Sending the Tea Party To Finishing School

I don’t know how I missed the fact that Charlie Pierce was live-blogging on Election Night, but his on-the-fly observations are a fine anecdote to a great deal of the “analysis” and blatant spin we are currently hearing. Yesterday I sat fuming on the phone as my fellow-commentators on To the Point blandly agreed the GOP’s Senate victory owed a lot to the “moderation” of its candidates this year. The questions posed to me didn’t lend themselves to the kind of violent dissent I wanted to offer, and I’d like to be invited back some day. But I love Charlie’s comment on this most ridiculous, narrative-driven assumption:

I hate to break this to Tom Brokaw, and to Kasie Hunt, who talked about how the Republicans know they have to “govern,” but this election couldn’t have been less of a repudiation of the Tea Party. As the cable shows signed off last night, it was dawning even on the most conventional pundits that the Republicans had not elected an escadrille of Republican archangels to descend upon Capitol Hill. It was more like a murder of angry crows. Joni Ernst is not a moderate. David Perdue is not a moderate. Thom Tillis is not a moderate. Cory Gardner — who spiced up his victory by calling himself “the tip of the spear” — is not a moderate. Tom Cotton is not a moderate. And these were the people who flipped the Senate to the Republicans. In the reliably Republican states, Ben Sasse in Nebraska is not a moderate. James Lankford in Oklahoma is not a moderate. He’s a red-haired fanatic who believes that welfare causes school shootings. Several of these people — most notably, Sasse and Ernst — won Republican primaries specifically as Tea Partiers, defeating establishment candidates. The Republicans did not defeat the Tea Party. The Tea Party’s ideas animated what happened on Tuesday night. What the Republicans managed to do was to teach the Tea Party to wear shoes, mind its language, and use the proper knife while amputating the social safety net. They did nothing except send the Tea Party to finishing school.

Yes, that’s the metaphor we’ve all been looking for. But this observation from Pierce, based on the reelection of two governors who never bothered to cover their ideological tracks, is also well worth thinking about:

Brownback will go back to wrecking his state, and LePage will go back to embarrassing his because of an attitude that Republicans, and the conservative movement that has powered the party, have cultivated carefully over the last three decades. They have engaged, quite deliberately and quite successfully, in a concerted effort to convince the country that self-government is a game for suckers. Nobody does what they say they’re going to do, so ignore the fact that our candidates have drifted so far to the right that they’ll be falling into the Thames any minute now because they’re not going to act on their fringe beliefs, and just go out there and vote your Id. Once you’ve divorced the act of voting from the conviction that voting will have any connection to what the government actually does, voters do not vote their desires, they vote their anger and their fear. And Sam Brownback goes back to wrecking his state and Paul LePage goes back to embarrassing his own.

I try to avoid generalizations about “the country,” since it was a fact a relatively small sliver of “the country” that delivered the Senate (and many governorships) to the GOP. But Charlie’s right: the same “they’re all whores” attitude that has made campaign finance reform so difficult does indeed help make it easier for swing voters who probably don’t share the demented world-view of Sam Brownback or Joni Ernst to pull the lever for them anyway, to send some sort of “message” to people not on the ballot or as a reaction to dumb-but-clever ads.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.