The Beast at Their Breast
Democrats and Republicans have always reminded me of the Athenians and the Spartans. In the political world of ancient Greece, the Athenians were cultivated, scholarly, socially concerned and fond of discourse, also much given to internal squabbles and disunity. The Spartans were grim, warlike and goal-oriented, placing a huge premium on loyalty and unity of purpose. They raised what we now call “message discipline” to an unbelievably high art, beginning with the strict training of children.
Legend has it that a young Spartan boy once stole a fox and gathered it under a cloak at his breast to conceal the animal from his teachers. The starving fox, safe in its hiding place, began to gnaw hungrily at the boy’s stomach and, eventually his vital organs, but the poor lad died where he stood, in a pool of his own blood, rather than cry out and reveal weakness.
In keeping with my Republican-Spartan analogy, this is precisely what began happening to the GOP when it unwisely took the Tea Party to its bosom and thought this newly-whelped, savage animal could be tamed and domesticated, and relied upon to repay protection with loyalty and service. Now the Tea Party has chewed through the flesh of the party that took it in, and is starting to crunch on the ribcage, but Republicans are still unable to cast the dangerous animal aside because doing so would be a public admission of weakness and disunity.
In order to understand why this is happening, one must first spend some time researching the nature and goals of the Tea Party. Most casual observers see this group as simply an adjunct of the Republican Party, or even a particularly fervent portion of the Republican base. This is a mistake. Despite its innocuous and deceptively genteel name, the Tea Party is a different animal altogether, and one that cannot be readily domesticated and brought to heel. The members of this group may have been Republicans at one time, but in the past two years they have turned on their former party with quite merciless savagery, and have by now evolved to the point where destruction of the GOP is actually a more important goal to many of them than beating Democrats at the polls.
This vital fact explains many recent political moves that seem puzzling on their face, and even counter-intuitive. For instance, why did Tea Party groups work so hard to secure victory in the primaries for people like Christine O’Donnell, Ken Buck, Joe Miller and Sharron Angle? These are candidates whose extreme positions (as illustrated in the linked videos) gave them little chance of winning general elections. They did it because the Tea Party didn’t care about winning elections as much as they did about denying victory to the “establishment Republicans” who would otherwise have won these races. As one commenter at Free Republic said after those losses, to widespread agreement from fellow Tea Party members,“This played out exactly the way we wanted. We may need to lose a few battles in order to win the war, but we’re just not doing politics as usual any more. We’re laying the groundwork for a whole new America.”
That sweeping and visionary sentiment is why we see the baffling, politically disastrous overreach in Wisconsin that has proved so devastating to Republican lawmakers in the state, and may well end in the recall of enough GOP representatives to throw control of the state legislature back to Democrats. That result will not worry the Tea Party, who would see it as a meaningful sacrifice to their ideology, and just another step along the road of either transforming the Republican Party into one gigantic Tea Party, or rendering it irrelevant so it can be cast aside and replaced.
The same goal comes into play in the Tea Party backing of Michele Bachmann as a presidential candidate. Any political observer knows there is absolutely no chance that Bachmann could ever win a general election, but the Tea Party will back her so strongly that she could win the early primaries in states where rigid conservative ideologues hold sway, and then possibly ride that momentum all the way to a victory over a weak field of Republican candidates. For the Tea Party, a Bachmann campaign would accomplish two important goals. First, it would allow them the opportunity to put their message in front of the public for months on end. And, just as vital, it would torpedo the chances of Mitt Romney, whom they detest as the ultimate “establishment Republican.” Bachmann’s chances of actually winning don’t even figure into Tea Party calculations. What really matters to them is keeping the presidency out of the hands of RINOs who are perceived as their real enemies. The Tea Party has no wish to be a help and support for the Republican Party, and they don’t care how damaging a Bachmann presidential campaign would be to the national image of a major American political party. They want the GOP to be brought to heel and forced, if possible, to assist the Tea Party in its bid for national power. If that can’t be accomplished, they will leave the Republicans behind without a backward glance.
To most sane and savvy political observers, the world-changing vision of this group, and the scope of their ambition, seems hard to grasp and even harder to take seriously. Do they really believe they can somehow coöpt a major political party that has been in existence for more than 150 years, and use it to shape a modern nation of almost 400 million people into their unique vision of a country that is equal parts Revolutionary War re-enactment, Galt’s Gulch, and fundamentalist Bible camp?
But understanding them becomes less daunting if you spend some time examining their worldview.
For one thing, these are people sustained and motivated by a reactionary, apocalyptic mindset. The world is moving too fast for them, and they are digging in their heels and fighting back with renewed desperation because all around them they see open acceptance of gay marriage, shifting sexual roles and values, a black man in the White House, and worst of all, the “theft” of their money through taxes — money that is then handed over to “undeserving” minorities. All of this gives them a sense of added urgency. They are prepared to pay a price for the new era they feel is essential to save America, and they believe the price will be a time of turmoil and confusion, a sort of “mini–Tribulation”, after which the faithful will be rewarded for their hard work and loyalty. To the Tea Party this is political Armageddon, and they are putting on the armor of righteousness to do battle. These are people who have been nurtured on tales of a small virtuous group who triumph over a wicked multitude, and the power of faith to breach a fortress. They believe that, while not huge in numbers, they can prevail through truth with God on their side.
It’s hard to fight that level of commitment to a cause, even a political one. Within the next couple of years, Republicans will find good reason to regret taking this beast to their bosom. By the time that point is reached, the fox will be devouring all their vital organs, there will be blood on the floor, and it may well be too late for the Grand Old Party.
- Are Republicans and the Tea Party Serious? (usnews.com)
- Citrus County Tea Party Worries About Kings Bay Restrictions: A Manatee Conspiracy? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Rachel Maddow: If Tea Party Isn’t Socially Conservative, Why Have Abortion Laws Skyrocketed? (mediaite.com)
- Tea Party’s Voice Booms Over Debt Talks (npr.org)
- Quote of the Day: Advice to Republicans and Tea Party (themoderatevoice.com)
- The Eunuch of the Senate Strikes Again. — Tea Party Nation (gds44.wordpress.com)