Did a body that exerts gravitational pull many times its size in today’s national dialog simply appear — fully formed and royally pissed off? Did millions of Americans awake one August day in 2009 spontaneously irate at the fiscal year deficits and national debt? Were they somehow transported to Washington, DC with signs to wave and lots of attitude?
That’s the gospel according to creationist theory, but it’s more like a Spielberg movie script.
The Tea Party hardly popped up overnight. Like Charles Darwin’s species, it evolved. The seeds of the current divide and conquer approach to governing were, in fact, planted decades ago in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. When Lyndon Johnson signed those landmark measures into law, he knew they spelled the end of the FDR Democratic coalition. And, as he foresaw, a group of disaffected citizens emerged and grew. They were a bit uneasy with a changing society, distrustful of government and suspicious of people who were different, had different values or hailed from different parts of the country.
The Nixon Administration that followed became highly adept at turning such citizens against many of their fellow Americans, and in the process, creating ‘thems.’ In those days, the thems wore long hair and scruffy blue jeans and they were way past fervently and passionately opposed to the war in Viet Nam. In response, the Nixonians promoted the existence of a Great Silent Majority that happened to support his agenda, believed in America: love it or leave it, and propelled his re-election in 1972.
Over the next 40 years, GOP leaders, pollsters and media strategists did a masterful job of bringing social conservatives, the religious right, Western “You ain’t the boss of me!” independents and a lot of hard working folks facing hard times into a coalition with traditional big business, Wall St. and country club Republicans. This might sound like the cantina scene from Star Wars, but it’s been exceedingly formidable.
Political-cultural scholars have written that the old Republican establishment used their new friends as foot soldiers, offering them a home in an acceptable political structure and gaining in return the numbers to turn elections and take power.
There have been rough patches in the relationship; periods of disillusionment. The Reagan Administration, the H.W. Bush Administration and the W. Bush Administration all promised to crack down on gays and secular humanists; to outlaw abortion; to make English the official language and, in effect, make White the official color.
But after these administrations took power, the social issues always seemed to wind up on the back burner because, really and truly, establishment Republicans do not give a morbid damn about social issues. Their vision for a Utopian America extends only to replacing participatory democracy with Free Market Capitalism, keeping taxes just high enough to fund a military, abolishing all regulation and adopting a new national motto: Caveat Emptor.
Through the years and economic cycles, they’ve found it necessary to keep their coalition stirred up to sustain the critical mass necessary to win or hold power, so they’ve created enemies — “them.” Effective propagandists have long known that when times are tough, they need someone to blame. They need a ‘them.’ And, when times are good, at least for those running the show, they can hold on to power by convincing the rest of the coalition that the ‘thems’ are trying to take it all away.
They explain that the basic problem with them is that they aren’t as much like us as we are. And, it follows, if there are bad guys, there must also be victims; and if they and them are the bad guys, then we and us are the victims. This practice was raised to high art by the late Lee Atwater, a former Reagan and George H.W. Bush communication strategist, who painted anti-intellectual, anti-environmental, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” messages with subtle tones of racism to tell the coalition that something was being taken from them; something was being given to others who were different and undeserving; things were changing. Lee Atwater, by the way, mentored Karl Rove, who was well known for sleazy campaigns in Texas and Alabama long before his name became an invective in Washington.
So, while the Tea Party may have seemed to appear suddenly during the Great Healthcare Debate of 2009, it had, in fact, been brewing for years. Bringing it to a boil was none other than former House Republican Leader-turned-corporate lobbyist Dick Armey, another ersatz Texas cowboy and semi-wacky economics professor from North Texas State University. Through his Freedom Works organization, and with funding from such defenders of the common man as the Koch brothers of Koch Industries, the second largest privately held company in the United States, Armey was able to dispatch as many as 80 paid political operatives across the country to school local Tea Party activists in the arts of organizing and disrupting.
Tea Party members appeared at Congressional Town Hall Meetings and other functions, nearly apoplectic over the budget deficits run up by Congress and the Obama Administration.
Evidently, the same Tea Party members who were so irate over government spending had slumbered from January 2001 straight through January 2009. They never said boo in 2001 and 2003 when President Bush and Congressional Republicans passed $1.7 trillion in tax cuts to make sure the federal treasury didn’t have too much money in it, then later in 2003, approved a $300 billion Medicare prescription drug coverage plan which specifically prevented the government from trying to bargain for favorable drug prices, launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, and funded them year after year through supplemental appropriations to the tune of $1.3 trillion — all without paying for it.
The Tea Party even snored through George W. Bush’s parting gift to the nation in 2008: The $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), used to bail out and prop up the same Wall St. banks that pulled the switch on the Great Recession. In fact, the Tea Party never complained until America elected a president that looked like one of ‘them.’
Effective propagandists know if you tell people something, and keep telling them and keep telling them and keep telling them, eventually they will begin to accept what they’re being told, and then they will completely embrace it to the point that they will react almost violently to anything which contradicts what they’ve come to believe. Through the Reagan and Bush years, these folks were told over and over and over that government “wasn’t the solution to the problem. Government was the problem!” The fact that such exhortations came from the people who ran the government didn’t strike anyone as problematic or even ironic. And it worked!
Anyone who worked for the U.S. government — save for the military — became a faceless Washington bureaucrat and one of the ‘thems.’ And the U.S. government, which provided the myriad services that people seem to want and demand, became big government; intrusive government; wasteful government; a government we’d really be better off without.
So it was with the Tea Party and “Obamacare.” So it was with the Tea Party and the debt ceiling. And to make the environment for the debt ceiling debate even more contentious, 60 or so members of the House of Representatives were elected in 2010, either with strong Tea Party support, or who claimed to be actual members of the Tea Party. They arrived on the scene absolutely sure of absolutely everything. The notion of compromise on what they espouse is considered vile. The concept of working with people who hold differing views is surrender and treachery.
They turned the usually arcane and rarely controversial matter of increasing the nation’s debt ceiling into a national and international fiscal crisis. And they show no signs of softening their position or their approach to everything else.
That is the current state of the nation: a Legislative branch of the national government which is totally dysfunctional. Will it continue? Can it continue?
Those questions bring us back to Darwin and his conclusions about the evolutionary process through natural selection. If he was right, the Tea Party will either become the dominant species in Congress, or it will have to change and adapt to the environment, or it will become extinct.
Dave Helfert has been a political and governmental communicator for more than 30 years, writing speeches for elected officials and candidates, creating media in more than 200 political campaigns, working for six years as a Communications Director in the Clinton Administration and then nine years in the U.S. House.