"The party of white people": How the Tea Party took over the GOP, armed with all the wrong lessons from history

The Founders were a divided bunch. They believed in debate but also in solving problems. Someone tell the Tea Party

Published May 23, 2015 4:01PM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Excerpted from "The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible"

There was an emerging disagreement among conservatives, one that grew out of differing dispositions, if not principle. The Tea Party movement possessed an almost centrifugal force in which ideas gravitated from the center to the margins. On the anti-intellectual fringe, the narrative about the Founders was taken up by absolutists and paranoids who supported citizen militias and the like. Yet even those not on the fringe supported the radical rhetoric. It was, in some sense, built into the movement. The logic of their argument—that conservatives were losing the country, that it had fatally departed from the Founders’ intentions, that the republican experiment required periodic revolutions to renew old values—suggested that extreme and uncompromising measures were necessary to restore the nation to the old ways.

The Republican leadership, by contrast, was made up of realists. Though establishment politicians had used similar revolutionary rhetoric often enough—since at least the time of Ronald Reagan—when it came to governing they recognized the limits of their power and the importance of incremental change. But with the Tea Party revolution, the rhetoric became harder to control. The conservative base had slipped its leash. The new Tea Party activists, who rejected incremental change as part of the same old pattern that slouched toward tyranny, had begun speaking of revolution in sometimes the most literal sense.

As early as August 2009, David Frum, a speechwriter for George W. Bush, warned that conservatives were playing with fire. “All this hysterical and provocative talk invites, incites, and prepares a prefabricated justification for violence,” he wrote during the angry summer recess. “It’s not enough for conservatives to repudiate violence, as some are belatedly beginning to do. We have to tone down the militant and accusatory rhetoric.”

His warning turned out to be tragically prescient two days after the 2011 legislative session began, when Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head at a constituent event in Arizona. All told, nineteen people were shot. Six of them died, including a federal judge who was present. Reporters quickly discovered that Giffords had been on Sarah Palin’s target list. The police had been called when a man dropped a gun at one of her summer events in the infamous 2009 summer recess. And she had been one of the representatives to receive police protection after her affirmative vote on Obamacare. In retrospect, it was clear that she had been in danger for some time. Now she lay in a medically induced coma with the surgeons uncertain about the extent of her injuries.

Some commentators wondered if perhaps the Republicans had foolishly tried to ride the Tea Party tiger. It had been clear for some time that the Tea Party combined legitimate outrage over Democratic policies with more disreputable elements that tended toward extreme directions, a dialectic that the conservative columnist Matthew Continetti called “the two faces of the Tea Party.” One side sought to repair various “deformities” in American politics. The other, according to Continetti, was “ready to scrap the whole thing and restore a lost Eden.” One side was reformist. The other was revolutionary. One was responsible. The other was dangerous. It was really important, Continetti believed, to encourage the one side and suppress the other.

But when Continetti first began worrying about how to separate the responsible side from the reactionaries, other commentators had argued that it was impossible to draw such a line. Over at the National Review, Jonah Goldberg suggested that these two faces were actually marching in lockstep, as they had always done. Like Goldwater and Reagan in an earlier era, the two sides were really differing dispositions. One was more strident. The other was sunnier. One sometimes drifted into apocalyptic pronouncements. The other maintained a more realistic position while offering the hope of change. But both shared a policy vision, he argued, and both rejected the twentieth-century welfare state as a betrayal of the Founders’ idea of self-reliance. If the strident faction seemed to be ascendant at the moment, as it had since 2009, Goldberg was not particularly worried. Tea Party zeal would only catalyze conservative momentum that could eventually be channeled toward legislative success.

But after the shooting, things looked different. With Giffords lying in a coma and half a dozen people dead, it became much more important to distinguish the hysterical faction from the responsible one. Republican leaders would need to contain the more unruly components of the Tea Party revolution, while nevertheless harnessing its energy to accomplish Republican purposes.

Unfortunately for the Republican leadership, the Tea Party seemed barely interested in governance. Tea Partiers wanted, above all else, a confrontation with the president regardless of the wisdom of the conflict. And because the 2010 freshman class was so large, Speaker John Boehner did not have a functional majority to pass bills without Tea Party support. That dynamic made Republican attempts to convert the posture of rage into actual policy initiatives difficult if not impossible.

The problems began straightaway. By early spring, it became apparent that the U.S. debt ceiling would need to be raised, a regular occurrence since the spiraling debts under the George W. Bush administration, now exacerbated by the Great Recession and the Democrats’ stimulus package to combat it. Republican leaders decided that they would resist all increases to the debt ceiling until they received sufficient concessions that would, they hoped, force a fundamental change in course.

