There’s an old expression in politics that is both deeply cynical and entirely true: “Never believe your own mythology.” But that is exactly what the tea party faction in the House of Representatives has been doing this week, and it will have damaging consequences for Republicans in next fall’s elections, in all but the reddest states.
When the tea party first burst onto the scene and before it got entirely co-opted by big money and partisan politics, many Americans applauded its grass-roots efforts to draw attention to the burgeoning national debt and the rapidly expanding federal government. The admiration has now fully dissipated. With this week’s shutdown of the federal government, the tea party has gone too far.
The movement claims that it is only doing what the public wants, but polling this week says otherwise, with wide majorities opposing the decision to link a government shutdown with defunding health care. More troubling, for Republicans across the country, is that generic matchups between Democrats and Republicans in next year’s congressional races show Democrats leading by wide margins.
The tea party seems to be struggling to distinguish between its own mythology and the reality that the rest of us live in. This is part of a larger new segregation that is happening in America, driven in part by technology, that allows ideologues of all types to construct a bubble around themselves in which there are only people who agree with their ideas. Those ideological and partisan worlds often contain their own unique historical “facts,” cultural norms, prejudices, news sources, gathering places and even schools and churches.
One consequence of an increasing and new segregation within the country, as both national polling and audience surveys make clear, is a widening chasm between red states and blue ones. The effects of that division were on full display this week in Congress.
I’m not sure which is more destructive to the country — the tea party’s brinksmanship politics or its misrepresentation of American history. The movement has become enthralled with its own mythology, which seems to alternate between a low-budget Western and a historically confused Revolutionary War tale.
In the Western, the tea party sees itself as the John Wayne character, saving the good people on the wagon train from the lawless savages (liberals) encircling them. All well and harmless, I suppose. Everyone’s story has oneself as some kind of central hero.
In the Revolutionary remake, the tea party likes to cast itself as the modern-day descendants of the patriots of 1776, as the final line of defense for the Constitution and against an out-of-control government.
Almost all of that narrative would make historians cringe. The Revolutionary generation, from Washington to Jefferson to Adams to thousands of unheralded farmers and shopkeepers, was anything but conservative. They were advocates of radical change to political and economic structures and long tradition. In many ways, they are the most “progressive” and “liberal” generation the country ever produced.
To understand the Revolutionary generation, you need only look at who their enemies were: the conservatives of the day, then called Tories. Tories fought for the status quo, which in that case meant protecting centuries-old aristocratic traditions and privilege.
All of which is to say that the tea party is misnamed. If it resembles any historic movement in America, it isn’t the militias of 1776 but the Confederacy of 1861. The Confederacy’s arguments against the size and reach of the federal government and for the rights of states to shape their own future are regularly echoed by tea party rants against the federal government and in actions like the current rejection of a national health care law.
Here’s an interesting way to understand how close this parallel is: During the next national election, in 2014, take a close look at the television maps of red states and blue states. Then imagine those maps without the states west of the Mississippi, which mostly didn’t exist during the Civil War. Find a map of the Confederacy on your computer and hold it up against the red-states map. You’ll find that they almost perfectly overlap.
That is not an accident.
The tea party flexed its muscles this week in Congress, forcing the Republican leadership to give the keys to the family car to the loud and pushy kids in the Republican family, who promptly wrapped it around the nearest tree. If the party is going to be more than an angry, Southern, white party in the future, the adults are going to need to find the courage to finally take away those keys.
Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization that promotes Maine’s next economy, and a partner at the Caron & Egan Consulting Group. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org