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the power of radicalism — what we can learn from the Tea Party

August 1, 2011

It seems we’ve averted the “debt ceiling crisis” created by radical Republicans in the House with a budget agreement that can only be called a massive attack on working Americans by the very rich and the global corporations they serve. Progressive hand-wringing on this issue is everywhere. I don’t need to add to it here, although I can’t help remembering a great speech I saw given in Washington Square Park by Green Party activist and Ralph Nader 2004 running mate Peter Camejo. After listing a series of progressive defeats enacted by the Democrats — the Vietnam War, the Carter kickoff of the deregulation era, NAFTA, the ending of welfare in 1996 among them — Camejo shouted, “what do the Democrats have to DO to you people to get you to stop voting for them?” His words ring in my ears frequently; today is definitely one of those days.

However, I don’t want to talk about how the left and labor being in bed with the Dems has been the single worst piece of movement strategy, ever. I want to talk about this incredible Tea Party victory. I am inspired by these folks. Radicalism is powerful.

Yes, they have the Koch brothers money, the Fox media empire, and the super duper rich on their side. But more than anything, the Tea Party has demonstrated the unbelievable power that an uncompromising group of true radicals can wield in terms of domestic policy (their more intellectual predecessors on the radical right, the neocons, did the same with foreign policy). At best, the Tea Party represents no more than 15 or 20% of Americans. But they just showed us all that you don’t need a majority, you don’t need to convince “the center,” you don’t need to appear “reasonable,” you don’t have to get everyone to like you — to win.

Just for a moment, imagine if everyone who understands the ecological crisis we face — which is the majority of people in America — were similarly uncompromising. At every level, the carrying capacity of the earth for capital’s toxic bullshit has been reached. We have fouled our nest almost beyond repair, and our only hope is truly radical transformation (and adaptation). What if environmentalists were as uncompromising on TURNING OFF CARBON AND PLASTIC POLLUTION, NOW, as Tea Baggers are on the issue of turning off spending, now.

Nothing is easy, especially after decades of assault on the power of workers and citizens by transnational capital. But we have to begin with a sense of the potential power of uncompromising radicalism. Right-wing radicals have been the great movement success story of recent history, and whatever else they’ve done, they have managed to move American political discourse so far to the right that they can call the center-right Obama a leftist.

Mainstream progressives have been running from radicalism for a long time now, refusing to see, for instance, that it’s always been the radicals who generate inspiration, vision, and victories. Let’s learn from the right. Radicalism wins.

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