American representative democracy has a long tradition of colorful, mercurial, unpredictable individuals who can be counted on to say crazy stuff and take extreme positions. Sometimes they are elected only once or twice before their constituency replaces them either from embarrassment or finding someone else even more colorful. I'm resisting the urge to name names as I write, but I'm sure the reader can supply his or her own.
But that is not the main point, which is that these individuals are just that -- individuals, exceptionally gifted in getting in the spotlight, spitting out the most newsworthy soundbite or pulling yet another rabbit out of a hat when nobody thought they had any more tricks left. Even those who get on our nerves we have to admit respecting them, even loving them, in the same way we can't resist hugging a child who does something mischievous because they are just so dang cute. Even if a kid sets fire to the Christmas tree and the house burns down, adults around him understand that as tragic as it was, he never meant to do that kind of damage, so he's forgiven and over time what was a horrible tragedy becomes an anecdote about a childhood event.
These are the saving grace of politics that keeps an otherwise tedious but important subject from being ignored by the public. We would be happy to be entertained by sports, movies, music and other amusements, even when they become outrageously expensive. (Check the price of tickets to a touring music group or an end of the season sports event.) But without the mavericks of politics we not only get bored, we get pissed off that the people we elect to do the peoples' business can't just get the job done and quit wasting our time.
But I posed a question in the title -- who are the Tea Party people? They started off as the colorful mavericks we all love and respect, even if we can't agree with what they say or stand for.
Here in the South we have a long history of tolerance for people like this, racists from various constituencies who keep getting elected year after year, bringing to the public forum a point of view of a minority (which in the case of racism is a vanishing minority, thankfully), keeping the rest of their house in order, often waiting their turn in the seniority queue, building alliances with others, often across party lines, until the pass into history with whatever stories and reputations follow them wherever they go.
But the Tea Party people are not the same as Southern racists (though the have a lot in common). The main difference is that they are not, for the most part, colorful individuals but a collection of newcomers to Washington politics who owe their political power and influence not to their individual maverick qualities but to their dedication to the idea that they are not there to participate in the messy but pragmatic way that federal politics has been conducted for over two centuries, but to fundamentally destroy that system, a system they say has gotten out of control, that no longer works, that has betrayed the vision of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers?), that has become an exercise in tyranny.
I have no doubt about their individual honor, decency or patriotism. But I am certain that they are not part of that train of colorful mavericks that we love and honor as part of our political history, going all the way back to Cassius Clay (not THAT one -- the abolitionist from Kentucky where I come from) and Patrick Henry. Even Barry Goldwater and Ross Perot deserve honorable mention here. But despite a few low-profile crazy remarks, the Tea Party crowd is just that -- a crowd, not a collection of principled individuals.
Someone is sure to mention Ted Cruz, who is a genuine maverick in the tradition I have described. He doesn't count. He's the genuine article, a true blue, go-against-the-grain up and coming Character in the best sense of the word. He will be around long after the Tea Party has faded, when they will have become a part of his colorful history, not the other way around. We will always have people like him. I have seen them all my life. He's someone who finds a parade and jumps in front of it, so everybody watching the parade thinks he's the one who started it. I haven't done any deep research, but my reading leads me to believe he was not one of the big shots who really organized and co-opted this group of people.
And that is exactly what they are. They are a group. The group is made up of individuals, of course, and they all represent sincere constituencies in the districts they represent. But it is significant that they are not in the Senate but the House of Representatives, the body which, unlike the Senate, reflects segments of the population, not states. Because of gerrymandering the districts in the House have become more aligned with political parties than ever before, both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats have historically been the "big tent" party so the odds of seeing a Democrat analogue to the Tea Party are slim. As Will Rogers said, "I'm not a member of any political party -- I'm a Democrat."
I conclude, then, that we really cannot say who the Tea Party people are as individuals. But we can be certain that they are a group. If nothing else is clear, they are not only a group, but they are unified in a way never before seen in Washington politics. And they are dangerous. They are as dangerous as any cult. And at the moment their behavior, however sincere they may be as individuals, is a collective threat to all. I'm not sure what it will take to make this hostage-taking tactic to stop, but stop it must. As Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said, "We must all hang together, or we will most assuredly hang -- separately." Or in this case, we will all suffer a loss as the house burns down because someone set fire to the Christmas tree.