Teabags vs. Douchebags

Why this may not be the second coming of the New Deal after all.

David Sirota May 27, 2009

When Time edi­tors fused Barack Obama’s head on the famous parade pho­to of Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt for a Novem­ber 2008 cov­er, com­par­isons between 1932 and the present day were already a shop­worn cliché. 

With stagecraft defining so much of contemporary politics--and with such a powerful media machine behind the image of conservative teabaggery--the truth doesn’t really matter.

If you were a work­ing jour­nal­ist in Wash­ing­ton worth your weight in banal­i­ty, you had made at least 10 gid­dy ref­er­ences to noth­ing to fear but fear itself” and the prospects for a new New Deal.” 

The FDR-Oba­ma com­par­isons seemed so appro­pri­ate – here was anoth­er Demo­c­rat elect­ed dur­ing an eco­nom­ic emer­gency cre­at­ed by decades of con­ser­v­a­tive mis­man­age­ment. But to make such a direct com­par­i­son in 2008 meant you didn’t know your ass from your teabag, or, more pre­cise­ly, the dif­fer­ence between a teabag and a douchebag, and how that dif­fer­ence explains why all the New Deal nos­tal­gia may prove foolish.

Teabag­gery takes its name from the Boston Tea Par­ty of 1773. Mythol­o­gized high-school his­to­ry texts tell us that colonists tossed British tea into Boston Har­bor in America’s first pop­ulist revolt. Today, as evi­denced by the April 15 protests, the orig­i­nal Boston Tea Par­ty has become a tran­scen­dent icon of pugilis­tic rad­i­cal­ism – a sym­bol of patri­ot­ic resis­tance against unre­spon­sive gov­ern­ment and elite douchebags.

Which brings us to douchebag­gery, defined by the Urban Dic­tio­nary as a phi­los­o­phy hold­ing that no one oth­er than [one­self] mat­ters in the least bit, and thus that oth­ers can and should be treat­ed like excre­ment for lit­tle or no rea­son.” In Wash­ing­ton, douchebag­gery has become syn­ony­mous with mil­que­toast polit­i­cal plat­forms, soul­less can­di­dates and anti-pop­ulist Estab­lish­men­tar­i­an pol­i­tics. To wit, Com­e­dy Central’s South Park sub­sti­tut­ed an over­sized douchebag (named Giant Douche”) for John Ker­ry in an episode about the 2004 pres­i­den­tial campaign. 

The birthing of the most famous polit­i­cal peri­ods and the suc­cess of their trans­for­ma­tive agen­das almost always hinge on strug­gles between Rad­i­cal Teabag­gers and Estab­lish­ment Douchebags. And typ­i­cal­ly, the teabag­gers of a pri­or era have defined the next epoch’s politics.

The Manichean his­to­ry of teabags and douches

It’s easy to think that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary birth of Amer­i­ca mate­ri­al­ized from the momen­tary benev­o­lence and fore­sight of colo­nial aris­to­crats gath­ered in Philadel­phia. But that break from the monar­chy of King George III, and the pop­ulist Jef­fer­son­ian and Jack­son­ian eras that suc­ceed­ed it, came from the first of the Manichean strug­gles between Teabags and Douch­es that mark Amer­i­can history. 

Through pam­phle­teers like Thomas Paine and rab­ble-rousers like Samuel Adams, the rad­i­cal colo­nial teabag­gers who fought the British douch­es dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War sowed the polit­i­cal ter­rain for inde­pen­dence, adop­tion of the Bill of Rights, and then for the (rel­a­tive­ly) rad­i­cal pre-Civ­il War eras. 

Like­wise, decades of activism by abo­li­tion­ists (teabag­gers) forced the pres­i­dent to take on the South’s agri­cul­tur­al oli­garchy (douchebags) and begin the process of end­ing the insti­tu­tion of slav­ery. Teabag­gers like William Jen­nings Bryan, rur­al pop­ulist par­ties and labor activists rail­ing against cross­es of gold” set the stage for Theodore Roo­sevelt to break from fel­low Repub­li­cans and begin trust-bust­ing the cor­po­rate douchebags of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. And those same teabag­gers helped set the stage for Franklin Roosevelt’s trans­for­ma­tive douchebag rout in the 1930s.

Though the 30-year peri­od between the two Roo­sevelts’ pres­i­den­cies is por­trayed as a hal­cy­on era of coun­try club Repub­li­can douchebag­gery, the decades were also marked by teabag­gers orga­niz­ing on the left. Reac­tionary forces like the Ku Klux Klan and the right-wing nativists made their pres­ence felt, but the zeit­geist of the peri­od was embod­ied in mil­i­tant labor activism, social­ist and com­mu­nist agi­ta­tion for a big­ger wel­fare state, Bonus Army revolts for vet­er­ans ben­e­fits, and fem­i­nist activism for suf­frage and equality.

Thus, when the Great Depres­sion hit, a polit­i­cal infra­struc­ture and ide­o­log­i­cal fer­ment had already cre­at­ed the con­di­tions that would chan­nel the cataclysm’s angst through the prism of a pro­gres­sive eco­nom­ic pro­gram. Pro­gres­sives had laid the ground­work dur­ing the 1920s for the kind of polit­i­cal dynam­ic that moved the debate left­ward and led to the New Deal. 

