Now that the GOP-manufactured economic crisis is over (for several months, anyway), one might say the lesson for the Republican Party is best expressed by that old warning: Be careful what you wish for.
Driven by its reactionary Tea Party faction and the Right’s newest demagogue, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the GOP tried to use forcing a shutdown of the government and the debt-default threat to hijack the democratic process – to effectively repeal Obamacare and destroy the authority of the president.
However, wrapped in self-delusion, they misjudged President Obama and the Congressional Democrats – and, as the Republican Party’s sinking to record lows in many polls show, the American public – just as they did in the 2012 national election. Not for nothing did conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer, watching the battle unfold, label them Congress’ “suicide caucus.”
The outrageous stunt has likely tilted the political calculus for both the 2014 midterm congressional elections and the 2016 presidential contest more in the Democrats’ favor. One has to believe that the Democratic Party get-out-the-vote strategists, who’ve performed so superbly in 2008 and 2012, are already figuring the best ways to make hay from the GOP’s missteps.
But one of several critical questions this astonishing episode of American history has cast into sharp relief is who’s going to win the political war that’s now broken into the open within the Republican Party between the Tea Party faction and its establishment wing represented by Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
True, a significant bloc of the party’s establishment elected officials and business supporters such as the U.S. Chamber of Congress took concerted steps last week as the shutdown and debt-ceiling deadlines loomed to muster enough votes of GOP Senators and Representatives to back down from the confrontation. And they have promised to work to rein in the Tea Party’s extremist influence on the party as a whole by financially backing mainstream-conservative candidates in the primaries.
Nonetheless, the GOP’s political terrain looks mountainous, for Tea Party activists and Congressional representatives are even more scathing toward establishment Republicans and vow not to back down from the next confrontation.
You can take them at their word because, despite its defeat in the Congress and battering in the polls, the fact is the Tea Party did force the GOP pragmatists to allow their radical scheme to shut down the United States government– throwing tens of thousands of government employees temporarily out of work, temporarily blocking millions of Americans from access to government services – and causing more than $20 billion in damage to the U.S. economy.
The outcome of the GOP civil war between the Tea Party ideologues and the establishment wing is important not just for the Republican Party but for the country as a whole.
That’s because the Tea Party represents the most significant backward political force the country has seen since the defeat in the 1960s of the racial segregationists of the Jim Crow South. Indeed, they’re the latter’s spiritual descendants: in today’s far more diverse society their intolerance spans the spectrum of any group that’s “different.”
That’s why, as the nation’s cities have become more and more diverse, with more and more Americans of different backgrounds gathering in the same living space, the living space of the conservative and extremely conservative Whites who are the base of the Republican Party and its Tea Party faction is just the opposite.
As Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker’s political correspondent, noted in a recent article, “Where the G.O.P.’s Suicide Caucus Lives,” the districts of many Republican members of Congress “actually became less diverse (his emphasis) in 2012.” These districts, predominantly exurban and rural, where whites constitutes at least 80 percent of the residents, “represent an America where the population is getting whiter … and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular.”
In other words, supporters of the GOP, and especially of the Tea Party are repeating in a slightly different way the “White flight” dynamic of the mid-20th century. Then, as more and more Southern Blacks migrated to the cities, more and more Whites fled their urban neighborhoods for lily-White suburban enclaves.
Today, the country’s demographic changes and Republicans’ deliberate Congressional-district gerrymandering have combined to effectively produce conservative Whites-only political “fortresses” that are, as the shutdown crisis showed, bastions of a voting bloc which values its “ideological purity” above the country’s political traditions and economic viability.
True, those kinds of voters have always existed in America. But it’s not a comforting thought to understand the last time such a group exercised significant political power was when the regime of Jim Crow ruled the South.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.