Forget President Obama, House Speaker John A. Boehner and the less-interesting-than-their-name-suggests "Gang of Six." When the history of the Great Debt Ceiling Debate of 2011 gets written, the main character will not be a Beltway negotiator, or even a politician.
The only reason Washington is even talking about proposals to slow the growth of government spending, instead of robotically jacking up the nation's credit line for the 11th time in a decade, is that a large, decentralized group of citizen activists has spent the last few years loudly telling politicians from both parties one consistent message: restrain your own power or face our wrath.
Whether you conceive of the "tea party" as a heroic tamer of bipartisan big government or a diabolical hydra threatening America's very future, its success in precipitating a national debate over fiscal policy should give hope — and a tactical blueprint — to anyone who feels marginalized by politics.
It is now easier than ever for alienated ideological blocs to foist their single issue onto the table over the objections of politicians who perpetuate the status quo. It's becoming more and more clear to tea party activists and their analogues on issues from education reform to drug legalization that success in politics is directly proportional to independence from the two major political parties.
Consider the difference between the tea party and its antecedent on the left — the antiwar movement that came from out of nowhere to rally around the initially obscure presidential campaign of Howard Dean in 2003-04. Both movements have used distributed networks and social media to remind a major party that it was flouting a respected tradition within its ranks. Just as antiwar liberals in the George McGovern tradition had been taken for granted by pro-war pols like Bill Clinton and John Kerry, limited-government conservatives in the Barry Goldwater tradition had been openly mocked by both George W. Bush and John McCain.
But where is the antiwar left today? Largely domesticated and neutered. Dean was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, foreign policy activists put most of their chips on the "antiwar" candidate Barack Obama, and now we have a Democratic president using grotesque euphemisms such as "kinetic military action" to justify setting the bar for military intervention even lower than George W. Bush did.
The tea party has so far strategically avoided that fate. Being a bottom-up movement, there is no leader to co-opt. Rather than serving as shock troops for GOP incumbents against Democrats, tea party activists have demonstrated a willingness to unseat even electable Republicans in favor of candidates who take seriously their mostly single-issue concern of limited government. While commentators love mocking them for backing such not-ready-for-prime-time insurgents as Christine O'Donnell, even the Republican Party is smart enough to recognize the power of a growing bloc that refuses to be taken for granted.
Take Boehner (please!). Shortly before last fall's election, he unveiled his immediately forgotten "Pledge to America," which included a promise "to stem the relentless growth in government that has occurred over the past decade" but also specifically exempted defense and entitlement spending — the biggest growth engines in government — from any sort of discipline.
If anyone knows about growing the federal bureaucracy willy-nilly, it's Boehner. He championed such Bush-era white elephants as No Child Left Behind, the single biggest increase in federal education spending in history and Medicare Part D, which gave heavily subsidized prescription drugs to seniors. He supported Bush's $100-million stimulus plan in 2008, the $700-billion Troubled Asset Relief Program later that year, and all of Bush's military expenditures. Adding salty tears to our wounds, Boehner literally cried while abetting these serial expansions of government under Republican rule.
Boehner is not holding the line in debt-ceiling negotiations out of any evident sense of principle. He's doing it because the tea party helped send more than 90 brand-spanking-new representatives and senators to Washington last fall, and those people are talking and acting differently than the 21st century Republicans Americans have grown to hate. He knows that if he continues to disrespect the limited-government tradition, these activists will punish him and his party come 2012.
This is the enduring lesson of the tea party, and it's one that any sort of political group would do well to emulate: By refusing to be cowed by one of the major parties, and promising to inflict damage if its aims are ignored, this grass-roots uprising shows how political independents can force mainstream parties to do their bidding.