Health care debate ends, but Tea Party is just beginning

"You hold the base of its spine in one hand, and then you put the other hand on top of its head so you can get that twisting motion. I cannot overemphasize how important it is to keep a firm grip. It's a baby; it's gonna squirm."

Foolishly, we here at Combat! blog assumed that the political climate of the United States would settle down a little bit after Sunday’s House vote on health care reform. On some level we’d rather not have to consciously acknowledge, we were even a little disappointed. The vicious political rochambeau that had so dominated the past year seemed finally at an end, and as heartening as that was, it also meant we’d have to turn our attention back to Miracle Whip commercials. How wrong we were. Finally freed of the pretense of opposing a specific bill, the anti-health care reform movement has assumed its true form as an unmoored cloud of hateful bullshit. Gone is the obligation to talk about actual health care policy. Gone is the pretense of bipartisan intent, and gone is the salutary need to anchor one’s statements to any element of the real world. What remains is the essence of the Tea Party right, scurrying out from the corpse of town hall democracy like those shadow things in Ghost. Now that it has been released from its host body, the soul of American politics can make statements like this:

If I could start a country with a bunch of people, they’d be the folks who were standing with us the last few days. Let’s hope we don’t have to do that! Let’s beat that other side to a pulp! Let’s take them out. Let’s chase them down. There’s going to be a reckoning!

A congressman said that, which makes the hypothetical at the beginning kind of odd. You already have a country, asshole, and it sucks right now, largely because of you. The asshole in question is Steve King, as usual, but he’s not alone. Now that it no longer has to maintain the illusion that it’s talking about health care reform, reactionary populism has unsheathed the long knives.

The group that Representative King called “the awesome American people” have proven themselves to be just that, if we’re using “awesome” in the monotone, ironic sense that your sad college girlfriend employed when her car broke down on the way to spring break. King’s exhortation to “chase down” the other side and “beat them to a pulp” was surely metaphorical, metaphorical violence being the second most effective strategy in politics. The strict constitutionalists of the Tea Party have been flirting with the first most effective strategy. Politico reports that a number of Democrats who voted yes on health care reform have been the targets of harassment and death treats since Sunday. That’s not surprising in itself; Scott Baio gets death threats, and any issue that’s in the news as much as health care reform is bound to fix a few wild-eyed stares. What is surprising is the degree to which that harassment appears sponsored by the Tea Party movement itself. Mike Troxel, an organizer for the Lynchburg Tea Party, posted what he believed to be the home address of Tom Perriello (D–VA) on his blog, urging fellow activists to “Say hi and express their thanks regarding his vote on health care.” The address turned out to be the home of Perriello’s brother—and his four children—but Troxel remains unapologetic. “If they would like to provide me with the address of Tom, then I’d be more than happy to take it down,” he said. “I have no reason to believe it’s not his house.”

It’s reasoning like that—or, at least, argumentation like that—that made the Tea Party such a corrosive force in the health care debate to begin with. “Prove to me Tom Perriello doesn’t live in that house,” like “prove to me there’s no death panel” and “prove you didn’t fake your birth certificate” is the logic of a person who doesn’t want anything to do with logic. For all their talk of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, the Tea Party is a movement fundamentally opposed to representative democracy. They came to last summer’s town hall meetings in droves, but they came to disrupt them. By shouting down speakers and drowning out debate, the Tea Party protestors belied their stated principles; they said they wanted to restore democracy, but really they were afraid of what democracy might decide.

Their fears were not groundless. Sunday’s vote—conducted in accordance with the legislative process set forth in the Constitution and executed by duly elected representatives of We The People—was the second time the Tea Party right has been burned by representative democracy. The first was in November of 2008, when a large majority of Americans voted for a man whose lawful election to the presidency prompted the populist right to declare a state of tyranny. The Tea Party declares that our democracy is broken, and to them it is. They reject the present political system because it is corrupt, yes, and because it fosters and ever-expanding political class, yes. Those are legitimate complaints, but the real objection of the Tea Party is to representative government itself, because it does not work for them. Republican democracy is a system by which the majority can express its will, and the Tea Party is not in the majority.

This is why the Tea Party publishes addresses and not bills. The protestors outside Tom Perriello’s brother’s house aren’t interested in policy, in the mechanics of discourse and building a majority, because they recognize themselves as a minority. In a democracy, a minority seizes power only by attacking democracy itself. It takes 216 votes to stop a bill, but only one man to stop a Representative. When the Tea Party Nation sent out an email yesterday entitled “Now We Fight!!!!”—after the bill had passed, after the stated purpose of their protests was impossible to achieve—they exposed the real nature of their fight. It’s not against laws; it’s against people. The Tea Party movement is a revolution: against the Obama administration, against government, against this country, because they cannot succeed in the America we have.

Last week, House Minority Leader John Boehner said that Steve Driehaus (D–OH) wouldn’t be able to go home after he voted yes on health care reform. “He may be a dead man,” Boehner told the National Review. “He can’t go home to the west side of Cincinnati. The Catholics will run him out of town.” Again, Boehner was employing a metaphor. It was also a reminder, though, of the consequences of voting with your conscience in a country where people might start voting with their guns.

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  1. You started on such a fun note (a South Park clip) and ended on such a downer. I have no point other than I enjoyed the South Park clip.

  2. The protestors outside Tom Perriello’s brother’s house aren’t interested in policy, in the mechanics of discourse and building a majority, because they recognize themselves as a minority. In a democracy, a minority seizes power only by attacking democracy itself.

    great quote.

  3. The dynamics of American politics has disheartened many citizens. Instead of apathy, however, the Tea Party reacts with outrage and wholesale hollering. On one level, I applaud the Tea Party for getting politically active instead of apathetic.

    However, I withdraw my applause when I realize that they don’t just want their voice to be heard; they want their voice to be heeded above the voices of others. They demean other constituents by assuming that their opinions carry more weight than others’, simply because they hold them. The next “logical” step in their reasoning is to do outrageous, borderline illegal acts to get their opinions heeded. Ergo, they get heard in the press and inside the beltway.

    These tactics are not new. They have been used by many groups: flower children, PETA, Greenpeace, WTO protesters, militias in Idaho, Al Qaeda, etc. They share the same tactic: do not pass democracy, do not collect legitimacy, head straight to terrorism.

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