Dancing Dumb: The American Tea Party Movement and Historical Hysteria

cruz and palin

Dancing Mania was a perplexing social phenomenon that intermittently griped widespread sections of the European mainland between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. It often began with single individuals and spread to dozens or even thousands of men, women and children who proceeded to uncontrollably dance for days, or even months, often until many collapsed and sometimes died from exhaustion, heart attacks and strokes.[1]

One well documented occurrence in Strasbourg –The Dancing Plague of 1518– began in July when Frau Troffea took to the street in fervent dance. Within a month, some four-hundred had joined her. As the dancing consumed more and more of the populous, concerned nobles sought advice of local physicians who decided the plague was caused by ‘hot blood’. Although we now know that this conclusion is humoral nonsense, the authorities ignored this cutting-edge diagnosis and instead of prescribing bleeding, encouraged more dancing, even opening two guildhalls, a grain market and constructing a stage for the afflicted, believing continuous dancing would cause an end to the episode. The specific number is unknown, but through the course of the summer and autumn of 1518, dozens danced themselves to death.[2]

The exact cause of Dancing Mania still escapes modern Historians. Ergot, a psychedelic mould that grows on damp rye has been proposed as a contributing factor. But it is a point of contention, and social forces are generally assumed to have played a role. It has also been noted that outbreaks often coincided with times of natural disaster and economic hardship. Moreover, source documents note that observers who refused to join in were treated violently by the dancers and although some who partook reached apparent euphoric states, many were gripped with looks of desperation and fear as they danced.[3] Despite disparate attempts to make sense of these events, multiple Historians concur that fear of reprisal was a general contributing factor to the participation of at least some dancers.[4] Thus, regardless of the initial source, its social penetration radiated beyond direct causal proportion due to its force as a social presence: individuals engaged in the eccentric behavior to, ironically, blend in.

Dancing Mania has not returned. But I find parallels to the contemporary American Tea Party movement and current debt ceiling, government shutdown and ‘Obamacare’ debates to be inescapable.

The House Republicans seem to live in a world of their own. Poll numbers show that the current strategy to hold government funding hostage as a means to prevent enacting health-care legislation passed three years ago is highly unpopular. 72% of Americans, and 49% of Republicans disapprove of this action, and by a margin of 10%, Americans blame the GOP as the main entity responsible for the shutdown.[5] The strategy has led Republican approval ratings to drop from 38% to 28% since the shutdown began, and this derision is even reflected within the Party: 27% of registered Republicans now view their own party unfavourably. [6] Numbers for the Tea Party faction are even lower, with only 21% of Americans expressing a positive view, and 70% saying the Republicans are putting politics ahead of the country.[7] While, at the same time, approval for Obama and the ACA have risen to 47% and 38% respectively.[8]

Yet all the while some Republicans still scream they are speaking for the majority of Americans, only 5% of whom now approve of the job being done by Congress as a whole.[9] And this claim to speak for America is all the more absurd given the Republicans lost the House in popular figures by 1.4 million votes, only taking the House through gerrymandering antics.[10]

The question is becoming, why are Republicans embarking on such a seemingly suicidal mission in regards to their future electability? This is a point so obvious it has even been taken up by some Conservative pundits and politicians.

Bernie Goldberg, a man who has made a career appearing on the O’Reilly Factor and complaining about Liberals, penned ‘it would be great if [Ted Cruz] could succeed, but he can’t… Standing up for your principles is one thing. Committing political suicide is something else altogether.’[11]

Last week Republican Senators met with Cruz to discuss his end-game plans for the government-shutdown he spearheaded. When allowed to talk with anonymity during a post-conference closed-door meeting with the press, the general tone came off scathing.

One Republican Senator is quoted as saying, ‘It was very evident to everyone in the room that Cruz doesn’t have a strategy – he never had a strategy, and could never answer a question about what the end-game was.’

Another Senator went on to say ‘I think he’s done our country a major disservice. I think he’s done Republicans a major disservice.’[12]

Yet when speaking publically, most continue to march in line. But this is indisputably bad for the GOP. Beyond poll numbers, corporate America is decidedly against this action. Prior to the shutdown, the Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to Congressional lawmakers signed by hundreds of businesses stating ‘We respectfully urge Congress to raise the debt ceiling in a timely manner’.[13] This is coming from an organization that last November put its full funding force behind attempting to unseat President Obama.[14]

What is going on? Most likely, it seems, the Republicans fear Primary elections. The country is against them and much of their party is against them, but there is a sizable minority of fervent believers shifting the Republican dialogue. The grassroots Tea Party movement cannot swing general elections, but is a force to be reckoned with during Republican Primary season. This dialectic was observable in the shift in rhetoric by Mitt Romney after he won the Republican Primary in 2012.

