When matters become extremely dire and disheartening, as they have been in the blatantly dysfunctional Congress, historians are usually the designated dispensers of perspective. As bad as things are, we like to say, they have been worse and the nation somehow survived.
But for the life of me, I cannot recall an occasion when a minority of elected representatives with such an absurdly partisan agenda was capable of stopping the government of the United States in its tracks. To be sure, stoppages have happened before, but not with a looming debt ceiling decision, which has threatened to throw the American economy back into recession, send the global financial markets into free fall and permanently damage America’s fiscal reputation. Such mindless political and economic devastation is unprecedented.
Clearly, most of the tea party radicals in the House of Representatives come from gerrymandered districts, which function as cocoons that resist penetration by alien ideas, such as Keynesian economics, Darwinian evolution, global warming and, yes, the potential popularity of Obamacare. They live in a parallel universe in which a rejection of any robust expression of government power is an unquestioned and unexamined article of faith.
Where does this irrational but obviously deep-felt impulse come from? Talk radio and Fox News obviously feed the beast. But the seminal convictions of the tea partiers defy any modern conceptions of government power. How far back in history do they want to take us?
My initial impression was that they wanted to repeal the 20th century. Radical Republicans of the tea party persuasion object to all federal programs that have an impact on our daily lives, including Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the Federal Reserve Board. Even though tea partiers, like all the rest of us, are beneficiaries of these federal programs, especially Medicare and Social Security, ideology trumps self-interest in their worldview, though one wonders how they would respond if they had their way and their Social Security checks stopped coming.
Now, I believe these radicals want to go even further back in time. Though it wouldn’t be fair to pin a defense of slavery on them, they agree with the states’ rights agenda of the Confederacy and resist the right of the federal government to make domestic policy, which is their visceral reason for loathing Obamacare.
But their ultimate destination, I believe, is the 1780s and our dysfunctional government under the Articles of Confederation. The states were sovereign in that post-revolutionary arrangement, and the federal government was virtually powerless. That is political paradise for the tea partiers, who might take comfort in the fact that their 18th century counterparts also refused to fund the national debt. Their core convictions are pre-Great Society, pre-New Deal, pre-Keynes, pre-Freud, pre-Darwin and pre-Constitution.
This is nostalgia on steroids, and an utter absurdity, defying more than 200 years of American history. But this, I believe, is where radical Republicans are really coming from. It makes comprehensible their deep disregard for the destructive consequences of their anti-government policies, for they truly believe that government is “them,” not “us.”
The heartening news is that their like-minded predecessors over the past two centuries have lost every major battle, starting with the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and ending with the congressional vote and the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare.
The historical pattern is perfectly clear. They are going to lose again because they are running against the main currents of history. But along the way they are making all the rest of us pay a heavy price for their delusional agenda. And they really don’t care.
Dysfunction this deep strikes me as a new low in American history. This is not what the founders had in mind.
Joseph J. Ellis is the author of “Founding Brothers” and, most recently, “Revolutionary Summer.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.