The Tea Party’s Utopianism Is Making It Irrelevant

By insisting on perfection in the debt ceiling debate, the Tea Party has made itself irrelevant to the process.

Before John Boehner made changes to his debt ceiling bill that made it more palatable to them, many Tea Party groups were preparing to go after legislators who were supporting the plan over their objections:

Several Tea Party organizations are working to punish conservative Republicans who plan to vote yes on Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) debt-ceiling proposal.

Tea Party leaders announced Thursday that they are targeting Republican Reps. James Lankford (Okla.), Allen West (Fla.), Mike Kelly (Pa.) and Bill Flores (Texas), all four freshmen and declared yes votes for Boehner.


The four lawmakers swept into office in 2010, midterm elections in which the Tea Party movement is credited with a significant role in winning back the Republican majority in the House.

West has been particularly vocal in his support of Boehner’s plan, which many consider a surprise endorsement by the Tea Party firebrand not known for falling into line behind his party’s leadership.

However, Tea Party-affiliated organizations Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Founding Fathers and United West indicated Thursday that their members will not tolerate a vote for the Boehner plan.

Tea Party leaders want West and the others to know they consider voting for Boehner’s plan “caving in” and it could mean losing the support of the Tea Party in 2012.

United West is calling the four congressmen “Tea Party defectors.” Any vote for a plan that raises the debt ceiling without enacting greater spending cuts or passing a balanced-budget amendment has enabled a “debt-ceiling giveaway,” according to Trento, director of the Tea Party Founding Fathers.

For  his part, West responded by calling the Tea Party representatives who made the threat “schizo,” but their threats have apparently weighed heavily on the minds of many in Congress, because it was fear of a Tea Party primary challenge that caused many of House Republicans to withhold support for the Boehner Plan:

There is a particular irritation at South Carolina Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham for publicly opposing the House bill.

A House GOP member, speaking on background, said the two senators opposition has played a major role in the resistance from Republican members of the South Carolina delegation.

The lawmaker added that redistricting and the fear of Tea Party challenges are significantly impeding the whipping operation.

These threats to challenge legislators for one slight deviation from Tea Party Orthodoxy is just the latest example of the lack of real substance that the Tea Party and its representatives in Congress have brought to this debate.

For the most part, the Tea Party position on the debt ceiling has fallen into one of two completely unreasonable categories. On the one hand there are people like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin who simply refuse to believe that we need to raise the debt ceiling at all no matter what the deal is, and that the people who point out the economic dangers of not acting are either lying or exaggerating.  These are the people who are perfectly content to let the American economy go over a cliff, either because they don’t think it will happen or because they are such partisan hacks that they want it to happen to help their political party. People like this barely deserve to be taken seriously. The evidence establishing the economic and financial dangers inherent in not raising the debt ceiling is well-established and endorsed by economists on the left and right. The willful ignorance of danger on the part of some people is, I think, a reason to simply not listen to what they have to say on this issue because they have nothing substantive to add.

The other Tea Party position is the one that they’d say is more “moderate.” It’s the one that says we’ll agree to a debt ceiling increase but only if it’s accompanied by a laundry list of demands that ranges from massive immediate spending cuts to a Balanced Budget Amendment. As a starting position this perhaps isn’t entirely unreasonable. Whenever you go into a negotiation, it’s always smart to start with an opening position that is closest to what you really want. The problem with these people — and in this list I include people like Senators Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Jim DeMint — is that this isn’t a starting position of them it is their only position. This is an entirely unreasonable position to take in an era where government power is divided not only between political parties, but between factions in those parties. If everyone agreed with Rand Paul, then he’d get his way. They don’t, though, and people like him don’t accomplish anything by arguing against compromise. Compromise is a necessary part of governing and by refusing to engage in it, you are making yourself irrelevant.

Not surprisingly, George Will gets it absolutely right in the recent advice he gave to the Tea Party in connection with the Boehner Bill:

“I happened to adore the Tea Party,” he said. “I have no substantive difference with them on any important matter. But it’s important to understand how much they’ve won already. Harry Reid has proposed what the president denounces as an unbalanced idea. That is … all cuts and no new revenues. They’ve moved in other words, the Senate Majority Leader, far in their direction. They should remember it seems to me that Barack Obama got into terrible trouble by overreaching with the stimulus, then overreaching with the health care plan and the country recoiled from it. And our Tea Party friends don’t want to seem to the country to be similarly overreaching.”

