Allegedly, the Tea Party movement has been violent, angry, intent to incite fear and hate among the populace. These narratives weren’t true — tonight’s vote has proven them caricatures laid out by journalists with short wordcounts and shorter attention spans.
Violent movements do not do these things. They don’t show up at the polls and overwhelm the establishment in favor of a minority candidate, as in the case of Sen.-elect Marco Rubio, R-Fla. They also don’t lose so badly, as in the case of Christine O’Donnell. They don’t take on, and nearly defeat, the leader of the majority party in the Senate, at the same time as he colludes with casinos in a potentially illegal scheme to get out the vote in his favor. They don’t settle for a more liberal candidate in Illinois just because he’s the most electable.
Yet they did all of those things. Strange.
The Tea Party movement, at its very inception, has focused on the rule of law and limited government as reasons for its existence. The Troubled Asset Relief Program, originally passed so that the government could remove toxic assets from the ballot sheets of banks to prevent huge bank failures, had become a bank bailout outside the scope of what was originally intended. Then came the Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan to provide aid to homeowners delinquent on their mortgages. This led to the famous Rick Santelli rant on the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange: “This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?”
Floor traders — floor traders — began yelling in agreement with him. One leaned over into the mic: “It’s a moral hazard!” This is the spark that lit this fire.
Contrast that to the guys in the tri-corner hats holding signs depicting President Obama as some kind of tribesman.
The government was spinning out of control, trying to contain a crisis it had helped to create. The only thing that could bring order to the government, Tea Party activists believed, was the founding document that allowed it to exist for over 200 years before, through depressions, wars, and disasters — and a willingness to uphold it.
Ponder that: The deck is already stacked. Opponents claim to recognize no limits on government (here, consider Rep. Phil Hare’s, D-Ill., assertion that he doesn’t worry about the Constitution, and feign surprise that he didn’t win his reelection). Opponents then draw support from constituents enriched by that government growth.
Obamacare only confirmed the suspicions — rammed through despite huge opposition and three off-year elections, including a Republican senator in Massachusetts, saying, “Don’t.”
Did they rebel, I mean, literally, amidst what they felt to be the violation of the Constitution? They surely addressed it as villainous — tyranny was the word on so many signs. Obama dressed as Hitler. The most gaffe-tastic (and sadly photogenic) posters ever. Ridiculous hyperbole. But actual rebellion?
No. They started electing people.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. One year on, Tea Party activists stayed passionate. They jumped into primaries. Sure, they listened to talk radio. So what? The inspiration for this movement wasn’t all whipped up by radio personalities, it was whipped up by people’s own sentiments about their country, and the understanding that, unchecked, the Democrats would be sure to run it into the ground, and worse, with possibly the best intentions.
They took on the establishment candidates and won — as with Rand Paul in Kentucky, a man to the right of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
They also won extravagantly: Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, the media-sanctified weirdo (Pew Research claims she was the most covered candidate this cycle which says more about the press’s prejudice than O’Donnell’s prominence), primaried incumbent Republican Mike Castle, only to give way, spectacularly, to a Democrat. It was not a seat they could seriously think about winning, but the message was more important, and enough compromises had been made along the way. It’s easy to disagree with that reasoning, sure, but it’s hard to reject it as mere stupidity. It’s a debate held in state houses every session.
The truth is, when you spend enough time in Washington, every campaign is the most important one ever.
When you hear that eye-rolling statement from people who spend time here, it’s not because it’s a kind of particularly profound insight into the way campaigns and our political system works. It’s because people are surprised that they got so carried away in all that time, when winning was the only thing.
Tea Party activists, just by showing up on the political stage, to fight within the political process, proved every broad stereotype hurled at them wrong. This campaign, for them, was the most important one ever, and perhaps they’re surprised that they got so carried away. But chances are, most of them aren’t surprised. They’re probably just getting ready for 2012.