The Tea Party Says, Yes, We Can! (Then Actually Changes Stuff)

The most consequential change to our political landscape in 2008 may not have been Obama's election, but rather the right's response to it.

By Kai Wright Aug 01, 2011

It’s all about the debt ceiling deal today. I’ll save us some time here on the details of the package by simply quoting [Paul Krugman’s lede]( >A deal to raise the federal debt ceiling is in the works. If it goes through, many commentators will declare that disaster was avoided. But they will be wrong. > >For the deal itself, given the available information, is a disaster, and not just for President Obama and his party. It will damage an already depressed economy; it will probably make America’s long-run deficit problem worse, not better; and most important, by demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, it will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status. We’ll certainly dig in more deeply to the economics of the deal later this week. But what’s most striking to me this morning is how drastically wrong so many people were about what history was being made in 2008. Three years later, it seems the most consequential force entering the American political landscape was not the then-remarkable Barack Obama but, rather, the right’s response to him: the tea party. There’s obviously no questioning the historic import of Obama’s election and–more crucial, to my mind–the incredible expansion of people and communities who participated in our democracy. Those were certainly revolutionary developments in the moment and, in the long run, may prove lastingly so. But nothing has shaped the terribly consequential times in which we live so much as the tea party’s rise. Much has been written about the fake populism that has fueled the tea party–the billions in corporate money behind it, the outsized microphone Fox News provides it, the unearned credibility mainstream news media lent it during the health care debate. All of that is now beside the point. What matters is that it has conspired with the Democrats’ caution to lend a small band of zealots control over our economy–and with lasting consequences. This debt deal will certainly hinder any effort at an equitable recovery–but the White House has been doing that on its own for a while, given its refusal to force foreclosure relief or fight for a meaningful jobs creation initiative. What’s most significant is that it will make that reality normative for many years to come. It is the second half of a one-two punch that the president has twice leaned in to take. First they clobbered government’s ability to move proactively by demanding an extension of George W. Bush’s deficit-creating tax cuts for rich people. Now, they will choke off government’s ability to hold up the economy for everyone else with this deal. All this by holding a [few dozen largely junior seats]( in the House. There’s little question that the tea partiers in Congress act out of principle, rather than politics. They were more than ready to allow Republican leaders to twist in the political winds until they got their way on the debt ceiling, and more than happy to risk the party’s long term electoral fate with their game of chicken with the White House. Whatever machinations of corporate money and corporate media put the tea partiers on the national stage, they stand in its center with clear moral and ideological bearing. It is a wildly destructive ideology that casts aside the working poor and scapegoats people of color for everything from economic troubles to national security threats. But it is at this point hard to call craven or hypocritical–two adjectives that roll easily off the tongue in reference to both Republican and Democratic leadership. So the tea party has won yet another game of chicken with both Obama and John Boehner, and they will surely be eager to play again in the coming bouts of brinksmanship this deal sets up. As with all bullies, someone will eventually have to stand up for a nothing-to-lose fight with the tea party. Otherwise, we’ll all be living with their radical, exclusionary vision of America for a long time.