It took some time to get to this point, Will explained, and the role of government won’t be changed with a single debt ceiling vote.

“It really is fanciful to believe that the regulatory welfare state that has been built over 80 years can be substantially deconstructed in August over a debt ceiling vote,” Will said. “It’s going to take a little longer than that.”

The problem the Tea Party seems to have, though, is that they don’t recognize this simple fact and they aren’t listening to the people who are trying to tell them that politics is about getting the victories that you can get rather than trying to reach for some utopian dreamland only to hurt your future prospects in the process. That fact can be demonstrated no better than in the announcement this afternoon that FreedomWorks, which has worked closely with the Tea Party movement over the last two years, is still opposing the Boehner Plan even with the addition of the Balanced Budget Amendment trigger:

FreedomWorks will be issuing a Key Vote “NO” letter to all U.S. House Members today preceding a vote on the revised version of the Boehner Plan (S. 627), which would raise the national debt ceiling by a total of $2.5 trillion in two steps and establish a super-committee of 12 Members of the House and Senate with unprecedented power to determine trillions of dollars in future spending cuts and tax increases.  Step one of the revised Boehner plan would grant a $900 billion debt hike.  Step two would grant another $1.6 trillion debt hike, contingent on congressional passage of the super-committee’s spending-and-tax-hike bill, and a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA).  The revised Boehner bill doesn’t state what the BBA must include.

“We will be engaging our activist network of over 1.4 million grassroots volunteers to provide state and local support for Rep. Jordan and Sen. DeMint, and to remind Speaker Boehner and the rest of the Republican establishment that the ‘Cut, Cap, Balance Act ‘ is both good politics and good policy. The ‘Cut, Cap, Balance’ bill raises the debt ceiling, avoids default and a credit downgrade, and offers long-term spending solutions. This is what our activists have been demanding. The first Boehner plan failed because it didn’t meet these criteria. The revised plan still fails to fundamentally change the way Washington spends. Anything less than that, FreedomWorks cannot and will not support.”

At least one other Tea Party group has also come out against the bill, although some, like the Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform, are supporting it. Opposing a bill that gives you virtually everything you want (even though it has zero chance of becoming law) is mind-boggling. Yes it’s true that activists can afford to be radical like this because they aren’t the ones actually casting votes, but sitting on the sidelines promoting ideas that have no chance of passing Congress isn’t really an effective way to bring about political change it seems to me. At this point, it seems smarter to me to use your energy to get the best possible deal that you can, rather than backing utopian initiatives that have no real chance of passing Congress, especially when we’re at the point where something has to pass by August 2nd.

Without even getting into an evaluation of their ideas, the Tea Party movement’s performance during the debt ceiling debate has been pretty atrocious. Instead of nudging the debate along toward achieving realistic goals, they have either stuck their heads in the sand and pretended that we don’t really have to do anything about the debt ceiling, or they’ve offered unrealistic proposals that have no chance of being enacted into law. Last night, they forced the Speaker of the House to cancel a vote on his own bill because it wasn’t good enough for them and now they’ve made him redraft it into a mess that guarantees it will be little more than a shell for the eventual compromise bill that will, hopefully, be agreed to in the Senate. They have, in other words, made themselves irrelevant thanks to their intransigence.

The Tea Party was an effective protest movement, and its grassroots enthusiasm aided the GOP well in the 2010 elections, but as a participant in the process of legislating and governing they are a total failure. If you’re not going to govern, then you’re not contributing anything relevant to the political process.


FILED UNDER: Deficit and Debt, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Trumwill says:

    If they are making themselves irrelevant, why is the economy successfully being held hostage? It seems to me that you can call them many things, but “irrelevant” is not among them.

  2. Chad S says:

    South Carolina(my state) being a problem. What a shock.

  3. Moosebreath says:


    As Inigo Montoya said, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it does.”

  4. By irrelevant I mean they are irrelevant to the process of governing. They offer nothing of substance that can realistically be achieved. They are nihilists.

  5. Maxwell James says:

    They are not irrelevant. They are extremely effective. Fanatics, but effective fanatics.

  6. jan says:

    Extremes begets extremes. Progressive liberalism gave way to the tea party movement. And, IMO, neither of these opposite ends of the political spectrum are currently irrevelant. In fact the political left is now using the debt ceiling fiasco to ratchet up their own counter equivalency of a tea party movement.

