THE BLOG
10/17/2013 01:52 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How the Tea Party Broke the Two-Party System

Much hay has been made of the events of Outraged October, where both parties have been held captive to the obstinate agenda of a third party-within-a-party. Timothy Lee of The Washington Post wrote that the Constitution itself is in jeopardy as tea partiers put up primary challengers to any moderate Republican not willing to toe the line. But the tea party hasn't broken the Constitution -- it has broken our century-old two-party system of government. And there is a least one Founder (they are not a monolithic deity, as often assumed) who might have been pleased.

You may remember this speech from your high school history class -- George Washington's Farewell Address.

However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

Men (yes, mostly men) from all sides of the political spectrum -- from Ross Perot to Ralph Nader -- have been trying to subvert the Democratic-Republican machine for decades. But they quixotically tried to do it from without. In dismantling the Republican Party, the tea party is doing it from within.

Publicly, the tea party professes to wish to stay within the realm of Republicanism while shifting to the party to the right (you can put a check mark next to that one). In reality, they have no interest in climbing the old rungs of power. Ted Cruz, with a face like a Goomba from Super Mario Brothers, fancies himself as the new Barack Obama, a junior junior senator who too could grasp the presidency in a few years time. Though now reviled by many of his colleagues, Cruz has achieved something that Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann and Marco Rubio were only able to do for fleeting moments -- ideological leadership of the tea party. He has gambled that he will remain the face of that movement as the one who has done the most in Congress to bring its goals to fruition.

Yes, there will be other players with strong national presences -- Rand Paul and Paul Ryan, to name a couple. But Cruz has done what neither of them were willing to do -- step onto a limb and really, truly advocate for the policies that the tea party passionately professes. Cruz is betting that by walking through the fire, he will be embraced as a "true" conservative, if your idea of conservatism is anarchy. Ryan, in tagging along with Mitt Romney, has already shown that he is willing to compromise, no matter how many austere budget proposals he crafts over the next few years.

Cruz is not willing to compromise. He has shown that he can dominate through alienation, pandering to a core core group of tea partiers who will not be shut up. And he can hog the media spotlight for as long as he likes -- radicalism, after all, is sexy. Tea partiers, unlike most other political movements, aren't interested in legislative achievements. They are interested in legislative dysfunction in order to sow their own distrust of government throughout the general populace. They have achieved this goal with spectacular success.

Consider how thoroughly the credibility of the federal government has been undermined by this latest spectacle. President Obama comes across as detached and impotent; Speaker Boehner even more so. The lack of camaraderie or chemistry between them certainly hasn't helped. Tea partiers are frequently referred to as "not living in reality" and "childish." While I wholeheartedly agree, I usually don't get what I want in an argument by insulting the other person's intelligence.

And on the individual level, those of us who draw salaries from the federal government (myself included) are more anxious and nervous than ever. The harm the crisis has done will lead to another round of political turnover. With incumbents about to be thrown out again, Congress looks more like a turnaround school than a legislative body.

It's nothing new for political parties to realign, and for third parties for fracture off old ones (think Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats, who ran on a segregationist platform in 1948 and captured some Deep South states, which the tea party could certainly accomplish). What seems new is that the tea party is doing this from within. For now, they refuse to set off on their own. What we are witnessing is a struggle within a coalition forged between Boehner-McCain Republicans and Cruz-Paul tea partiers. The two-party system has brought us great stability for a century at the cost of ideological purity; the hyper-patriotic tea party is ironically fueling the possibility of European-style coalition government. And European countries (i.e. Belgium) can go months without a government even forming.

The real question is when they will all drop the charade and stop pretending that Boehner is in charge. The Democrats seem convinced that he is a bulwark against true radicalism, but his place in history is that of an ineffective placeholder.

So when the tea party becomes an official political party on the ballot, it will have to decide with whom to align in the House of Representatives. Will it try to shift back into the Republican fold, with its own discrete congressional leader for negotiations? Or will we see something like the United Kingdom's latest election, where the Conservatives, after winning a plurality, allied with the Liberal Democrats against the Labour Party?

It is a terrifying time to be an American dependent upon the federal government in matters big and small (which, really, is all of us). But as we start to rely more on ourselves and less on each other, no longer trusting that government can solve problems, the tea party dream will have been realized. That's their long game, and the victory is all but won.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?