10/15/2013 12:52 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2013

John Stuart Mill and the Tea Party

In his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill writes that it is socially damaging to silence political expression. Mill argues that when the views that are censored are correct, people are denied "the opportunity of exchanging error for truth." And when the silenced views are incorrect, what is lost is a "livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error." (1)

Updated, Mill's position is that limiting debate produces bad social policies or alternatively, policies that are less effective than if contending points of view were permitted.

This defense of the importance of contending points of view is useful in understanding the impact of the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives. In their victorious Congressional campaigns, Tea Party members were not forced to defend their positions. They typically either faced no opponent in the 2012 election, or an opponent whose spending came to less than one-tenth that of the Tea Party victor. (2) We are worse off because they and their ideas went unchallenged.

The data are startling. Wikipedia lists 48 members of the Caucus, 38 of whom raised more than ten times the level of campaign contributions than their opponents. In 17 of those 38 Congressional districts there either was no opponent or the opponent raised so little money that The Center for Responsive Politics indicated that the amount was unreported. In all 38 of these races, the Tea Party victor received in excess of 60 percent of the vote, and in 6 of them that percentage was more than 75 percent. Because of this imbalance in funding, no meaningful political debate occurred in these 38 districts.

In the remaining 10 districts, the funding advantage of Tea Party candidates was also in evidence. In six of those, the Tea Party winner had three times the level of contributions as did the loser. Only in four districts was the funding differential relatively small, though still favorable to the Tea Party.

What is even more remarkable is the curtailing of debate in districts with a substantial presence of African American people. There are 8 Congressional districts with a Black population of at least 23 percent that elected a Tea Party candidate. In 7 of them the Tea Party winner was unopposed, or there is no report of spending by an opponent. In the 8th (the 5th Congressional District in South Carolina), Mick Mulvaney received almost 23 times the funding as did his opponent, Joyce Knott ($798,055 compared to $34,641).

In short, because of these huge disparities in funds, the Tea Party victors faced no real opposition and therefore were not forced to defend their ideas.

It is at least possible that these disparities existed because the Tea Party views were so dominant in these districts that potential non-Tea Party donors refrained from financing an opponent.

But the evidence from Tea Party districts substantially populated by African Americans points in another direction. We can make the plausible assumption that among that segment of the population Tea Party views were not dominant. In that case, the lack of financing to non-Tea Party candidates meant that non-Tea Party viewpoints did not see the light of day. Those viewpoints were in effect silenced.

The Tea Party's destructive impact on United States politics represents that ultimate dysfunction that occurs when politics is financed by private wealthy donors. It is generally acknowledged that the political agenda is limited in a system of private political funding. What gets debated is what is acceptable to the donor class. But even in such an environment there is typically an opposition: candidates with enough funding to make their positions known. Even if the debate is narrow, there is at least a debate. And, following Mill, to that extent we all benefit.

However in the Tea Party victories in the House of Representatives, where winners faced no real opposition, even those benefits were lost. The victors were not tested. Ideology was not confronted with the real world. In such a setting, as implausible a view as that defaulting on debt payments by the Federal Government would have no damaging consequences go unchallenged. When ideology that is not rooted in the real world carries the day, disaster awaits.

As of this writing, it looks as if such a default may be put off for a short period of time. But there does not seem to be much of a prospect that the full funding of government programs will be restored. The Affordable Health Care Act may be sustained, but other programs will likely be cut in order to make a deal acceptable to the Tea Party Caucus. Obviously this is no way to run a country.

The larger point that emerges from all of this is that though contributing to a campaign is not itself speech, speech in the sense of political expression during an electoral campaign requires money. As a result, privately funded campaigns produce two impediments to democratic governance. One we are familiar with. Donors dictate the issues that are debated. The other impediment occurs when donors are not present and alternative views remain unexposed. With these obstacles to open political debate, the consequences by predicted by Mill prevail.

(1) John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1956) p. 21
(2) The data and calculations that follow are based on the Center for Responsive Politics, "Congressional Elections"