Though the actual voting is still 17 days away, it seems clear that this midterm election cycle will be defined by a surprising presence and a remarkable absence.
The presence, of course, is the "tea party," and what's absent are the social issues that so bitterly divided the electorate in recent campaigns. Demography and evolving public opinion are well on the way to making an electoral dead letter of same-sex marriage, which played a pivotal role in the 2004 presidential campaign. Despite the best efforts of Democratic candidates like Barbara Boxer to rally their base around protecting access to abortion, most voters' attention is fixed firmly on their ability to feed and clothe the children they already have. The Roberts court's declaration that the 2nd Amendment confers individual rights was an unintended gift to the Democrats because it essentially took gun control off the table.
A secondary influence on this election is the novel role of so-called third-party money, much of it secretly contributed to groups unaccountable to either party. By election day, according to a report Friday in the Wall Street Journal, such committees will have spent $300 million in support of GOP candidates. And, unlike the Republican National Committee or congressional sources, these third parties have been perfectly willing to spend on behalf of those with tea party roots. (By contrast, about $100 million in independent contributions will go to Democratic candidates; organized labor will spend an additional $200 million, but the bulk of that is going to rally union voters, whose enthusiasm has waned.)
The tea party has been the big beneficiary of this year's stealth funding, and the movement's unique character has helped push social issues off the table. Essentially, the tea party is a populist expression of deep anger at what is regarded as both the regular political parties' mismanagement of the economy and anxiety over the consequences of that failure. A bewildering variety of historical fantasists and eccentric political theorists who always are lurking on the political fringes have provided the tea party with a vocabulary of protest, though it's unclear which views the movement's adherents share.
If you simply go down the list of tea party candidates for the House and Senate, you can find four who want to repeal either or both the 16th and 17th Amendments, which provide for a progressive income tax and popular election of U.S. senators. Eight want to abolish whole federal departments and agencies, including Energy, Education, the Internal Revenue Service, Commerce and Homeland Security. One wants an end to everything except the departments of State, Justice and the Treasury. Many of these tea-party-backed office-seekers urge privatization of Social Security and Medicare. In the Bay Area's 11th Congressional District, the front-running Republican candidate has argued for the abolition of public education because it's "socialistic." At least three candidates are such programmatic libertarians that they'd really be more at home in that party.
On Friday, the New York Times reported that its pre-election analysis has 33 tea party-backed candidates running in congressional districts that are either leaning Republican or too close to call. Eight "stand a good or better chance of winning Senate seats," the paper says.
If that's correct, the next Congress is going to contain a significant tea party caucus, and that may bring social issue tensions back to the fore.
The problem, as political analyst and George Mason University professor Bill Schneider has pointed out, is that it's "not just that tea partyers are anti-government.... They are anti-politics. They believe that politics is essentially corrupt — that deal-making and compromise are an abandonment of principle. The tea party is a political fundamentalist movement. Like religious fundamentalists, its members do not tolerate waverers (like Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah). They drive out heretics (like Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida). They punish unbelievers (like Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware). And they believe in the total inerrancy of scripture — in this case, the U.S. Constitution as originally written in 1787."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's epoch-changing New Deal coalition survived only so long as its constituent groups agreed not to discuss the one difference between them they could not reconcile — race. When the civil rights movement made that silent, and shabby, accommodation impossible, the coalition shattered.
The tea party's internal contradictions are so numerous, it's difficult to see its coalition of discontent surviving a single Congress.