Perhaps only future historians will be able to fully assess why voters cast their lot with Tea Party candidates in 2010, effectively changing the dynamic of American political life. As we have witnessed in the last few weeks, it was so much more than Republicans retaking the House. By the way, all of this was set in motion by a small geographically contained minority. A mere 17% of the eligible participated in the primaries that ultimately determined the general election outcome. Don’t ever say getting out to vote isn’t important. Whether or not these new folks have staying power remains an open question, but for the moment it doesn’t much matter.
Again it may be too early to understand why this happened and what it means. That said, I’d venture that one way to look at the Teas is as a stealth third party. It’s true that their ascendency came through the established primary process, but that may have been more opportunistic than out of any special loyalty to Republicanism. It was an expedient and quick way to power. Just consider how they have functioned once in office, especially how unresponsive they are to old guard GOP leadership. They have shown themselves eager to diss norms of legislative governance — norms established by generations of both Republicans and Democrats. And, at this point, they steadfastly cling to their differentiating Tea Party identity.
Whether Teas are a stealth third party or just old-fashioned insurgents pursuing a palace coup, the class of 2010 has turned the GOP (and one could argue the country) on its head. The Reagan-Bush party known for its discipline and ability (unlike Democrats) to stay consistently on message now seems in disarray. The Teas go along only when it suits their agenda and ideology, is in their self-interest. Whatever the future may bring, at this point they sure act like a party within a party. And it’s one far to the right even of the Republicanism of the W years, dangerously close to the edge.
So the rise of Michele Bachmann should come as no surprise. More than her presumptive rival Sarah Palin, she represents Teas who come not from the frontier but mostly from America’s traditionally conservative Midwest and Southern heartland. What’s lost in the current news cycle is that the Tea’s have much more in mind than budgets and fiscal responsibility. For one, there is immigration some how conflated with fear of the Other (think Arizona and Birthers). Then too, many among them want to restore the essentially fundamentalist religious ideology that seemed to recede with Bush’s exit from the White House. No one (see NY Times July 16, For Bachmann, Gay Rights Stand Reflects Mix of Issues and Faith) is a more suited standard bearer for these multiple causes than the lady from Minnesota.
I happened to be thinking about the religious side of the Tea Party just at the moment when news broke of Anders Behring Breivik’s murderous rampage in a usually peaceful Norway. What caught my attention was his being identified by that country’s press as a right-wing fundamentalist Christian. Since September 11, 2001, we’ve become accustomed (conveniently so) to equating religious based violence with Muslim fundamentalism. Even with Oslo, much like Oklahoma City, early reports assumed Islamists had carried out the bombing. That’s a tribute to an Islamophobia that now pervades much of the West and especially in Europe. In fact, the potential for going over the edge has little to do with one religion or another, but with fundamentalism of any ilk. And in the case of Breivik, whose writings suggest resurrecting the Christian-Muslim holy war, that fundamentalism may also include rightist political ideology. Breivik, seen in a larger context, reflects a disturbing swing toward the extreme right in many places, our own country included. Among others, this rightist trend manifests itself in growing Xenophobia especially evident across Europe where it has extended to traditionally progressive countries like Denmark. It constitutes an eerie déjà vu that echoes Europe’s dark past when fascism took hold with disastrous results. What should further raise a red flag for all of us is that sharp turn to the right was also born out of harsh economic times. History can repeat itself.
I’m certainly not suggesting that Michelle Bachmann or the Tea Party either advocate or intend violence. Nonetheless, both in rhetoric and in action they are clearly putting additional logs on an already hot fire. That can have unintended consequences, ones that even they may not wish. We continue to suffer high unemployment, a sputtering recovery and an ever-growing disparity between the very rich and everyone else. The seeds have been sown and the ground made fertile right here for the kind of at-the-edge rightist politics that she and they represent.
Those to the left of the Teas (and I’m including a wide swath of the body politic) seem both flummoxed and out maneuvered. President Obama may head that list for obvious reasons but it includes the likes of Mitch McConnell who, in this new environment, seems like a moderate — perhaps not in fact, but you get the point. I would argue that one of the things working against the President and everyone else is the misguided idea (reinforced by the media) that they are grown-ups while the Teas are infantile. Nonsense. To take that view is to miss the point of what’s happening and more self-destructively to underestimate the opponent — the kiss of death in any conflict.
The Teas are adults with a clear and perhaps even revolutionary agenda. Their vision of America is different and, in my view, dreadfully wrong, if not dangerous. It’s one that can potentially undermine much or all of that we cherish, not the least of which is a nation and cares for those in need and welcomingly opens its doors to immigrants. The irony is that there are powerful and contrary forces at work these days, especially among the young, whose minds and hearts are more open than perhaps any preceding generation. That’s encouraging, but open minds and hearts won’t be enough in this high stakes game.