The Anarchy of the Tea Party

As a catastrophic U.S. debt default looms, Republicans keep demanding they “get something” in exchange for reopening the government and removing a gun from the head of the economy. The new talking point is that “Democrats won’t negotiate!” But ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar sees an anarchic method behind the madness.

By Paul R. Pillar

One has to struggle to find any principles or consistency in the ongoing effort at extortion that has involved shutting down government operations and threatening default on the national debt.

The most common lines of analysis of what is happening, having to do with such things as gerrymandering and Tea Party primary challenges and the role of money in politics, have nothing to do with principle. Those lines of analysis are mostly correct and explain most of what needs to be explained.

The Confederate battle flag made an appearance at a weekend Tea Party rally outside the White House. (Photo via David Frum on Twitter)

But in the interest of understanding even better what is going on, it behooves us to look for any ideational threads being followed by the extortionists — any even halfway consistent set of beliefs that shows up not only in demands being made about Obamacare or the budget but in other areas, including foreign policy.

There may be such a thread in the form of anarchism, a belief that governmental authority is per se bad and anything that helps to tear it down is good. Some critics have already affixed the label “anarchist” to the extortionists, who naturally do not like it because the word is widely taken to be pejorative.

But the labeling in this instance has validity, with regard to both methods and objectives. The method being used is anarchic in that it represents a rejection of long-established procedures for making policy in a representative democracy. The anarchic nature of the objectives is seen in the insouciance with which the perpetrators have brought to a halt functions of government that they don’t particularly like, or, more often, that they haven’t thought about enough to decide whether they should positively dislike or be indifferent to.

In searching for corresponding approaches to foreign policy, one needs to begin with the caveat that we are not talking about a single clearly defined group of protagonists. Some of those involved in the current extortion support neoconservative foreign policies; others identify more with libertarian ideas and have different preferences regarding the U.S. role overseas. But all are on the Right, and there are some places where the same common thread can be found.

Remember when John Bolton — who was made the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations through a recess appointment after failing to win congressional confirmation for the job — said that the top ten floors could be lopped off the U.N. headquarters and no one would know the difference?

The international system is anarchic in the sense that there is no world government. Bolton’s comment (not to mention his conduct in the job) indicated a comfort with that anarchy, and discomfort with attenuation of the anarchy through international law and international organizations. The same attitude comes through in rejecting other attempts to impose rule-based order on parts of the international system, such as with the law of the sea treaty.

Such attitudes underlay the fervent unilateralism of the George W. Bush administration. The unilateralism was a rejection not only of the sort of institution-based order that U.N.-huggers and other liberal internationalists might like, but also of the kind of order based on balance of power that realists would favor. Again, this attitude involved comfort with international anarchy, grounded in the belief that the United States was strong enough to do whatever it wanted anyway.

Correspondence with what is going on in domestic U.S. politics today was even closer with the Bush administration’s biggest foreign policy endeavor: the Iraq War (on which libertarians parted company with the neocons). The makers of the war believed that after breaking down the existing order in Iraq — and by doing so, they hoped, breaking down the existing order elsewhere in the Middle East — whatever rose in its place had to be better.

This belief was another form of anarchist faith that tearing down governmental authority is inherently good. The belief also underlay the remarkable carelessness in failing to prepare for what would come after the toppling of the old regime in Iraq. Thomas Ricks in his book Fiasco aptly likened the attitude involved to that of the 1960s radical Jerry Rubin when he was asked what would come after the revolution. He would “groove on the rubble,” Rubin replied.

A lot of grooving on rubble is taking place now in Washington. The anarchist tendency apparent today is connected to the methods and habits of one of the energizing forces of the extortion: the Tea Party, which, as Fareed Zakaria notes, “has no organized structure, no platform, no hierarchy and no leader.”

The tactics being used in the House of Representatives represent a radical offshoot of a much more broadly evident American frame of mind that views what government does as inherently inferior to what is done outside government. Most of the other manifestations of that frame of mind are not at all anarchist, and most reflect principled thinking about such concepts as individual liberty.

But this would certainly not be the first instance of an extremist tendency branching out from what is otherwise a reasonable school of thought. One reason the anarchist tendency has been able to emerge as much as it has is that the more reasonable mainstream outlook, with its anti-government tilt, as come to be accepted uncritically as dogma without careful examination of exactly where, for example, free markets work well and where they do not.

The anarchist tendency is only one thread in the current travesty of some members of Congress threatening to harm the economy and the nation if they do not get their way. The explanations of this behavior that have nothing to do with principles still tell us most of what we need to know.

This is illustrated by the obsessive opposition to the Affordable Care Act, a law centered on free-market competition in the private sector and not at all like the kind of single-payer system that many on the Left would have preferred. A principled — and smart — opposition would have accused Democrats of stealing good ideas from Mitt Romney and the Republicans and would have urged voters, if they want to go straight to the source of good ideas and not to copy-cats, to vote Republican. But instead we have people who viscerally loathe Barack Obama and whatever he stands for and would rather destroy anything associated with him.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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11 comments on “The Anarchy of the Tea Party

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    A far better indicator of what is motivating these people is the number of them carrying Confederate flags to recent protests. There is a VERY simple way to end all this nonsense. Given that a Democratic Presidential victory in the next election is almost guaranteed by recent Republican shenanigans, here’s what to do. Get John Boehner*, Eric Cantor, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnel, Paul Ryan and Michelle Bachman off to the side. Tell them in no uncertain terms that, if this crap doesn’t stop, the next Democratic Presidential candidate is going to be Reverend Al Sharpton. The Democrats would have to be serious, no wobbling or fumbling. Let’s be honest. Al could do the job as well as anyone, and the Republicans would be pooping in their pants.

