be gone, or it may stay on, and the EPA is being
used, however haltingly, to push in the direction of new kind of uses of energy in the United States. The student loan reforms,
the investments in education, they won’t survive, perhaps,
in as generously-funded a way as anybody thinks is necessary, but they’ll be there, and that’s a big difference
from not being there. So it’s a very important election, and it remains to be seen whether the lagging economic recovery, the imperfectly-explained
Obama economic measures, Bill Clinton did a better
job of explaining it than Barack Obama ever did, and the irritating changes whose payoffs to the
majority are not yet clear, whether, with all of that baggage, Obama can squeak through to reelection. Now the one reason to
think it might happen, apart from Mitt Romney. (audience laughing) (audience clapping) By the way, no tea partiers that we interviewed in the spring of 2011 were enthusiastic about Mitt Romney, and you know why, they said? They said he’s not authentic. (audience murmuring) Not authentic. People didn’t name policies. They said, he’s not authentic. I wrote in my notes,
something we can all agree on. (audience laughing) I mean, he was governor of
Massachusetts as a liberal. So apart from that, the thing that is different this time is that in 2010, two out of five eligible
voters went to the polls, skewed toward the old, the
white, the conservative. The way it always happens in
midterm elections, but more so, because the elderly swung
heavily against the Democrats, they were convinced that
Medicare was being destroyed, that death panels were
being put into place. In this election, we’ll be closer to the three
out of five eligible voters that went to the polls in 2008, and the outcome may very well depend on how much closer we are. Because if you just ask for opinions, if you just ask registered
voters, even, Obama’s way ahead, but he’s not way ahead among those who are
necessarily going to vote. So it’s quite a cliffhanger,
in my opinion, still, particularly since a
billion and a half of ads are about to be unleashed
in the swing states, most of them on the Republican side, but the outcome on November 6th will tell us a lot about
the kind of country we’re going to be moving toward over the coming months and years. So let me stop on that. (audience applauding)

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