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Has the Tea Party changed US politics for the better?

Political scientists in the US have a sort of conventional wisdom that the informalization of politics—meaning protests and politics in the street instead of in the legislature–is always a bad thing. Mostly because it is usually accompanied by instability of democracy, of the economy, of the whole working system that makes a political entity like a nation-state.  And I agree, this kind of instability can be really risky. The conventional wisdom argues that it’s precisely this context that can open doors to military dictatorships, violent coups, and especially the rise of the Third Reich. They argue that you don’t actually want things to change too fast.

But this firstworlder is a staunch believer that the informalization of politics is the only politics that can be of any use to the poor. A formal political apparatus is really never going to be in the best interest of the poor, though obviously some governments will be better or worse. But the poor are not meaningful constituents of a formal politics, and thus legislative or electoral politics are only ever going to be minimally responsive to the poor, at least without an accompanying informal politics–the threat of roadblocks, strikes, and so on.

And because of that, in the midst of all the excitement (at least on the internet) about the Occupy Wall Street protests, I have started to ponder whether the left shouldn’t be thanking the Tea Party.

Bear with me, because this idea is not fully baked, but my theory goes like this: a lot of the conventional wisdom on the left, at least the mainstream part of it, argues that we must stick with the Democratic Party. We need a broad-based movement, and sticking with the (supposedly) centrist left is our only chance for real change, they say. The unions and the anarchists and the environmentalists need to join hands, like in Seattle 1999, and pull the party with us to the left if we want real social justice, goes the argument. The Tea Party, with their wack-o radical ideas and supposed disdain for the establishment Republican Party, has been doing just the opposite. They have been dreaming of the country they want to see and then demanding it [I’m not sure that’s true, since I don’t believe the Tea Party is actually a grassroots movement, but we’ll overlook that for the moment]. In other words, the Tea Party has provided a counter-narrative, showing that one way to get the party to follow you is not to coddle and cajole it, but rather to spit in its face until you have it begging for your votes.

The Tea Party has yanked the country far to the right, forcing us all into a situation of high stakes politics instead of the constant call to compromise. Could it be that we can thank the Tea Party for showing the US left that if we want to make another world possible, we can’t just hide behind the Democratic Party waiting for them to make it for us?

It’s a half-baked theory, and as a social scientist I’m a little scared to throw it out there without having researched the important empirical facts, but it’s an idea I’m tossing around…

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