    *I lived in Germany for years, and that name is pronounced BONER. Who does he think he’s kidding?

    • gregorylkruse on said:

      Thanks for making me smile. It’s not often that happens while reading the comments. Boner indeed. It helps me cope if I play with names of people I detest. How about Kelly Coyote and Eric Can’t or won’t?

  2. EthanAllen1 on said:

    I think that Mr. Pillar,s thoughts regarding the behavior of the miscreants on the fringe of the present Conservative chaos are cogent and well expressed. However, the description of this cadre as anarchists might be better viewed as a new brand of uninformed nihilism that has morfed into a form of mob politics; the flames of which are presently being fanned by Conservative oportunists and their facilitators. Such mindlessness and wholesale ignorance is not the essence of enlightened anarchy of the sort practiced by the very founders of our republic, and many subsequent movements designed to thwart corruption and the abuse of power. Mr. Pillar, as a disclaimer/justification says:
    “Some critics have already affixed the label “anarchist” to the extortionists, who naturally do not like it because the word is widely taken to be pejorative.”
    It may well be that the said “extortionists” do not like being referred to as anarchists, that certainly does not speak to the veracity of such an objection on the part of a group that probably has no idea what an anarchist is in the first instance; and raises the question of why sober consideration should be given to to the opinion of anyone who considers anarchist to be a “pejorative” label; “widely taken” or not.
    In closing, I must rise to the defense of my now deceased friend Jerry Rubin, who Mr. Pillar has chosen, unfairly in my opinion, to juxtapose with his analysis in this writing saying:
    “Thomas Ricks in his book Fiasco aptly likened the attitude involved to that of the 1960s radical Jerry Rubin when he was asked what would come after the revolution. He would “groove on the rubble,” Rubin replied.”
    Though Mr. Pillar, experienced propagandist that his credentials attest that he is, chooses here to defame and denigrate the good name and intentions of Jerry Rubin by dishonestly conflating both with those of the “Tea Party” miscreants; and then providing himself “plausible deniability” by couching his defamation in an attribution to Thomas Ricks, it does no service to truth to resort to such revisionism; a practice often properly rejected by ConsortiumNews.
    As Usual,
    EA

  3. Mo Carter on said:

    Paul,

    It’s a shame that we have so many educated Americans that are just as ignorant and cowardly as our anarchist citizens. For any American to defend a RACIST BIGOTED jerk like Mr. Rubin cannot be all there, especially after what took place today in D.C.

    I wished I had the talent to write such an article and to express the exact point of view that you so pointedly expressed.

    You my friend have now become my HERO! Outstanding!

    • EthanAllen1 on said:

      “Mo Carter”
      Thank you! Your ad hominem name calling publically cements my point regarding the use of revisionist character assassination by those that know not of what they speak. Literacy, as you so clearly demonstrate, is not something gained by wishing and idle conjecture.
      Jerry Rubin was neither a racist or a bigot, and I feel sure that Mr. Pillar knows that; rather or not he agrees with Jerry’s political activism.
      Might I inquire as to what your incoherent mentioning of “..especially after what took place today in D.C.” refers to?
      As Usual,
      EA

  4. Bob Jacobson on said:

    Anarchism is a two-edged sword for those in command of the economy and thus our formal politics. Denigration of government as a countervailing force is in their interest. But at the cost of government’s role as a collaborator — via tax, regulatory, and spending policies. Knock down the sitting government and, if you’re a major corporate or institutional player, you then have to create your own. Weimar Germany is a handy precedent, but there are many more.

    Those who argue against anarchy have the reverse problem: you get the limited protections afforded by government, but the price is accepting continuation of the existing hegemony.

    That’s why discussions of this sort, which are highly abstract from the perspective of most Americans, are usually in vain. The thesis and hypothesis are both undesirable, so any possible synthesis — any alternative outcome — is equally so, from the get go. What will be will be, intellectual argumentation aside. Our political pretzel will not be solved by “one side” “winning” anything. Republicans v. Democrats, institutionalists v. anarchists: the differences are purely academic. When change comes, it will arrive not with flags but with a fury.

  5. chmoore on said:

    Very insightful article!

    Just to add…
    I suspect that anarchist actors actually just want themselves and/or their own narrow ideological authorities to be in charge – in which case anarchy would be the means, rather than the end.

    Whether a social/moral oligarchy, or a financial plutocracy – with of course, varying overlaps between the two – their words say they want freedom, as in “don’t tread on me”, but their actions show a high willingness to allow their ‘facts’ and decisions to be dictated to them.

    In ether case, they’re amp’d up fear of the world in general, leads to their mistrust of those outside of their narrow exclusive vision. Such folks can never put their trust in such a thing as a democratic republic. Their decisions are based on those ‘facts’ which are really just beliefs handed to them by authoritarian leaders they agree with, without any logic or critical analysis at all.

  6. Bull. Anarchist my a*ss. They are racists pure and simple First racists and segregationists co-opted the name “conservative” to hide their true motivations and give them respectability. No one questions that now; every one assumes there is a difference between Bubba in overalls and Jim DeMint in a suit. Jim DeMint is a “conservative” and Bubba is a “racist”. They are the same. The only difference being that one has undergone a more socially respectable “vocational training”.
    For an American white male to call himself a “conservative” is either shameless hypocrisy or equally shameless ignorance. There is precious little worth conserving about America’s past. Conservatism as it evolved in Britain simply meant those who wanted to “conserve” the old ways of doing things and were averse to rapid change. In America it has come to represent a convenient “cover” for social pathologies such as racism xenophobia and homophobia. Don’t give them another “cover” by referring to them as anarchists.