11/03/2010 05:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Trouble With a Capital Tea

Election Day was bad news for progressives, as we knew it would be. The combination of widespread economic pain and uncertainty, a right-wing base energized by Fox News and the Tea Party movement, the return of elections bought with secret millions from corporate coffers, and the traditional dynamics of a mid-term election all spelled trouble for Democratic candidates. It was a big night for conservative Republicans at both the federal and state levels. Where does that leave us and where do we go from here?

The next Congress will shift hard to the right with the election of a crop of extremists to both the Senate and House. The defeat of some of the more visible Tea Party Senate hopefuls like Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, and Ken Buck, and the apparent defeat of Joe Miller and Dino Rossi, mean that things could have been worse. But that's little consolation. Things are going to be plenty bad.

Sen. Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund raised money from Tea Party activists for ten Senate candidates. Those who won their races, and will make up a new "DeMint-ed Caucus", are Utah's Mike Lee, Kentucky's Rand Paul, Florida's Marco Rubio, Pennsylvania's Jim Toomey, and Wisconsin's Ron Johnson. DeMint's role, and the extreme-across-the-board candidates he helped elect, expose as false the notion that the Tea Party movement is fundamentally about government deficits and jobs and is libertarian in its leanings. DeMint, the Religious Right's point man in the Senate, backed candidates who are hard right on social issues as well as in their views about the role of the federal government.

DeMint and his new colleagues may want the government off your back if you're a corporate executive, but not if you're a woman who was raped and is facing a choice about abortion. In that case many of them are willing to have the government take away your options. They talk about the Constitution, but they are interested in undermining the constitutional principle of church-state separation that protects the rights of all people of faith, especially religious minorities. They may be for maximum "liberty" if they're talking about a company's right to mistreat its workers or the environment, but not when they're talking about a loving and committed gay couple that wants to take on the responsibilities of getting married. In that case, they're eager to have the federal government step in to forbid any state from recognizing those couples' freedom to marry. These self-described champions of "liberty" clearly disagree with Barry Goldwater's assertion that "It's time America realized that there is no gay exemption in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence."

The House of Representatives will be led by John Boehner, a longtime shill for big business interests, who will oversee an already far-right Republican caucus that will move even further to the right with the addition of representatives like Allen West from Florida, who relied on violent rhetoric like this: "You must be well-informed and well-armed, because this government we have right now is a tyrannical government. And it starts with illegal immigration."

But even on this bleak day, there's good news, and not only for those candidates who bucked the right-wing "wave." It is clear that the election was not a referendum on the Republican Party or its agenda. Even GOP party chief Michael Steele admit this.

Exit polls confirmed that voters were worried about the economy and haven't seen the results they had hoped for two years ago. Republican candidates rode that pain and dissatisfaction into office, but they have not won a mandate to dismantle Social Security and Medicare. Big majorities of Americans still believe big business has too much control over our public policy and want to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which gave corporations the right to spend unlimited sums to buy politicians to their liking. Americans increasingly support full legal equality for gay and lesbian Americans, including the right to serve openly and honorably in the armed forces and to have their relationships granted the same legal protections as other couples.

In other words, the Tea Party and the Chamber of Commerce had a big night, but they also have some trouble ahead as they make the shift from campaigning to legislating. They campaigned on rhetoric about reducing the deficit without offering any serious proposals for where they would cut. And in many cases they literally hid from the media and hid from voters the extent of their extremism.

Between now and the start of the new Congress, People For the American Way will work to help Americans learn more about the extreme positions advocated by the new far-right members of Congress. We will contrast the agendas and interests of the American people with the agendas and interests of officials whose campaigns were funded in order to give even more power to the corporate interests that got us into our current economic mess. And we will encourage President Obama and congressional Democrats to collaborate responsibly, when possible, with the newly empowered Republicans in Congress, but also to expose and resist extremism that threatens the nation's ability to, in the words of the Constitution, establish justice, promote the general welfare, and ensure domestic tranquility.