The core dynamic going on right now is a simple question of incentives: for congressional GOP politicians, particularly in the House, a good majority of them only have to worry about primary challenges from the far right. They live in safe Republican districts - an effect exacerbated by both gerrymandering and a lopsided emphasis on rural districts - and have little worry about losing to a Democrat. Their worry is that a Tea Party challenger will come along, as many such challengers have done, and kick them out in the nomination process. Sometimes the Tea Party challenger is so crazy that the GOP loses a "safe" district to the Democrats after winning a primary challenge, but the moderate Republican is out just the same.
This is what is driving this entire crisis. The Tea Party flank of the GOP is openly declaring war - and with enormous amounts of money in their war chest this threat is well backed - on the moderates and forcing the moderates to be pulled far to the right in an attempt to prevent a primary challenge. So the Tea Party is not just very successful at getting elected, they are also successful at converting other GOP members into de facto Tea Party voters. Without this dynamic, none of this crisis would have happened.
All of this, however, is only possible because Tea Party people actually CAN get nominated. They CAN get elected. The problem isn't just that there is a hundred crazy people in DC screwing everything up, it is that there are millions of crazy people voting for these people. Yes, the money, the gerrymandering, the insular rightwing media spheres, the difficulty in getting primary voters to the polls, etc., all contribute to exacerbating this problem, to making this group disproportionately influential. We can still blame the system to a degree. But we have to deal with this very real, very powerful voting block and the reality that the various memes that make up the Tea party are well supported by many people.
That is where we come in. From conversations with friends and family, to social media, to blogs, to the mainstream media, we constantly have to work to change minds, to influence policy. We have to build a progressive response that is as powerful and influential as the Tea Party, to pull moderates to the left, and to pull the far right to the moderates. We have to do, that is, the basics of democracy. Simply throwing up our hands nihilistically and declaring a pox on both their houses helps nobody.
It isn't just Washington that is broken, that it is divided, that it is hyperpartisan. So too are people in general, and we bear a responsibility to change that. That is, after all, what democracy is all about.
The power of the Tea Party:
I spent a lot of time on this blog from 2009-2011 talking about the Tea Party, and talking about Sarah Palin specifically. Partly, this is because I think both were often rather misunderstood by the left who treated Palin principally as a joke where it was fun to use her ridiculous statements and actions as part of the comedic side to covering politics. However, she really was representative of a very legitimate, very powerful voting bloc and missing this point has led to an underestimating of their influence. Rightly or wrongly, her ideas, and the ideas of the Tea Party more generally have genuine appeal. Many on the left seem to think that the Tea Party's days are numbers are limited purely because the left thinks their positions are just so obviously ridiculous. If anything that is a source of their power, because it appeals to certain people, and either way the basic dynamic resulting in their rise is very much in place and doesn't seem likely to go away soon, whatever the oft repeated prognostations of their imminent demise may be.
Ted Cruz deserves an honorable mention here as the latest to pick up the mantle as the Tea Party's crusader-in-chief. Shortly before the budget crisis he did his silly 21 hour non filibuster raging against Obamacare. The House had obsessively passed dozens of bills defunding Obamacare knowing they would all die in the Senate if not at Obama's veto, but this effort had never really built to anything. Cruz managed to turn up the heat and suddenly the Tea Party darling who managed to eclipse even Rand Paul and Michele Bachmann was seemingly building momentum for the first real time Obamacare challenges got a meaningful push. Of course, Cruz did this largely to help Cruz, but it shows the effect these things can have.
2016 will be a referendum on Obamacare:
This little episode has made one thing clear: whatever else the 2016 election may be over, it will certainly be a referendum on Obamacare. With the House bills and now, bizarrely, making this crisis an issue over Obamacare, if a Republican is elected President Obamacare will die. Even if the Dems hold the Senate. The next GOP nominee will unquestionably be forced to make ending Obamacare a campaign promise, otherwise they are never nominated. Imagine these scenarios, these budget and debt crises, only with the President vetoing things unless Obamacare is in them. Heavily gutted is the best case scenario. I have never been the biggest fan of Obamacare, like many on the left, but the basic premise of universal coverage must remain sacrosanct for any progressive. It is for this reason that 2016 is an incredibly important year to elect a Democratic president. After this, by 2020, Obamacare will have been implemented and people will probably like it. Or they never will. But to give this a real chance to get fully implemented and people to grow to appreciate it, Democrats must win in 2016.
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