The tactic was not new. Fights over the debt ceiling had been occasional going back to the exploding deficits of the Reagan administration. But what was new was the unbending posture of the Tea Party. In the past, when the opposition party threatened not to raise it, there was no real risk that the ceiling would not be raised. Refusing to do so was simply a way of extracting concessions. Everyone understood that actually going through with the obstruction would put the U.S. government into default—not a live option.

But what the Tea Party–led Republicans demanded—a massive cut to spending that would increase over time, a balanced-budget amendment that would permanently limit spending in the future, and the promise that these aggressive cuts would somehow balance the budget rather than creating recession and larger budget deficits—was unprecedented. There was no way that Obama could give even half of what the Tea Party faction demanded. So what would otherwise have been a routine maneuver in public credit of the United States. The Tea Party threatened to burn down the house in order to “save” it.

As the standoff lasted through the summer, many old-guard Republicans began to grow nervous. Even those not known for their moderation began to appeal to the Tea Party faction for a sense of perspective. Under the headline “Ideals vs. Realities,” the conservative pundit Thomas Sowell reminded his allies that they needed to keep in mind the course of the Founders in the American Revolution. Just as George Washington retreated from British troops to find a more strategic ground, Sowell argued, so the Tea Party might find a different place than the debt limit to begin the quest for smaller government.

But the Tea Party members remained firm. They were engaged in a revolution, and a revolution demanded, above all else, extreme commitment. They would continue to the bitter end. As former House majority leader Dick Armey had said at a Tea Party rally, they needed to follow the Founders and the Constitution without thought or equivocation—“This ain’t no thinkin’ thing,” he said. 

Once the Treasury commenced extraordinary measures to put off default, more business-minded Republicans became frantic. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial denouncing the self-destructive extremism of the Tea Party faction under the title “The GOP’s Reality Test.” The editorial board was now convinced that the Republican Party had been taken over by a bunch of lunatics who were unhinged from the actualities of economics and governance.

The future was now clear. The Tea Party movement was determined to follow their vision, even if it was self-stultifying. They professed to want to shrink government to unleash the capitalist system and they argued that not raising the debt ceiling would be a first step. But a default would have plunged the nation’s economy back into recession, which would have lowered tax receipts and massively increased the debt. And the default would have further raised the cost of borrowing, which would then further increase the debt. So not raising the debt ceiling as a first step in stopping the debt cycle would have, in fact, massively increased the deficit, added enormously to the debt, and thrown the nation’s economy into chaos.

As the radicalism of the new freshman class became apparent, Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times wondered if perhaps the Tea Party could learn from Jefferson, their idol. Jefferson was the originator of the antistatist tradition in American politics. He had invented many of the rhetorical postures that the Tea Party now adopted. But like the Tea Party, Jefferson had found his ideology and his posturing challenged by reality, as had many anti-statist politicians who crusaded to shrink government. In fact, by the measurement of actually accomplishing their goals in office, Tanenhaus wrote, “Jefferson and his heirs have been abject failures.” But by learning once in office and by adjusting to the realities before him, Tanenhaus believed, Jefferson succeeded in governance.

Could the Tea Party do the same? The answer was no. Unlike Jefferson, who proved to be supple in adjusting his ideology to reality, the Tea Party faction was determined to remain consistent to the bitter end. Their failure was not merely one of political thought, but grew instead out of an intellectual and rhetorical style that substituted paranoid sloganeering for actual policy analysis. Tea Partiers assumed, as Reagan, Goldwater, and others before them had done, going all the way back to Jefferson, that principles and values naturally cohered without trade-offs. Those principles had been handed down from the Founders, were betrayed at some point in the past, and now needed to be reapplied or else the people would find themselves under a federal despot. Given those stakes, the niceties of economics, the actual numbers by which decisions are made, and the policy considerations that guide choices and trade-offs were all beside the point. Total resistance was the only option.

It would be a long next few years.


“Is the Tea Party Over?” the columnist Bill Keller asked hopefully at the start of the 2012 election season. After the near miss with the default, Keller was not alone in wishing for a reprieve. But it was not to be.

Because of Republican gerrymandering after the 2010 election, the party leadership could not abandon the Tea Party radicals. Since many conservatives were in safe seats, the only credible challenge that they could face would be from the right. To ignore the Tea Party faction or to sideline their political interests would only cause a challenge to the seat. “You have to kowtow to the Tea Party,” a spokesman for Richard G. Lugar of Indiana said, summarizing the view of many Republican politicians. And because of the Tea Party’s unbending radicalism, the Republican Party was, in effect, being driven by its most extreme faction.

