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 cliche.
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 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.
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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 (R) 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. n
A New Way Forward is organizing around the demands of “Nationalize, Reorganize and Decentralize”