It is not unreasonable to assume many Republicans fear appearing moderate could lead them to be usurped by more radical Republicans in the Primaries, leading many to commit actions that will doom them in the general election out of desperation to make it to the general election. It seems un-coincidental that almost half of those Republicans who have pledged to vote for a clean Continuing Resolution [CR], would it come to the House floor, occupy the most vulnerable Republican Congressional districts.[15]

John McCain [R-AZ] summed up the issue with disturbing clarity on CNN, stating ‘We started this on a fool’s errand, convincing so many millions of Americans and our supporters that we could defund Obamacare, which obviously wouldn’t happen until we have sixty-seven Republican Senators to override a Presidential veto’[16]

Republicans are dancing to their doom out of fear. Some believe, sure. But it seems inconceivable that the two-hundred-and-seven House Republicans who are uncommitted to passing a clean CR truly think preventing Obamacare is worth defunding the Government and allowing America to default.

And this is what is most perplexing to Progressives about this issue. Obamacare is not what we wanted. It is not single payer, it is not socialized medicine. Its origins are with the Republicans, Newt Gingrich and the Heritage Foundation as an alternative to the Clinton health-care proposals in 1993.[17] And when the specifics of the law are looked at, this is not surprising. It is market based and does not cut out insurance companies. It is simply an attempt to solve the issue with the reigning American health-care policy of allowing the poor and irresponsibly uninsured to use the Emergency-Room as their sole source of health-care, without resorting to European style socialized medicine. We already had socialized medicine, it was simply socialized emergency medicine that often bankrupted those who received it, but nevertheless passed those costs onto the population at large and raised overall health-care expenditure because people were prevented from accessing preventative care.[18] Some Republicans might be so ill-informed as to think Obamacare represents a Liberal apocalypse worth anything to prevent, but it is hard to imagine all are so naive.

This point is driven even further home when looking at Republican complaints over Government finances in general, and specifically the claim that Democrats refuse to negotiate over the budget. The CR passed by the Senate that is currently being held up in the House is $133 billion lower than the 2014 Obama budget. And even more strikingly it is $37 billion lower than the 2011 Paul Ryan [R-WI] budget, which was, at the time, derided as draconian and unreasonable.[19] The specific funding delineations of the Democrat budgets are not uniform to the Ryan proposal, but it is absurd to suggest the Democrats have not compromised.

Through budget compromises and caving on the previous debt ceiling standoffs, the Democrats have acted like the concerned nobles of 1518, they opened the guildhalls to allow the insane to dance in hopes that they would eventually come to their senses. And like in 1518, the numbers of deranged appear inflated because of all those who have joined in out of fear. But in addition of dancing themselves to death, they are going to dance the entire global economy off a cliff. We can only watch and hope those whose dancing is contrived avert course in the next few days.

[1] Sirois, F., ‘Perspectives on Epidemic Hysteria’, In M. J. Colligan, J. W. (eds.), Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis, (New Jersey: Pennebaker, & L. R. Murphy, 1982), (pp. 217-236).

[2] http://web.archive.org/web/20121013075434/http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/08/01/dancing-death-mystery.html

[3]Bartholomew, Robert E., Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns, and Head-hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion, (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2001) pp. 132, 139; http://web.archive.org/web/20121013075434/http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/08/01/dancing-death-mystery.html

[4] Waller, John (July 2009). “Looking Back: Dancing plagues and mass hysteria” (PDF). The Psychologist (UK: British Psychological Society) 22 (7): 644–7

[5] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57605822/poll-americans-not-happy-about-shutdown-more-blame-gop/

[6] http://www.gallup.com/poll/165317/republican-party-favorability-sinks-record-low.aspx

[7] http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/10/10/gop-plummets-obamacare-soars-in-shutdown-standoff/

[8] http://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2013/10/11/boomerang-poll-reveals-gops-government-shutdown-bolstered-obamacare-popularity-by-20/

[9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/09/congress-approval-rating_n_4069899.html

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/opinion/sunday/the-great-gerrymander-of-2012.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[11] http://www.bernardgoldberg.com/real-conservatives-on-a-suicide-mission/

[12] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQcMLrz0Kxo

[13] http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/10/02/think-budget-impasse-is-bad-wait-until-debt-ceiling-battle/

[14] http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/10/obama-business-time-start-worrying-about-government/70135/

[15] http://www.ontheissues.org/Vulnerable.htm#Republicans; http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics-live/liveblog/live-updates-the-shutdown-4/?id=207dd6e1-30d1-42fb-9457-466a9bfa96e2

[16] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0lDcT9aQdA

[17] Wilkerson, John, Smith, David, Stramp, Nick, ‘Tracing the Flow of Policy Ideas in Legislation: A Tet Reuse Approach’, (New Directions in Text as Data Workshop, London School of Economics, 2013) p.2. http://www.kenbenoit.net/pdfs/NDATAD2013/PolicyIdeas2013TextasData.pdf

If academic articles aren’t good enough for you, FOX News even backs up this point: http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2012/03/28/5-reasons-obamacare-is-already-good-for/

[18] OECD Health Division (October 29, 2012). “OECD Health Data 2012 – Frequently Requested Data”. Paris: OECD.

[19] http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/budget/news/2013/09/30/76026/the-senate-continuing-resolution-is-already-a-compromise/