Hid­ing douchebag­gery inside a teabag

Pro­gres­sives remained the dom­i­nant rab­ble-rous­ing teabag­gers from the Great Depres­sion until the 1970s, win­ning bat­tles not only for the New Deal, but for civ­il rights leg­is­la­tion and the end of the Viet­nam War. Slow­ly, how­ev­er, through icons like William F. Buck­ley, Bar­ry Gold­wa­ter and ulti­mate­ly Ronald Rea­gan, con­ser­v­a­tives fig­ured out how to pack­age their Estab­lish­ment agen­da of tax cuts, dereg­u­la­tion and pri­va­ti­za­tion in the argot of out­sider pop­ulism. By claim­ing extrem­ism is no vice,” rail­ing on wel­fare queens,” and insist­ing gov­ern­ment is the prob­lem,” the Right dis­cov­ered how to wrap cor­po­rate douch­bag­gery in a teabag.

With the help of con­ser­v­a­tive think tanks, colum­nists, tele­vi­sion pun­dits and talk radio hosts, this sleight-of-bag cre­at­ed the pol­i­tics of per­pet­u­al out­rage pred­i­cat­ed on the con­tra­dic­tions detailed by Thomas Frank in What’s the Mat­ter With Kansas?,: impov­er­ished rur­al states elect­ing Sen­a­tors on promis­es to cut inher­i­tance tax­es on mil­lion­aires and blue-col­lar work­ers sup­port­ing law­mak­ers who back job-killing trade deals – as Frank puts it, a coun­try nail­ing itself to that cross of gold.” 

Today, Repub­li­can con­gress­men cham­pi­on a flat tax and embrace anti-immi­grant xeno­pho­bia, media voic­es like Glenn Beck infuse their rhetoric with vio­lent themes, and Texas Gov. Rick Per­ry ® endors­es the con­cept of seces­sion – all while a so-called tea par­ty” move­ment against gov­ern­ment is man­u­fac­tured via Fox News and a team of lob­by­ists from Free­dom­Works, a cor­po­rate front group in D.C.

This might be unim­por­tant dur­ing times of rel­a­tive pros­per­i­ty. But if, as many econ­o­mists pre­dict, the cur­rent finan­cial cri­sis becomes the sec­ond Great Depres­sion, the peri­od between 1980 and today will have been a cru­cial pre-depres­sion era – the era whose teabag­gers, like those of the pre-depres­sion 1900 – 1932 peri­od, could dri­ve the poli­cies that emerge from the crisis.

The road to Douche­dom could be paved with teabags

In terms of tac­tics, yesterday’s pre-New Deal labor orga­niz­ers, Bonus Army marchers and com­mu­nist agi­ta­tors have become the mili­tias, tax deniers, Ron Paul-fol­low­ers and Min­ute­men who pop­u­late the right. And these new voic­es are being ampli­fied by a pow­er­ful Fox News/​talk radio noise machine that no teabag­ger ever had before.

The first 100 days of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, the main tar­get of the teabag­gers ire has been punc­tu­at­ed by per­sis­tent estab­lish­ment douchebag­gery. Specif­i­cal­ly, the new White House has sup­port­ed anoth­er bank bailout, con­sid­ered an attempt to under­mine autowork­ers’ unions, resist­ed imple­ment­ing tough Roo­sevelt-esque finan­cial reg­u­la­tions, and com­pet­ed with Repub­li­cans to see who can float the biggest tax breaks. 

Cer­tain­ly, Pres­i­dent Obama’s bud­get includes some pro­gres­sive pri­or­i­ties, but the fram­ing and over­all direc­tion of the pol­i­cy debate reflects the pull of right-wing pop­ulism. The admin­is­tra­tion is still try­ing to out-tax-cut the GOP, still cit­ing defense bud­get increas­es as proof of tough­ness,” and still laugh­ing off crim­i­nal jus­tice reform pro­pos­als for fear of los­ing tough on crime” battles.

In the lead up to and after­math of the April 15 tea par­ties, pro­gres­sives used their lim­it­ed media resources (MSNBC pro­grams, Air Amer­i­ca shows, blogs, news­pa­per columns, etc.) to make fun of the con­ser­v­a­tive pro­tes­tors. Many voic­es lament­ed that in rail­ing on gov­ern­ment and demand­ing more tax cuts, con­ser­v­a­tives con­tin­ue to cham­pi­on the Establishment’s wish list – not gen­uine teabag populism. 

On its mer­its that is true. The April tea par­ties were orga­nized by cor­po­rate lob­by­ists and backed by the same mon­eyed Repub­li­can douchebags that drove the econ­o­my into the ground. But with stage­craft defin­ing so much of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics, and with such a pow­er­ful media machine behind the image of con­ser­v­a­tive teabag­gery, the truth doesn’t real­ly matter. 

That means until pro­gres­sives stop spend­ing their time ridi­cul­ing teabag­gery and start co-opt­ing it through their own brand of full-throat­ed pop­ulism, we will con­tin­ue to be por­trayed as the inept douchebags in the Manichean strug­gle – and we may see any new New Deal” oppor­tu­ni­ty pass us by.

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A New Way For­ward is orga­niz­ing around the demands of Nation­al­ize, Reor­ga­nize and Decentralize.”
David Siro­ta is an award­win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and an In These Times senior edi­tor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 cam­paign. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @davidsirota.
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