Why the Tea Party Is to Government What Cancer Is to a Body

Yesterday Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner added to the fiscal cliff fiasco by announcing the debt ceiling will be reached by Monday or so, and needs to be raised.

And along with the taxes and budget cuts thing is the little detail that the “doc fix” hasn’t been fixed. The “doc fix” is a legacy of the 1997 Congress that ties physician Medicare reimbursement rates to growth (or not) in the GNP. Since 2003 Congress has voted every year to defer changes, meaning cuts, to physician reimbursement rates. The 2012 fix, which was agreed to in the waning days of 2011, will expire at the end of the year, and when that happens physician Medicare reimbursement will be cut by 27 percent.

There’s also a dairy farm subsidy bill that needs extending to keep the price of milk from going up to $6 a gallon.

All of these things — the farm bill, the debt ceiling, the doc fix — used to be passed pretty much without a burp out of Congress, because most of the lawmakers had the sense to know they really didn’t have a choice about it.

But now we’ve got the Tea Party, and all bets are off. The baggers want to hold every bit of legislation they can hostage so that they can further destroy the government they hate. And there’s enough of them in Congress that Congress is now pretty much dysfunctional.

Steve Kornacki writes that the Tea Party really isn’t much of a movement any more as much as it is a mindset.

Defined as a literal movement, with an active membership pressing a specific set of demands, the Tea Party absolutely is in decline. Tea Party events have become less crowded, less visible, and less relevant to the national political conversation. As the Times story notes, the movement’s die-hards are embracing increasingly niche pet issues. The term “Tea Party” has come to feel very 2010.

But if you think of the Tea Party less as a movement and more as a mindset, it’s as strong and relevant as ever. As I wrote back in ’10, the Tea Party essentially gave a name to a phenomenon we’ve seen before in American politics – fierce, over-the-top resentment of and resistance to Democratic presidents by the right. It happened when Bill Clinton was president, it happened when Lyndon Johnson was president, it happened when John F. Kennedy was president. When a Democrat claims the White House, conservatives invariably convince themselves that he is a dangerous radical intent on destroying the country they know and love and mobilize to thwart him.

And if they destroy the rest of the country along with the Obama Administration, so be it.

The truth is, the baggers are just the latest incarnation of the group Richard Hofstadter called “pseudo-conservatives” back in the 1950s and 1960s. Hofstadter wrote,

The difference between conservatism as a set of doctrines whose validity is established by polemics, and conservatism as a set of rules whose validity is to be established by their usability in government, is not a difference in nuance, but of fundamental substance.

Hofstadter continued, quoting Theodore W. Adorno:

“The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

And finally,

Writing in 1954, at the peak of the McCarthyist period, I suggested that the American right wing could best be understood not as a neo-fascist movement girding itself for the conquest of power but as a persistent and effective minority whose main threat was in its power to create “a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.”

Now there are enough of them in Congress that nothing rational can be accomplished without the baggers stepping in to screw it up. As Kornacki says, their influence over the GOP lies in their ability to win primaries. Even big shots like Mitch McConnell are afraid of them.

And, truly, this goes deeper than just undermining Democratic presidents. They really do want to drown the federal government in a bathtub. They’ve got it in their heads that just about everything the federal government does, with the exception of the military, violates some sacred principle established somewhere in the mythic past that lives in their heads and which they mistake for history. And they will continue to eat away at everything workable and functional in government until it is destroyed.

They’ve somehow simultaneously staked claims on both “love it or leave it” super-nationalism and “hate the Gubmint” anarchism. If you don’t want to either destroy the government or secede, you can’t be a true patriot.

And of course, the reason these misfits have so much influence is that they are being financed by deep pocket special interests and industries that can manipulate the crazies into opposing taxes and regulations the hyper-wealthy find inconvenient.

We’re doomed.