The Movement Veto and Medicare

When Democrat Kathy Hochshul won a normally Republican Congressional seat in special election in upstate New York, all of the party regulars weighed in with their distinctive spins on what this means or doesn’t mean for the elections coming up in 2012.  (This is normal politics; take a look at the glee with which Republicans greeted the election of Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts.)

The Democrats are having an easier time of it, arguing that Republicans in competitive districts are going to have to spend a lot of time explaining their votes for Paul Ryan’s budget, particularly the conversion of Medicare into a voucher plan subsidizing private insurance.  Critics are quick to note that this will save money only if coverage is restricted and that most people are unlikely to be able to afford to buy the coverage Medicare now provides.

Understandably, voters–who generally support Medicare–are upset.  The Republican answers [a) we won’t change anything for anyone over 55; b) this is the only way to save Medicare; or c) the Democrats are worse] haven’t worked so far.  Rep. Ryan says this is because Republicans haven’t been clear and steady enough–and the Democrats are attacking them with tv ads.  (Shocking!)

The Republican Party’s leadership has so far enforced discipline on this budget–only four House Republicans voted against the budget; only five Senate Republicans voted against it.  But candidates will make their own calls as they interpret the tea leaves of this special election and the many polls that will follow.

Social movements in the US are closely tied to mainstream politics and parties.  The Tea Party reminds me of a number of movements on the left, animated by mostly middle-class, educated, white people who are normally engaged in mainstream politics.  I’ve made comparisons with the nuclear freeze movement in the recent past.

Over time, social movements can enforce something of a veto within a political party, most successfully in national elections.  Although a few Democrats who oppose abortion rights and a few Republicans who support them get elected to the Senate, it’s hard to imagine that a candidate for the presidential nomination could win with the wrong position for her party.

Many movements are easier for candidates to fudge.  In 1984, six of the seven Democratic candidates supported a nuclear freeze, in accord with a strong political movement and strong popular support (consistently over 70%) (much stronger, in polls, than the Tea Party).  But they coupled their support for a freeze with other positions that contradicted it–like advocating new nuclear weapons systems.  In effect, they defined a freeze they could support without alienating people who might otherwise vote for them.

Is the Tea Party really tagged with the Ryan Budget and the end of Medicare?  (In Orwell’s terms, this is ending Medicare to save it.  Or was that Lt. William Calley?)  If so, that’s a rough spot for the movement which expressed other, more popular, goals.  If so, candidates seeking to cultivate movement support in the primaries are going to have a lot to explain to independent voters once they win nominations.

While the freeze was organized around a specific policy proposal that institutional supporters redefined and diluted, the Tea Party’s core goals were never so sharply articulated–and there’s a great deal of conflict among national Tea Party groups–and between those organizations and grassroots groups–on just what the movement is about.  (Ask about immigration or social issues to see.)

By hanging the Republican Party and the movement on a very specific–and very unpopular–program, Paul Ryan and the Republican leadership have served neither very well.  I’m certain Democratic consultants are grateful.  The open question at the moment is whether movement activists or Republican regulars will be the first to defect from the proposal.  (I’d bet on the movement.)

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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