Tea Party Coup D’état

Progressives are too quick to believe that the Tea Party hurts Republicans.

Joel Bleifuss

Tea Party protesters march down Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009. (Wikimedia Commons)

On Feb­ru­ary 18, Richard Viguerie, the god­fa­ther of the New Right, announced the cre­ation of the Lib­er­ty Prize” — a $10,000 award for the Tea Parti­er with the best plan to wrest con­trol of the G.O.P from estab­lish­ment big gov­ern­ment Repub­li­cans.” Viguerie’s web­site, Con​ser​v​a​tive​HQ​.com, explains: Lim­it­ed gov­ern­ment, con­sti­tu­tion­al con­ser­v­a­tives … at the grass­roots lev­el have the ideas and prin­ci­ples, as well as the num­bers, polit­i­cal skills and tal­ent to run the GOP. What we have lacked is a coher­ent, well-thought-out blue­print for tak­ing over the Repub­li­can Party.” 

Liberal strategists fail to appreciate that the Tea Party’s ideological discipline, nurtured by Republican incumbents’ fear of being 'primaried,' has turned the Boehner House into a formidable and effective obstacle to Democratic initiatives.

Demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal oper­a­tives believe Tea Par­ty purges weak­en the G.O.P.’s elec­toral prospects. They point to the hard-right con­gres­sion­al can­di­dates who lost last November. 

But these lib­er­al strate­gists fail to appre­ci­ate that the Tea Party’s ide­o­log­i­cal dis­ci­pline, nur­tured by Repub­li­can incum­bents’ fear of being pri­maried,” has turned the Boehn­er House into a for­mi­da­ble and effec­tive obsta­cle to Demo­c­ra­t­ic ini­tia­tives. Repub­li­can intran­si­gence may dis­af­fect some vot­ers, but it excites both the Tea Par­ty faith­ful and the wingnut donor class. 

Still, the Koch broth­ers, Viguerie and the Tea Partiers under­stand that the coali­tion that elect­ed and then re-elect­ed Barack Oba­ma pres­i­dent pos­es a threat. Were this alliance — com­posed of a major­i­ty of women, young peo­ple, the poor, LGBT Amer­i­cans, Lati­nos, African Amer­i­cans, Jews and the high­ly edu­cat­ed — to get seri­ous about chal­leng­ing the GOP for con­trol of Con­gress, the Repub­li­can future would look bleak. 

To pre­vent this, the Right is work­ing to make the act of vot­ing so ardu­ous that poten­tial Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers will choose to stay home. Mean­while, the con­ser­v­a­tive media paints Con­gress as so dys­func­tion­al — and our elect­ed lead­ers so inef­fec­tive — that dis­il­lu­sioned cit­i­zens will decide to tune out. A Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling sur­vey in ear­ly Jan­u­ary found that 85 per­cent of Amer­i­cans have an unfa­vor­able” opin­ion of Con­gress. Indeed, of those polled, 67 per­cent had a high­er opin­ion” of head lice than of Congress.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers in the White House and on the Hill play into the GOP’s hands by ced­ing dis­cur­sive ground to the ene­my; Oba­ma and his lieu­tenants failed to fight for the health­care pub­lic option, and many pow­er­ful Democ­rats seem dis­turbing­ly amenable to regres­sive tin­ker­ing with Social Secu­ri­ty. The left wing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty often attrib­ut­es these stances to spine­less­ness — but it may be time to admit that many Demo­c­ra­t­ic big­wigs sim­ply aren’t inclined to defend pro­gres­sive politics.

For proof that the Democ­rats have alien­at­ed a seg­ment of their base, look no fur­ther than an August 2012 poll by USA Today and Suf­folk Uni­ver­si­ty of cit­i­zens who said they were unlike­ly to vote on Elec­tion Day. That sur­vey found that those who were reg­is­tered to vote — but were not plan­ning to — would have sup­port­ed Oba­ma over Mitt Rom­ney by two to one, if pressed. Yet 59 per­cent of all those who said they were plan­ning to stay at home explained that they didn’t pay much atten­tion to pol­i­tics” because it’s a bunch of emp­ty promises.” 

The one bright spot: The Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus, as Cole Stan­gler reports in this issue’s cov­er sto­ry, is com­mit­ted to bring­ing a pro­gres­sive grass­roots vision to the mainstream.

Joel Blei­fuss, a for­mer direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-Colum­bia, is the edi­tor & pub­lish­er of In These Times, where he has worked since Octo­ber 1986.

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