Interest group politics in a partisan environment

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One can tell from my posts that often I’ll see a news item or article online that prompts me to write. You need something to get you going. This post, though, arises from a conversation with a friend – in fact, a series of conversations – where the subject of partisanship comes up.

Introduction

So let’s go back to 2009 – hardly current news as we enter autumn of 2017, right? Spring of 2009 saw the Tea Party movement appear practically out of nothing. It began as a tax revolt, partly as a response to election of a free spending Democrat to the White House. In that sense, tax resistance eight and a half years ago is comparable to the extraordinary response to Trump’s election in 2016. Both are civic movements that show the frustration, dismay, fear and anger people harbor over developments in Washington.

We can compare Tea Party and Black Lives Matter as single-issue interest groups. We can also consider what happened to these groups after they decided to align with multi-issue interest groups, or major political parties. In these times, race and ethnicity come to dominate the political issues – taxation and civil rights – that motivated these groups from the outset. In these times, race and ethnicity seem to infect everything, and we go for this divisiveness with all the gusto a violent, disorderly democracy can muster.

Background

I do not want to write a history of Tea Party politics, or Black Lives Matter as a political organization. I just want to make a simple point about political alliances and strategies. I would like to explain why these two visible and promising groups made the choices they did. What reasoning did leaders use to arrive at their conclusions? Journalists generally don’t go into that when they report on large social movements. Nor do we have good resources to learn why they set the courses they did.

What’s significant is that the Tea Party started out as a political movement to protest and resist high taxes. Black Lives Matter began as a civil rights movement to protest and change the way law enforcement authorities treat black people. One movement said, you are not using our tax money well, yet you want to take more of it. The second movement said, encounters between black men and police officers result in unjustified death or other mistreatment far too often. It has to stop.

Soon the Tea Party rolled itself up into the Republican party, in particular the ugly anti-immigrant wing. Similarly Black Lives Matter rolled itself up into the most aggressive, obnoxious wing of the Democratic party, the ugly PC wing that cares little for free speech, and is willing to push boundaries of protest out toward violent, coercive, intimidating and even irrelevant methods of public action. One let anti-immigrant sentiment in the door, a set of beliefs and goals that has nothing to do with matters of taxation. The other let socially coercive methods of political correctness into its hallways, which immediately entangled the movement’s membership in identity politics, when its original goals had to do with civil rights and fair treatment for everyone.

Black people suffered mistreatment at the hands of police more than members of other groups, but the movement had the opportunity to stand for rights of all people murdered and mistreated by police. That many of those mistreated are black did matter, but the movement did not have to align itself with a political party.

Partisanship and violence

Alignment with a political party has bad outcomes in a partisan environment. First of all, independents who want no truck with either political party simply write you off. I’m speaking from personal outlook and sentiment here: I don’t have evidence from other independents to confirm that idea. I do know that I had a great deal of sympathy and support for both movements when they first formed, before they aligned themselves with Republicans or Democrats. When they decided to ally themselves with a major political organization, my interest in their activities, strategies and goals fell off precipitously. I do not want to waste my energies with political activities that contribute so blatantly to more divisiveness and civil conflict. The outcomes of that kind of political activity are altogether to predictable.

Take Charlottesville. The deadly skirmishes there are a delicate subject, especially in light of Trump’s comments after the violence that occurred there on Saturday, August 12. When my friend told me Black Lives Matter is involved in the movement to remove statues that commemorate the Civil War throughout the South, I immediately thought, that is the same kind of mistake the Tea Party people made. You involve yourself in racially divisive issues that have little to do with your original aims. Immigrant policy is not related to taxation. Civil War monuments are not related to police brutality and murder.

I know members of each group can make arguments the other way. Republicans don’t want to use public funds to support illegal immigrants. Democrats regard Civil War monuments as one more way to intimidate and threaten black people. I recognize people believe in these connections passionately. They are, however, bad strategy, politically and socially. You alienate potential supporters, you wrap yourself up in political movements and divergent activities that dissipate your energy. Who hears about the Tea Party movement now? You hear about the Freedom Caucus in Congress. That’s it. Five or more years from now, will Black Lives Matter be anything more than one more wing of the Democratic party, another group that has no momentum independent of the party it chose to align itself with?

Note too the way the mainstream press treats you when you become part of a major party. Mainstreamers were critical of the Tea Party from the start. Once it became identified with anti-immigrant forces – read white nationalist groups – mainstream media had no problem dismissing Tea Partiers as racists, proto-racists, racist sympathizers, or dog whistlers. Generally they have treated Black Lives Matter more lightly, as mainstreamers don’t seem to have a big problem with PC aggressiveness. In that way, you could say that Black Lives Matter made a good move, if it can participate in the energy PC activists generate, off-campus as well as on. I’ll hold to my argument that they have made a big mistake: that by taking on all the issues of the Democratic left, they lose the focus and energy that made their movement self-evidently true: stop shooting people, no matter what their color. Stop shooting black people. Stop shooting. Police do not need to pull out their weapons so often.

Conclusion

Let’s return at the end to the matter of strategy. We used to have a lot of single-issue interest groups. They tended to be loosely aligned politically, but it was part of our pluralist democracy that they could operate with little or no affiliation to the major political parties. As polarization has grown, so has strength of affiliation between interest groups and parties. Remarkably, both of these major movements became entangled with partisan party politics in no time. Both movements paid a huge price for doing so.

Each party commands loyalty from little more than twenty-five percent of the electorate now. Democrats have support from slightly more than thirty percent; Republicans have support from just above twenty-five percent. Independents are at about forty-five percent. Yet movements seem pulled into the orbit of these extreme, self-serving groups, like iron filings organized around the strong poles of a magnet. If so many people despise both major parties, what is the attraction? Why would a movement that has clearly defined aims want to align itself with organizations that display criminal tendencies? What can it gain from such a move?

One criminal tendency is theft and misuse of public funds. Yet a tax movement thought it in their interest to join a political organization that engages in theft of that type. Another criminal tendency is denial of rights of free speech. Yet a civil rights movement thought it in their interest to join a political organization that happily restricts rights of free speech for the sake of the greater good, as it defines the greater good. Best wishes, folks. It is not going to work. You cannot align yourself with the devil to do God’s work, or the commonwealth’s. That deal has not worked in the past, and it will not work in the current political environment.


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