Why the Tea Party's Government Shutdown Strategy is All About Fear


On the third day of the government shutdown, one thing is clear: The Republican identity crisis is now full-blown, but its cause may have more to do with demographics than with policy or principle. Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast discussed how the millennial cohort is leaning the country to the left on a variety of policies including LGBT rights, immigration, foreign policy, and the economy. This positions the Republican standard of fear-mongering cultural populism as a dying strategy unlikely to help the party sustain credibility and power in the long term, which could only mean it pursues this strategy with gusto while it can still have an impact. Lo and behold, the shutdown.

This shutdown started not as a standoff between Democrats and Republicans, but one between Tea Partiers and Republicans. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is being blamed for strong-arming Tea Party congressmen in the House (and even Speaker Boehner), and positioning the party negatively in public opinion. The freshman senator has drawn extensive criticism from members of his own party for not actually having any plan or alternatives to his negotiating strategy.

In a closed-door meeting, Republican senators sat Cruz down to understand what he had planned, and the result was as expected, according to one senator who attended the meeting: “It was very evident to everyone in the room that Cruz doesn’t have a strategy — he never had a strategy, and could never answer a question about what the end-game was. I just wish the 35 House members that have bought the snake oil that was sold could witness what was witnessed today at lunch.” The crux of this was best summarized by Congressman Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) to the Washington Post: "We’re not going to be disrespected...We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” 

This has been a Tea Party strategy from the beginning. Republican stalwarts, including many moderates, are being driven out of their seats through primary challengers from the Tea Party who have no actual plan for the country. What they want is to make it known they are the oppressed in a world where LGBT people are getting equal rights one state at a time, and the country's demographics are propelling towards turning whites into a minority by 2043. This phenomenon is pushing the party as a whole to the hard right, leaving the Democrats appearing as the moderate alternative.

The chaos of this strategy is widespread. Embattled Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) tried to save congressional staff health care plans during the pre-shutdown negotiations even though he was publicly against them, according to leaked emails between the chiefs of staff of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Boehner. Speaker Boehner was engaged in actual bipartisan negotiations behind the scenes, but ended up yielding to the pressure and paranoia of the Tea Partiers in the House that could remove him as speaker. As the conversation shifts from the failed plan to defund the Affordable Care Act to the budget and the debt ceiling we can brace ourselves for more bravado and no policy.

The Tea Party challenger to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is a Sen. Ted Cruz-in-waiting.

President Obama refused to negotiate with Republicans Wednesday in a meeting with congressional leaders just as The New Republic's Michael Kazin challenged millennials to protest the shutdown, claiming, "Given their views, large numbers of Millennials should be protesting vigorously as the House GOP holds the state and the economy hostage to an agenda straight out of a Rush Limbaugh show." His argument rested on the premise that if we are as progressive and left-leaning as we seem, we should be storming things and marching against Washington and Sen. Ted Cruz with demands of efficiency and logic. But just because the Tea Party has championed being irrationally loud and angry about everything does not mean millennials will resort to the same tactics.

The progressives are not going to shut down the government because government is not doing what they want. Instead, they will keep passing laws and pushing for equality in the slow-and-steady ways that continue to press Republicans to decide which side of conservatism they would like to find themselves on — the one propelled by fear of being the minority, or the one that champions the actual foundations of fiscal conservatism and individual freedoms. Millennials and the progressives they elect like the always fierce Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are still some time away from being the majority, so until then we are going to have to deal with the fear-based politics of the Tea Party to some extent.

But till then let's listen to what Tea Party conservatives are telling us by their completely fear-based non-strategies — we're winning.