On Tea Parties and Red Tories On Tea Parties and Red Tories
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On Tea Parties and Red Tories

by Zach Dundas

April 18, 2009

How the British philosopher Phillip Blond could save American conservatism

Did you catch tea party fever this week? No? You missed it? Tax Day-and the economic crisis, Barack Obama, the stimulus package, our successive industrial bailouts, and the alleged onset of socialism, fascism, communism, or whatever scary –ism Glenn Beck found on Wikipedia this week-brought right-wingers to the streets, where they paid quasi-historical tribute to the Revolutionary bandits of Boston Harbor and… well, they vented.So far, the so-called  Tea Party Movement-which first flickered to life this winter-looks like the Right doing a bad imitation of the Left in a kind of Fox News-facilitated primal scream therapy. Super-blogger Andrew Sullivan, a heretical conservative himself, memorably summarized the tea parties' angry grab-bag approach to the issues as "a dog's breakfast."Too bad, because American conservatism could use a radical makeover right now. Since Obama won last November, the Republican Party and the movement it represents have thrashed around like wounded grizzlies. Beck weeps on television and blathers about Big Brother; David Frum and Rush Limbaugh engage in verbal kumite; the GOP congressional delegation appears to believe Twitter will prove the key to the 2010 midterms. Somehow, none of it quite works for us, and that's bad news; in a time of crisis, a democracy needs a creative, engaged, and attractive opposition.Maybe the Republicans need to expand their intellectual horizons, and discover that there is intelligent life on the Right, if not on the talk-radio dial. If the tea partiers want to get really radical, they should check out one of the most provocative conservatives out there right now: British philosopher Phillip Blond.Blond is the leading exponent of the so-called "Red Tory" tradition, a strain of British Conservative politics that has no exact American equivalent. As Blond explained in a recent piece in Prospect, Red Toryism's philosophical roots get a bit complicated. Basically, though, the Red Tories argue that modern free-market capitalism poses as potent a threat to individual liberty and communities as Big Government. Red Tories lump big-box stores, industrial agriculture, and high-finance shenanigans together with heavy-handed bureaucracy and high taxes: all, in their view, undermine the rock-ribbed Conservative values of local autonomy, strong community, diverse traditions, and decentralized power. The Red Tories view themselves as defenders of grassroots community against both the free market and the State.No, it doesn't sound much like anything the American GOP has to offer-what, no FEMA concentration camps? And yes, the idea that Conservatives could somehow outflank the socialist-rooted Labour Party from the left is deliciously counterintuitive at best. Blond, however, thinks the Red Tory moment is nigh. Britons now firmly identify Gordon Brown's Labour government, in power for well over a decade, with The Man. Collapsing home values and the global financial meltdown sent the British economy reeling, with distressing effects. Pubs are shutting down. High-street shops are dying off in droves. To many, government plans to close many rural post offices symbolize an out-of-touch ruling class.The Red Tory response includes some strong medicine. Blond proposes that a new Conservative government-presumably led by David Cameron, whom most current polls favor to win the election that must be held before next June-break up big-business monopolies. This would set the Government on a collision course with, among others, Tesco, the mega-chain that dominates Britain's grocery trade. That alone would make for high political drama, but Blond also wants to launch a new micro-banking system through the Post Office, secure government help for new locally owned co-op businesses, and establish new tax systems to encourage worker ownership of business.In short, Phillip Blond sounds more like the earnest yuppie/hippie down the street who really wants you to join her community-supported agriculture group than a standard-issue right-winger. "If Conservatives are to take power from the market state and give it to the people," he writes, "they must develop a full-blooded ‘new localism' which works to empower communities." He probably composts.
Whether the Red Tories make a mark in British politics remains to be seen, but Republicans should start stealing their ideas now. For one thing, the central (and mostly ignored) fact of the GOP's recent troubles is its complete demise in urban areas. For many voters who live in major cities, the Republican Party no longer exists. Obama won cities of more than 50,000 by 28 points. In the biggest cities, the Democrat took 70 percent of the vote. Yes, the Republicans worked long and hard to lock down rural areas and the exurbs; unfortunately for them, most voters live in cities and urbanized suburbs. Republicans didn't just lose pinko-commie bastions like New York, Chicago, and Seattle. They lost Charlotte, Denver, and Omaha. Even in red states, Republicans lost cities. They lost Laramie, Wyoming. They lost Fargo.Does a Republican Party that can't win Fargo have much of a future? No. Nor do a bunch of dyspeptic tea parties, cheered on by the guys who give The Daily Show its punch lines, seem like the way to attract urban voters (or young voters, minority voters, women voters, or any of the other groups repelled by the current GOP). What if, however, the Republicans cribbed a few notes from the Red Tories? What if they countered the endless wave of federal bailouts for big business and the Obama Administration's penchant for enormous federal initiatives by becoming the Party of Small and the Party of Local? The next time a Food Bill lumbers through Congress, Republicans could out-do Democrats in demanding an end to subsidies for Big Ag and championing small organic operations. With cities across the Rust Belt facing implosion, Republicans could steal the Red Tories' enthusiasm for locally-controlled land trusts and real-estate cooperatives. A GOP congressman could even introduce a bill to legalize squatting on abandoned urban property. Republicans for expropriation? At this point, why not?The Red Tory way may sound … well, "left-field" is kind of pun-laden, but also appropriate. If nothing else, though, Phillip Blond's creative end-run around traditional ideology could help Republicans persuade Americans to give their party another look. Right now, it doesn't look like simply attacking Obama is paying dividends-certainly not with the voters most disaffected from the Republican "brand." If the GOP decided to take on Wal-Mart, however, it could be a different story.Guest blogger Zach Dundas is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.
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On Tea Parties and Red Tories