Spar­tan Boys in Training

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’DonnellKen BuckJoe 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.

Not Your Grandma’s Tea Party

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.