10/20/2010 11:52 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Price of Tea

"I don't think this election is about details," crowed Ron Johnson, the Tea Party-backed challenger to three-term Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, shortly after his opponent meticulously explained how the 2009 stimulus bill saved more than a million and a half jobs at their recent debate in Wausau, Wisconsin. Johnson, who currently enjoys an eight point lead in the polls, is a millionaire businessman who has never held office ("That sounds pretty good -- no previous elected experience" he boasted last month at a candidates' forum). Like all Tea Party candidates, he believes he is running a populist campaign -- no matter that he has personally poured 4.4 million dollars into his war chest in an effort to unseat Feingold, the 95th wealthiest senator and a renowned champion of the middle class. Disregard this fact, and disregard the effects of the stimulus, too: these are details, and Mr. Johnson doesn't think this election is about them.

I don't think this election is about details either. I think it's about a group of people who have discovered that, by fuming and blustering about anything other than details, they can mutilate the crown jewel of American democracy -- fair, public, partisan debate -- until left versus right devolves gracelessly into fact versus fiction. The stimulus saved jobs. The bailouts have been almost entirely paid back to the taxpayers. Human activity impacts the Earth's climate. The president is a Christian non-socialist. These are not political positions to be debated by serious women and men: they are just facts. Not liberal theories, but the actual reality of the world. The Tea Party's bread and butter has been the wanton conflation of facts and opinions -- make them indistinguishable from each other, and pretty soon you can dispose of details altogether and put truth itself up for debate.

Of the thirty-seven Senate races being decided in November, only one features a Republican candidate who acknowledges that humans contribute to climate change (that would be Illinois' Mark Kirk). All thirty-seven Republicans (and many of their Democratic opponents) are explicitly running against TARP and the stimulus -- the fiction of their repugnance having won out, by forfeit, over the fact of their actual success. Many GOP hopefuls are even trumpeting as their chief qualification their utter lack of qualifications; in Wisconsin, Johnson's latest TV spot blows the lid off of the fact that fifty-seven sitting senators (including Feingold) are -- gasp! -- lawyers, which would "be fine, if we had a lawsuit to settle." Following in the footsteps of his non-witch party-mate Christine O'Donnell, Johnson reassures us that he is not a lawyer, lest we continue to recklessly overcrowd our nation's highest law-making body with people who went to law school. Details.

The bulk of the criticism levied against the Tea Party has been directed at their most visible absurdities: the laughable primitivity of O'Donnell, Rand Paul, and Sharron Angle, the drawing of Hitler mustaches on the president (and occasionally on themselves), Glenn Beck's high-octane McCarthyism, the unhinged nativist fashion shows, etc. These are all rich targets, of course, and worthy of the sternest objections of all reasonable Americans. But the hidden cost of the Tea Party, and perhaps the movement's most nefarious consequence, is the damage their leaders have done -- intentionally -- to the sanctity of facts.

I understand that the regular folks who support the Tea Party are utterly furious, but I do not doubt for a second that every single one of them would holster their signs and forswear the cause if they could know the facts from the fictions. They are being deprived the truth, and it is sick, and it is sinister. The community of voices that they trust have no interest in explaining the conclusions of the scientists, the humanity of the president, or the fresh hell that TARP and the stimulus helped to prevent, and no other voices can penetrate the protective walls they have built for themselves. The Democratic Party will recover from congressional losses, and the Republican Party will recover from conspiracist rule. America will never recover if we allow objective truth to become just another opinion, an arguable theory, one more detail drowning in a sea of angry fictions.