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Tea Party Extremism and the ‘Cliff’


A flag used by the Tea Party, indicating a desire for a “second American revolution” as symbolized by the original Betsy Ross flag with the Roman numeral “II” inserted inside the 13 stars.

By Paul R. Pillar:

It is irresponsible to help create a mess and then to walk away and expect someone else to clean it up. That’s true whether the mess is a spill in the kitchen or something comparably sticky, smelly or hazardous in deliberations in Congress.

Multiple pressreportsobserve that this is what the political tantrum known as the Tea Party has been doing. We haven’t heard much from the Tea Partiers recently because they opted out of participation in the fiscal cliff drama as the rest of the country counted down the time remaining until the New Year’s, and budgetary, ball drops.

In this latest phase in the tantrum, Tea Partiers unhappy that the political game has not gone entirely their way (with the outcome of the presidential election being, of course, their principal setback) have decided to take their own ball and bat and go home.

As a South Carolina Tea Party activist put it, “Why in the world would I want to get involved in the games they [i.e., members of Congress] are playing? I have other things to spend my energy on besides lost causes.”

Some of the causes which Tea Partiers evidently do not think are lost and to which they now are devoting energy include “nullification” by states of the Affordable Care Act, exposing corruption in Florida election boards that they believe illicitly handed the state to Obama, and opposition to a United Nations resolution on sustainable development that they contend is a threat to property rights.

Tea Partiers are providing some of their own drama with disarray and dissension within their own movement. The Washington-based Tea Party group FreedomWorks experienced an attempt by its chairman Richard Armey, accompanied by a gun-slinging aide, to purge his opponents within the organization, a few days before Armey himself was ousted in a counter-coup. Meanwhile, polls show public support for the Tea Party has dropped significantly from its heyday around the 2010 election.

This certainly does not mean — unfortunately — that we have heard the last of the Tea Party. But the more that this tantrum subsides or fades out of view, the better off the Republic will be. Republicans, and more broadly those who believe in a healthy two-party system, ought to be especially hopeful that it will fade out of view.

Tea Party activism during the primary season probably cost Republicans a couple of Senate seats. It also has cost the Republican Party the services in public office of some of its most distinguished thinkers, including Richard Lugar, a victim of one of those primary fights, and Jon Huntsman, who was the most sensible person on the stage in those primary debates but never seemed to have a chance to win his party’s nomination.

The biggest damage the Tea Party has inflicted has been the less measurable but still major boost it has given to intolerance and inflexibility, with everything that implies regarding dysfunction in the American political system. It has been poison to any spirit of compromise and to the normal give-and-take of politics in a democracy. In this regard it is remarkable how, among all the attention to the details of the fiscal cliff negotiations such as where to set tax brackets and how to define inflation adjustments, so little has been said about how we got confronted with the cliff in the first place.

To refresh our memories: sequestration and the other fiscal changes that define the cliff were devised as a threat to concentrate minds on the congressional super-committee that was charged with reaching, but failed to achieve, a fiscal and budgetary grand bargain. The super-committee was in turn a device for getting out of the impasse created when one side of the aisle resorted to extortion by threatening to force a default on the national debt if that side did not get its way.

The extortion was a marked departure from the normal way of conducting the people’s political business, which is to try to enact one’s preferred policies by winning support and winning votes for one’s point of view, rather than by threatening to inflict harm on the country. Since then, the inflexibility and resistance to compromise have been, as Ezra Klein reminds us in reviewing the bidding of the last couple of years, far more on the side that did the initial extortion than on the other side.

The Tea Party cannot be blamed for all of this, of course. Roots of inflexibility such as no-tax-increase obsessions and related starve-the-beast notions have been around before there even was a Tea Party movement. Nor is it only Tea Partiers who today kvetch endlessly about the deficit but not long ago did not say a peep about it when the unprecedented combination of a very expensive war of choice and simultaneous tax cuts turned — surprise, surprise — what had been a budgetary surplus into a ballooning deficit.

But the influence of the Tea Party has unquestionably made this whole sorry story substantially worse than it otherwise would have been. The very irresponsibility that the movement is exhibiting today, in walking away from the mess it did so much to help create, testifies to its character.

However much reasonable men and women may disagree about tax codes or the size of government, what is even more important to the health of a society such as America’s are the give-and-take habits and attitudes that are necessary for a liberal representative democracy to function. Those habits and attitudes are ultimately what keep the United States from being an Iraq or a Syria. The Tea Partiers never seem to have understood that.

We should all hope that they will consign themselves permanently to a safe-to-ignore lunatic fringe that burns its energy pursuing wacky conspiracy theories about Florida election boards and the like.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

(Originally posted at Consortium News)

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