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Richard Wolff explains the history behind the Tea Party

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Since 2010, the Tea Party has enjoyed remarkable electoral success as a faction of the Republican Party. Now, with the government shutdown and debt ceiling deadline looming, party leaders and their ideologies have been cast into the national spotlight.

Now joining us to unpack all this is Richard Wolff. He is a professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is currently a visiting professor of the Graduate Program in International Affairs at the New School university in New York. His latest book is Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism.

Thanks so much for joining us, Richard.


DESVARIEUX: So, Richard, in your latest Truthout article, you write, quote, “The Republican-Tea Party alliance operates a weapon of mass deflection, protecting capitalism from criticism. Sadly, the Democrats neither expose nor attack the Republican project. . . .” Can you just explain how the Tea Party deflects concerns away from capitalism?

WOLFF: Yes. I think they do that by picking up on what is a theme in American history for a long time and which has always struck outside observers as somewhat bizarre. Let me explain. When millions of people lose their job in what is clearly a collapse of capitalism or a business cycle downturn, whatever you want to call it, in other countries, the workers who lose their jobs, the communities that suffer from unemployment, they point the finger of anger and resentment and criticism at the companies that fired the workers and at no one else. That’s their first line of criticism.

Here in the United States we’re different. We have been taught over many, many decades that somehow we shouldn’t get angry at the corporation that in fact fires us, but rather leap over the corporation and blame the government as much as possible. I always told my students that if I were a capitalist, I would be very pleased by this procedure. I can go around and pretend that when the economy is good, it’s all my doing. And then when the economy turns back–turns bad (excuse me), it isn’t my doing, it’s that other fellow over there, the one with the government hat.

And I think what the Tea Party is doing is really revving that up, really beating the drum to have people believe that the cause of the crisis is in some way the government, that the cause of the crisis not already being over is somehow a fault of the government to keep people’s upset resentments and criticisms focused away from big business, from the people who actually lay you off when you lose your job, and move it instead to government and government officials, so that the capitalist, the business community, gets off without the blame.

DESVARIEUX: But Richard, why has the Tea Party been so successful in this narrative and also electorally? You have popular movements that are coming from the left, you know, like Occupy Wall Street and things of that nature, and they didn’t fully engage in the democratic process. Why do you think the GOP has been able to be so successful?

WOLFF: Well, I think that they are building off of–or cashing in on might be a better way to put it–the last 50 years of American history. Let’s be real honest here. For the last 50 years, we as a people have felt it appropriate to criticize our school system, our energy system, our medical insurance system for the last two years, even our system of marriage. We criticize systems with one overwhelmingly obvious exception. That’s the capitalist system.

For 50 years it has been taboo in this country to criticize business, the business community, the economic system that puts them in the driver seat of our economic system. To do that has been to court a comment that you’re either ignorant or somehow disloyal to America and things like that. So we have a long history of teaching people from the beginnings of school that when you’re upset with things economic, your target should be government, not the economic system.

And the Tea Party simply cashes in on that history by saying, look, the economic crisis is the worst we’ve had in 75 years (true enough), and therefore you should be really angry (and we’re going to show you the way) at the government, which we are going to blame, because that’s what everybody is used to. I think they’re performing a function that makes it very easy to understand why they get such enthusiastic funding from all sorts of wealthy business interests, because, again, they’re shifting the criticism and the upset about how this economy is working away from the capitalist system that is the way we organize production, away from the people who sit at the top of that system, and focusing it instead on the government.

I’ll give you a stark example. Whatever the outcome to the current shutdown of the government, whatever victory or loss attends either the Republicans or the Democratic Party, the Tea Party, or Obama, the basic economic trajectory of the United States, including both the current crisis and the longer term, they’re not going to be much affected by all of this. This is all window dressing, if you like, a kind of political theater which doesn’t address the underlying economic process, because that’s exactly what the political theater is supposed to do, deflect us away from where the real action lies.

DESVARIEUX: The Democrats haven’t really played a passive role in this theater either. How would you describe the Democratic Party’s role in the ascendance of the Tea Party in this whole deflection of criticism of capitalism?

WOLFF: I think the Democratic Party bears a major responsibility for the success of the Tea Party. And when they berate the Tea Party and denounce it, there’s something peculiar, since they’re so complicit in this situation. You’d look long and hard in the history of the Democratic Party over the last 50 years to find a word of criticism of capitalism as a system. The Democratic Party avoids it. The Democratic Party joins in pretending that a political solution is adequate to deal with an economic system that has now collapsed twice in the last 75 years.

You know, I’m part of economics profession. We didn’t as a profession foresee this crisis. We didn’t imagine it would cut so deep. We didn’t imagine it would last so long. And we didn’t understand that it would resist the conventional fiscal and monetary policies that we’d been telling our students are more than adequate to manage capitalism. All of that wasn’t true.

But the Democratic Party has been consistently unwilling to engage in a honest debate about capitalism’s strengths and weaknesses, the kind of debate that could identify what’s wrong with it and enable people to fix it, or, if it’s unfixable, to go beyond it. And because they didn’t, because they never offered a real alternative, they have kind of left the field open for the Tea Party folks to take that ball, a ball that says you can’t criticize capitalism, you can only criticize politicians, and take it to its logical end, to the discomfiture of the Democrats.

DESVARIEUX: Really insightful commentary. We’re looking forward to having you back on, Richard. Thanks so much for joining us.

WOLFF: Thank you very much. And I look forward to you talking with you again as well.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Richard D. Wolff

Richard D. Wolff is a Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and currently a Visiting Professor of the Graduate Program in International Affairs at the New School University in New York. He is the author of many books, including Democracy at Work: A Cure or Capitalism, and Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA.