At the last minute the Tea Party shutdown went down in flames, violently splitting the Republican Party and perhaps sparing us any similar episodes for the next year--although I would not count on that. This video, which is going viral, is the best illustration of exactly what tactics the House Republicans used to make the shutdown happen at all. But as I try to fit the week's events into some long-term historical pattern, I see at least two possibilities.
I have tentatively decided, after much thought, that perhaps the best historical analogy for the Tea Party are the Radical Republicans of the post-civil war era. I must apologize for the analogy insofar as I admire the goals of those Republicans, namely, the full enfranchisement of freed slaves, while I feel the Tea Party is trying to undo all the good that the US government has accomplished over the last century. But they are alike in this respect: the Republicans, led by Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Thad Stevens of Pennsylvania, were trying to impose more change upon the country than they could. For several years during the Administration of Andrew Johnson they had essentially absolute power in the Congress and they used it to pass the 14th and 15th Amendments. The Grant Administration continued their policies, partly to ensure that black voters kept the South in the Republican column, but the white South turned to terrorism in response, and the Supreme Court began to rule against the use of federal power to enforce civil rights. In 1874, during Grant's second term, the country was sufficiently weary of corruption, economic panic and reconstruction to elect a large Democratic majority in Congress. By 1876 the Democrats had regained enough popularity and power in the South to elect Samuel J. Tilden of New York as President, but the Republicans managed to steal the election for Rutherford B. Hayes--in exchange for a promise to end Reconstruction at once. In subsequent years more court decisions undid all the good work that had been done in the South.
Now the Tea Party, building on previous Republican policies over the last 20 years, has been trying to destroy government as we have known it at both the state and local level, and to safeguard its political power by gerrymandering in key states and making it harder for poor people and minorities to vote. They have now shut down the federal government and threatened a government default in an attempt to stop Obamacare. They forced the idea of the sequester upon the Administration two years ago and it is likely to do much more harm. But the country is wearying with their radicalism as it did of the radical Republicans 140 years ago. They have split their own party and that split will now get worse. The critical question, of course, is whether it is possible that they might actually cost the Republicans the House of Representatives next year. Redistricting has made that very unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
At the same time, however, the Tea Party has already left a profound mark on the country and it isn't done yet. It, and the Republican Party of which it is a part, may not be able to undo government much further, but they can effectively stand in the way of rebuilding it. An anti-government trend has dominated our politics for many years now. Worse, disastrous long-term trends continue without any clear path to a solution. Too many millions of Americans work for wages that are too low to live on and to contribute to the tax base, except for payroll taxes. A substantial portion of our working class is composed of illegal aliens who cannot vote. Public services continue to decline and infrastructure continues to decay. The financial community remains much too powerful. The roll-out of Obamacare highlights the lack of organizational skills within our society and the failure of the Democratic political establishment to impress the nation very much. And thus, to use another analogy from another crisis, the Tea Party might eventually look like Henry Wallace's Progressive Party--a 1948 coalition of the most left-wing elements of the Roosevelt coalition which failed to win a single state. Wallace's defeat did signal the end of New Deal-style reforms, but the basic New Deal structure remained in place. In the same way, the Tea Party's Waterloo does not mean a great victory for old-style liberalism. We are still fighting as hard as we can to keep things in the not inspiring condition that they are--which is the fruit of three decades of determined, relentless Republican struggle.
Immigration reform will be the next big fight in the House of Representatives, but the Republicans, it seems to me, will have less incentive to cooperate than ever. Several of them have already said frankly that they are not interested in creating several million more Democratic votes. For the first time since the end of Reconstruction, we are shrinking the percentage of the permanent adult population that can vote. The presence of so many illegals will obviously continue to weaken attempts to revive organized labor. Eventually the Hispanic vote will make itself felt even in some very red states like Texas--but it may take a very long time, and the economy needs basic restructuring now.
This month's crisis provoked a blunt call from China's official news agency to give up the idea of the US as the leader of the world. Our European friends cannot understand what is happening to us. Meanwhile, our educated elite, in my opinion, knows and cares less about Europe and the rest of the industrialized world than at any time since the mid-19th century. We may indeed be adding political and diplomatic weakness abroad to economic and social weakness at home. The events of the last two weeks proved that things would not immediately get much worse. They didn't hold out much promise that they will get much better.