While there have been some spirited protests in recent days against Wall Street banks, the Great Recession has paradoxically generated more energetic protests from middle-class Tea Partiers than working people actually being hammered by wage cuts, outsourced jobs, disappearing health benefits and foreclosed homes.
The chief victims of the Wall Street meltdown have seemingly experienced their crises alone. Survival requires staying focused on desperately securing food and housing for their family.
In contrast, “status anxiety” — the fear of falling into the working class, as author and analyst Chip Berlet puts it — and a vague, often incoherent anti-government and “free-market” ideology have been sufficient to keep the diverse elements of the Tea Party unified. This unity has allowed them to become a visible, vocal and often vicious presence in American political life so far.
But as the Tea Party marches toward November’s elections trying to pull the Republican Party even further to the Right, some now-submerged differences on “free trade” and corporate globalization could potentially create paralyzing divisions.
TEA PARTY LEADERS FOCUS VS. GOVERNMENT
While Tea Party leaders seem intent on staying focused on opposing “big government,” there is likely to be smoldering resentment among Tea Party members against Wall Street and corporate CEOs who have continued to dismantle America’s productive base.
For example, Gallup polls show that the share of the public holding “a great deal of confidence” in banks fell from 60% in 1980 to 20% in 2010.
At least as infuriating to the public has been what much of the public sees as a an overt betrayal of U.S. workers, communities and the nation itself by corporate CEOs. In his 2004 campaign, John Kerry successfully captured the public mood with his attacks on “Benedict Arnold CEOs” shifting jobs from the US to low-wage nations and hiding capital in off-shore tax havens.
But under pressure from much the same Wall Street-oriented economic advisors now surrounding Obama, Kerry dropped what had been the most effective line in the 2004 campaign.
RUTHLESS AND ROOTLESS
The brazen tone of America’s CEOs as they pledge their allegiance to maximizing profit is remarkable, as they dismiss the U.S. as just a once-“protected domain.” Here’s a sampling of this mentality, as expressed in direct quotes:
- Ford is not an American company.
- What we [Cisco Systems] are trying to do is outline an entire strategy of becoming a Chinese company.
- The United States does not have an automatic call on our [Colgate-Palmolive’s] resources. There is no mindset that puts this country first.”
- We’re [McDonnell-Douglas] in the business of making money for our shareholders. If we have to put jobs and technology in other countries, then we go ahead and do it.
- We at NCR think of ourselves as a globally competitive company that happens to be headquartered in the US.
- Just as with the move of manufacturing overseas, you’re going to see an increasing flux of technical jobs out of the US.
- We [Intel Corp.] don’t have any protected domains anymore. We’re serious about being a global company, and that means expanding our workforce outside the United States.
In the words of economist Jeff Faux, author of The Global Class War and founder of the Economic Policy Institute, “Globalization is dramatically disconnecting the relationship between American corporate employers and their employees.”
Although corporate globalization has been a very central concern of labor and progressives, many people who view themselves as “conservatives” are equally uncomfortable with the ruthless and rootless conduct of US-based corporations.
‘FREE TRADE’ NOT ADDRESSED IN TEA PARTY CONTRACT
While the issue of trade is conspicuously absent from the Tea Party’s official “Contract From America” (as is any mention of Wall Street bailouts), opposition to corporate globalization has been central to recent versions of rightist or centrist populism that have gathered wide middle-class followings.
For example, popular conservative TV broadcaster Lou Dobbs, perhaps best known for his vitriolic attacks on immigrant workers, actually built up his audience on CNN with sizzling and sensible broadsides against corporations moving jobs to “low-wage labor markets” thanks to free-trade agreements like NAFTA.
Populist electoral movements of the middle class in recent history – like Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential race and Pat Buchanan’s 1996 presidential primary run – made inroads in large part because of popular resentment of U.S. corporations abandoning their communities and the nation.
REMEMBER THAT ‘GIANT SUCKING SOUND’?
Perot’s 1992 campaign heavily emphasized the “giant sucking sound” that NAFTA would create when U.S. jobs were vacuumed down to low-wage Mexico.
For Buchanan’s part, he used his 1996 campaign to lash out at many of the Tea Party’s familiar targets like “big government,” welfare, and affirmative action, but also worked in social conservatism and anti-globalism. But as I recall, it was Buchanan’s attacks on globalization that elicited the strongest response.
When Buchanan addressed a huge throng at Milwaukee’s Serb Hall in the spring of 1996, he received a rousing response to his attacks on big government, liberals, the UN, welfare, abortion and other standard bogeymen of the Right.
But then Buchanan turned to thundering against US corporations betraying loyal American workers and sending their jobs to young Chinese and Mexican women. The audience erupted in a full-throated roar and leapt to its feet as Buchanan declared:
It’s a dog-eat-dog competition using people who have no choice but to accept 25 cents an hour in China or $1 an hour in Mexico, with no protections. There has got to be a living wage for everyone.
My bet is that there is a considerable reservoir of this very same sentiment in the Tea Party rank-and-file.
DIFFERENT VOCABULARY, SAME SENTIMENT?
While right populists may label their feelings on globalization in terms of a need for “corporate patriotism” or “America first,” instead of the labor and Left vocabulary of “global justice” or “worker rights,” there is an unmistakable degree of fury over corporate globalization among the Tea Partiers.
With enough attention devoted to this issue, it could easily split the Tea Party in two.
But inducing such a division would mean re-visiting the issue of “Benedict Arnold CEOs.” And on that question of “free trade,” the top levels of the Obama Administration and the Democrat Party are just as remote as Dick Armey from the deeply-held beliefs of their base.