The resulting environment was not hospitable to moderate Republicans, especially coming up on a presidential election cycle. After seeing the radicalism of the moment, many viable Republican governors decided to sit out the 2012 race. Navigating the way through a Republican primary required too many bows to Tea Party orthodoxy and an almost willful detachment from basic budgetary math. As Jacob Weisberg observed, the new Republican orthodoxy expected all candidates “to hold the incoherent view that the budget should be balanced immediately, taxes cut dramatically, and the major categories of spending (the military, Social Security, Medicare) left largely intact.” “There is no way to make these numbers add up,” Weisberg concluded, a fact that had been pointed out numerous times by nonpartisan sources. But the Tea Party required the incoherent litmus test nevertheless, which had the effect of winnowing the field. 

As more responsible Republican governors bowed out of the race, the resulting crowd of candidates was filled with minor and often eccentric figures who hewed to Tea Party orthodoxy. The primary season itself unfolded with an unseemly chaos. Each Tea Party–supported candidate—Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum—took a turn in the lead before making a gaff, losing a crucial primary, or exposing his or her basic ignorance of public affairs. At that point, a new candidate would begin to rise to the top.

Tea Partiers remained cool to Romney, even after it became apparent that he was to be the nominee. To energize the base, Romney decided to add some Tea Party flair to the ticket, choosing as his running mate Paul Ryan, a Tea Party darling and architect of the 2012 Republican budget that, among other things, promised to convert Medicare into a voucher system and to cut taxes (again) on the wealthy. Ryan had strengthened his already robust Tea Party credibility when he rehearsed the standard-issue Tea Party rhetoric during his 2011 Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address. Warning that the nation was “reaching a tipping point,” Ryan called the nation back to its anchor “in the wisdom of the founders; in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence; and in the words of the American Constitution.”

Ryan seemed the perfect choice. But it turned out that the Tea Party and the American electorate had begun to diverge. Although Ryan’s place on the ticket energized Tea Party conservatives, in a time of economic stagnation the Tea Party rhetoric did not sell with the wider public. The Romney-Ryan ticket was stuck in the mud, unable to pull ahead in what many Republicans had anticipated would be an easy contest. After the late-summer conventions, polling suggested a close race. But some pollsters, most notably Nate Silver of the New York Times, were predicting Obama’s reelection.

Still, many conservatives went into election night expecting to win. “I just finished writing a victory speech,” Romney told reporters on his campaign plane. And a concession speech? “I’ve only written one speech at this point,” Romney said.

Yet as the election returns came in, it became apparent how out of touch Republicans had become. Obama won in decisive fashion, 332 electoral votes to Romney’s 206. Even more disturb-ing—at least for Republicans—was the demographic composition of those who voted from Romney versus those who voted for Obama. Romney lost nearly every important demographic with one exception: 88 percent of Romney voters were white. In a nation that was turning increasingly brown, those numbers suggested crisis.

Watching the agony unfold, Sam Tanenhaus, one of the keenest of political observers, came to a disturbing conclusion: the Tea Party–led GOP was headed to the most extreme Jeffersonian position, that of John C. Calhoun prior to the Civil War. According to Tanenhaus, Calhoun’s position had been built into the conservative movement from the beginning. At William F. Buckley’s National Review, for example, Calhoun was “the Ur-theorist of a burgeoning but outnumbered conservative movement, ‘the principal philosopher of the losing side.’ ” Through the fervent embrace of such early conservatives, Calhoun’s views on federal power and the Tenth Amendment became central in the emergence of the newly conservative politics.

But problems had begun to set in by the 1990s and only intensified during the Bush administration. Although Bush was reelected, it had become obvious that the Jeffersonian-Calhounian rhetoric ceased to mobilize the electorate in the same way as the nation became less white and as conservative policy goals failed to pan out. By 2009, the conservative movement hit crisis. “In retreat,” Tanenhaus argued, “the nullifying spirit has been revived as a form of governance—or, more accurately, anti-governance.” Led by the Tea Party, Republicans stumbled into a series of unwinnable fights over the budget, the debt ceiling, and Obamacare, each justified, according to Tanenhaus, “not as a practical attempt to find a better answer, but as a ‘Constitutional’ demand for restoration of the nation to its hallowed prior self.”

But now that approach had come to its logical endpoint after the 2012 election. The Jeffersonian argument about maintaining founding principles had degenerated into a Calhounian vision of state-sponsored nullification and retrenchment. “Denial has always been the basis of a nullifying politics,” Tanenhaus believed, but after the election it was obvious that “modernity could not be nullified.”

How would Republicans now respond? They could either abandon their form of antigovernance—with its genuflections toward the Founders, its simplistic solutions to complex problems, and its general tendency toward obstruction. Or the party would remain, Tanenhaus predicted, “the party of white people.”

Excerpted from "The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible" by David Sehat. Published by Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2015 by David Sehat. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By David Sehat

David Sehat is Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University. His first book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians.

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