wice in the last three years, on January 15, 2010 and July 16, 2011, I have explored the analogy between what happened to the Weimar Republic from 1930 until Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and what has happened to the United States during the Obama Administration. (Typing "Weimar" in the search box above will bring up both posts.) In both cases I made clear that I was not accusing the Tea Party of totalitarianism or Fascism. In many ways they could not be ore different from the Nazis: Hitler wanted (and created) a strong state that could mobilize the entire country, while the Tea Party wants to return government to the size and status it enjoyed during the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. I also said, however, that the Nazis' short-term goals before they seized power were the same as the Tea Party's: to make it impossible for the government to function. That prediction has now been borne out by the government shut-down, but I am inclined to believe that this will mark the high tide of Tea Party influence and the beginning of a return to a modicum of sanity in American politics. Here is why.
On the one hand, the Tea Party remains every bit as committed to its version of America and its world view as the Nazis were to theirs. They, like the Nazis, divide the national community into worthy and unworthy elements. For the Tea Party the worthy elements are mostly white, well-to-do, and possessed of what they see as a good work ethic, as demonstrated by their long-term economic success. (In real life the correlation between work ethic and economic success is nowhere near as strong as they think.) For the Nazis they were supposedly pure-blooded Aryans who put the interests of the German nation first. The unhealthy elements, for the Tea Party, include liberals, President Obama, the Clintons, immigrants, and the "47%" who supposedly live on the government dole. For the Nazis they included Marxists and above all Jews. When one looks at other aspects of the two movements, however, the similarity disappears.
The Achilles' heel of the Tea Party, as everyone understands, is their demographic base: whites from the Silent and Boom generations, now dying at an ever-increasing rate. Because these people vote in greater numbers than younger Americans and because of gerrymandering, the Tea Party has controlled the House of Representatives for several years and will probably control it for more years to come. In addition, because so few people vote in primaries, the Tea Party presents a mortal threat to nearly any Republican Congressman or Senator who defies them--the real reason we are having a government shutdown at all. We shall return to this point more specifically later. To be sure, not all Tea Party office holders are old--many of them come from Generation X, now 32 to 52 years old--but their generation has voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections. The Nazis, on the other hand, made their appeal to unemployed youth. More importantly, they did a better job than any other contemporary German party of appealing to the whole nation, regardless of class or region or religion (although not, of course, regardless of ideology.) The strength of their appeal varied from group to group, but they behaved more like an American national party than any of their rivals, and that undoubtedly enabled them to reach 40% of the national vote. The Tea Party, obviously, is appealing to a far narrower base than the Democrats. It is fair to say, however, that both the Democratic and Republican parties have lost the knack of appealing to the country as a whole, and that is why we face the terrible mess that we do.
The Tea Party also lacked the patience of the Nazis. Hitler understood that nothing less than total power and his own presence at the head of the government would allow him to achieve his goals. The Tea Party Congressmen are so convinced of their own righteousness and of the evil of anyone who stands in their way that they thought a majority in the House should allow them immediately to undo the last century of American legislative history. It was inevitable that they would insist on using the two levers available to them, the federal budget and the debt ceiling, to try to get everything they wanted. No generation in American history has shown the arrogance of American Boomers from whom their leadership is largely drawn. Because Tea Party organizations and contributors threaten any Republican who opposes them, only a tiny number of Republicans, led by John McCain, have been willing to stand up even to their worst excesses. John Boehner as Speaker has cut a pathetic figure.
Boehner has now demonstrated a species of failed leadership similar to what happened to the German government during the First World War. By late 1916 should have been clear that Germany had no means of defeating the enormous coalition of Russia, Britain and France arrayed against it, and that peace was the only option. To secure peace the Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, could have turned to President Woodrow Wilson, who made the most dramatic of a series of offers to help the warring nations bring about a "peace without victory." But instead, Bethmann yielded to the Army and Navy and undertook unrestricted submarine warfare, a step that was almost certain to bring the US into the war. Wilson sent the German Ambassador Count Bernstorff home at once, and Bernstorff told Bethmann he could have had peace within a couple of months had submarine warfare not begun. Bethmann explained that that was impossible. Because the German people believed that submarine warfare could win the war, the government had no choice but to undertake it rather than offer peace. The result was the complete defeat of Germany, the fall of the Empire, and eventually, the rise of Nazism.
Boehner is so in thrall to the Tea Party that he will not allow a House vote on a continuing resolution that does not defund Obamacare--a resolution that would pass easily, albeit with a mostly Democratic majority. On Wednesday he reportedly assured some of his moderate members that he would allow such a vote on the debt ceiling and that he would never allow the government to default. Other reports, however, suggest that that is making him hang even tougher on the budget, because he cannot bear to force them to give in twice in a row, and perhaps lose his speakership. In other words, he evidently has to wait until the government shutdown causes so much hardship--and make no mistake, it is causing hardship for ordinary citizens as well as federal workers--that the Tea Party realizes they have to open up the government again on any terms.
Boehner's dilemma, however, may be even worse than that. I do not know as much as I would like about the composition of the House Rules Committee, which actually has the power to determine what votes are taken on the floor. Its chairman, Republican Pete Sessions of Texas, already has a Tea Party opponent in the next primary. If the Tea Party controls all or nearly all the members of the Rules Committee, then Boehner may not be able to bend them to his will. In any event he may lose his speakership. Boehner is not a strong man. Hints have appeared from time to time that he is an alcoholic. He is no Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn, or Everett Dirksen--Congressional leaders who in a distant age worked with Presidents of the opposite party for the good of the United States.
The Republicans are obviously terrified that Obamacare will be impossible to eliminate once people have signed up for it, as they are now doing. This may be the turning point for the Tea Party insurgency. On the other hand, if Boehner really can't control the House, the US may default on its debt and force the President to assert some emergency powers. Much depends on the younger Congressional leaders like Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, who are extreme right wingers but who can't help but worry about the long-term political future of the party. Meanwhile, Ted Cruz has established himself as the most popular demagogue among Republicans. Never has the United States faced a crisis with such pathetic leadership. President Obama is, once again, counting on the Republican frenzy to burn itself out. Let us all hope that it does.