For nearly 150 years, there was something in America called the Republican Party. It was far from perfect. It often faltered. It made mistakes. But it was predictable; when it was in power, you knew, for the most part, what you were getting.
Cut to now and things look mighty different. The Republican Party today is, as Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein put it, “an insurgent outlier in American politics … ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” But, to borrow the title of Mann and Ornstein’s recent book, it’s even worse than it looks. There’s the Tea Party and then there’s a rump of spineless moderates. The GOP, quite simply, has been split in two.
This division has been evident for some time, but the recent squabbling over the government shutdown has put the internal discord in sharp relief. We’ve become accustomed to Speaker Boehner’s flailing attempts to corral his Tea Party faction; and we’ve seen the sad spectacle of this ostensible leader of his party taking his orders almost exclusively from the most harebrained and hard-line members. What’s genuinely new, and far more consequential, is a recent New York Times report finding that even big business — including Wall Street! — is itself unable to force Tea Party members to fall in line.
The shutdown and the debt ceiling standoff, you see, are bad for business. They create uncertainty, the thing big money hates more than anything else (besides taxes). Yet calls for moderation from what had been the Tea Party’s money men are going unanswered, or are treated with active disdain. Usually a threat to withhold campaign contributions would be enough to scare any politician into better behavior, but members of the Tea Party don’t function like conventional politicians. They’re more millenarian than that. To them, the goal is not to get reelected, but rather to save the nation from impending doom.
As the Texas congressman and Tea Party product Randy Neugebauer told the Times, he and his fellow travelers believe they must “quit worrying about the next election, and start worrying about the country.” Ross Douthat has also offered a useful window into Tea Party thinking, explaining that, for the Tea Party, the past 40 years of American politics hasn’t been one in which conservatism was on the rise. On the contrary, it’s been a prolonged period of “failure,” all because the New Deal and the Great Society have merely been whittled away — and not banished completely. The result of this apocalyptic thinking is a group of legislators who believe that now is their last chance to right a series of historic wrongs. They feel they have nothing to lose.
Imagine: a politician unconcerned with the next election. What’s a CEO supposed to do with that?
In truth, Neugebauer and his ilk likely care more about reelection than their big talk lets on. But that’s where another element of the Tea Party’s party-within-the-party comes into focus: namely, the alternative funding infrastructure that, once again, big business initially did so much to create. Think of all the organizations, overflowing with Koch brothers money, that support the Tea Party. There’s Americans for Prosperity, there’s FreedomWorks, there’s Heritage Action. Even if these organizations lost their funding from Wall Street or the Chamber of Commerce, they could rely on donations from the Tea Party base, the vast mass of conservative voters and activists throughout the country who don’t share a scintilla of big business’s fondness for the status quo.
Put it all together — and add in the fact that these Tea Party politicians reside in thoroughly gerrymandered districts — and there’s little reason to believe that these folks are going anywhere any time soon. The party-within-the-party will go on, even if big business tries to end it. The bitter irony is that this is the bed they’ve made for themselves. What makes it considerably less amusing? The rest of us have to lie in it too.