    Here’s an interesting little ditty showing how countries thrive, or not, depending on their economic freedom.

    economic freedom: how it rates in the world

  7. mattb says:

    By irrelevant I mean they are irrelevant to the process of governing. They offer nothing of substance that can realistically be achieved. They are nihilists.


    Again, you’ve managed to schism theory from practice. In their Nihilism they are fundamentally relevant. We’re not talking about Russian authors here, we are talking about the people who have led us to be less than a week away from a catastrophic financial situation and are doubling down on the only compromise is that we are willing to consider raising the debt ceiling only if you meet all of our demands.

    That is having a profound effect and profound relevancy. And they will continue to have it until other members of their party are willing to remove that power. Until that moment, they are the whirlwind that is tossing all of us around.

    IN THEORY they might be bankrupt and irrelevant, but the fact of the matter is IN PRACTICE they continue to be of extreme relevance.

  8. MBunge says:

    Progressive liberalism gave way to the tea party movement.

    No, a desire to distance themselves from the disaster of the George W. Bush Adminstration is what gave rise to the Tea Party. Heaven forbid they admit to themselves that the policies they believed in and supported resulted in something different than their wildest fantasies.


  9. hey norm says:

    The most important part of the video that Jan linked to? The part at the end where it says brought to you by the Koch Brothers. And yet they jump up and down and say no, no, no the Tea Stain is a grassroots movement.
    What BS.

  10. hey norm says:

    @ MBunge…
    Well that…and the fact that the President doesn’t look just like them.

  11. Liberty60 says:


    OK, I will take the bait.

    What do you mean by “Progressive liberalism gave way to the Tea Party”? You are saying the Tea Party is a response to some act of progressive liberalism?

    Specifically, acts of Progressive liberalism during the 2001-2008 years ?

    Because so help me God, I was watching, and didn’t see any.

  12. ratufa says:


    To a very large degree, I agree about the importance of “economic freedom”. One interesting thing is that if you look the top countries in an index of economic freedom such as:

    many of the countries that rank above the US have universal health care systems and/or top marginal tax rates that are higher than the US currently has (and some have a VAT). Perhaps those things are not really incompatible with having a free economy.

  13. sam says:

    “many of the countries that rank above the US have universal health care systems and/or top marginal tax rates that are higher than the US currently has (and some have a VAT)”

    You lie. That cannot be true. I know it cannot be true because it cannot be true. Therefore, you lie.

  14. hey norm says:

    @ Ratufa…

    Well of course the US is a very low tax country when you consider the effective rate. But what the Koch Bros mean by economic freedom is them not paying anything.

  15. JohnMcC says:

    In the blink of an eye the TParty revolution has reached the stage of ‘The Directorate’. They are wheeling out the guillotines. Can 18th Brumaire be far behind?

  16. sam says:


    In the blink of an eye the TParty revolution has reached the stage of ‘The Directorate’. They are wheeling out the guillotines. Can 18th Brumaire be far behind?

    To repeat myself (again) the Tea Party in the House really, really is Marat/Sade. (Guess who Marat is.)

    The Tea Party is a self-limiting virus in the body politic of the United States of America.

  17. They are nihilists

    No they aren’t, they’re the opposite of nihilists and that’s the problem.

    Nihilism is the belief that there is no true meaning. Someone who believes that isn’t going to deliberately wreck the economy for the sake of a philosophical point. The Tea Party believe there is one big meaning which is so singularly important it must be pursued regardless of the real world effects.

    That Platonism, the idea that meaning ultimately exists independently of the material world.

  18. Fiona says:

    I agree with Stormy Dragon. They aren’t nihilists; they’re zealots. They’ll go down fighting for the cause, even if they take the economy with them.

  19. OzarkHillbilliy says:

    No they aren’t, they’re the opposite of nihilists and that’s the problem.

    When are you pussies gonna quit dancing around the pole? They are complete and total whackos, certifiable…. lock ’em up and throw away the key.

  20. I have a tendany toward nihilism (when I’m in a good mood, I’m a stoic; when I’m in a bad mood I’m a nihilist; in between I’m and absurdist), and I don’t like being lumped in with the Tea Part because most people don’t know anything about the word beyond what they saw in The Big Lebowski

  21. John Weiss says:

    Teabaggers aren’t nihilists They are far worse: they are idealists with no clue about what they’re talking about. And they are quite willing to take their marbles and go home.

    Bad for everyone..