10/10/2013 09:13 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Moochers, Makers, Boehner, Rand and Obama: Getting to a Real Debate With the Tea Party

Rush to your search engine and dig up Stanley Greenberg's analysis of who is driving the Republican Party into the hands of the tea party/religious right. The demographics are important, and reinforce the significance of the cultural angst, the divide in attitudes toward sex, race, and values that drive much of the tea party's intensity.

But Greenberg was smart enough to plumb the economic and intellectual foundations of the tea party/evangelical surge. The conclusions are unsurprising, but point to the need for the Left to do what it has been reluctant to do: Engage the tea party in a genuine, substantive debate focused on core ideas. That kind of debate is an essential element of diminishing the ability of a fraction of a faction of the Republican Party to control and shutdown the government.

There are different ways to phrase it, but the heart of the tea party idea is the belief that American social welfare programs have destroyed our economy and social compact. By providing money and services to vast numbers of Americans, Washington has corrupted the core values of self-reliance, independence and liberty that are the foundation of the American experience.

It is a reformulation of the Ayn Rand "Makers v. Moochers" worldview, where fewer and fewer productive people support large numbers of parasitic idlers. We heard it in Mitt Romney's famous "47 percent" comment, we hear it in the attack on food stamps, and it explains a lot of things that otherwise seem incomprehensible to non-tea party folks:

  1. It explains unrelenting hostility to immigration reform: All that does is create a vast new army of dependents.
  2. It explains unrelenting opposition to Obamacare: That's just a new program to create dependence.
  3. It explains unrelenting opposition to tax increases on the wealthy: That's just another burden on the shrinking number of people who actually build and create.
  4. It explains the insistence on shutting down the government and risking default: If Obamacare succeeds, the dominance of the mooching class is permanent.
  5. It explains the refusal to confront income inequality and corporate dominance of politics and society: The wealthy and corporations are private, creative and an antidote to creeping government control.

I don't share any of that. All of it can be refuted with data, and argument. But that debate hasn't taken place. We have two camps, with their backs turned to each other, shouting to their supporters.

I spent enough years in elective politics to know the limits of intellectual discourse in shaping outcomes, especially in legislative bodies. We're In the kind of political fight requires political organization and outreach that blunts the tea party surge. But I also learned that American politics are shaped by ideas in ways we often don't see until after things die down. The New Deal was a new paradigm about the role of government in the economy. The civil rights and womens movements were new paradigms about individual worth and freedom that took decades in take hold. The environmental movement started as an alternative way of seeing the relationship between humanity and the world it inhabits. Win the intellectual argument, win the political battle.

There is an easily articulated counter to the tea party. It requires us to persuade others that liberty and economic growth are inhibited by income inequality and corporate dominance more than by government provision of social goods. We can do that. It requires us to develop working policies that provide Americans access to education, health care and economic opportunity. We've already done that. It requires us to soberly and politely examine the idea that individual freedom and American values are eroded when the citizenry becomes dependent on government programs. And it requires us to challenge the other side, repeatedly and in good faith, to present it arguments for discussion.

This is intended to be more than a plea that we all get along and just talk to each other. By restoring intellectual discourse to its position before the MSNBC/Fox News yell-fest became our way of life, we will, in the long run, restore our politics and improve our way of life.

I suspect this will actually begin to occur on a national level sooner than we think. Speaker Boehner will not remain captive to his extreme right wing for much longer, and he will try to morph the shutdown/debt ceiling controversy into a debate about entitlements and the long-term debt issue. A majority of Americans will support that kind of conversation. President Obama will attempt to frame it as an income inequality/middle class opportunity problem. A majority of Americans will support that kind of conversation. The tea party will have to defend its hostility to government programs which provide social goods and its failure to confront corporate power. The Left will have to respond to concerns about the corrosive effects of big government.

This is an optimists twist on the current breakdown of civility, ideas, and institutional politics. It could actually turn out as I predict. If it doesn't, we're in for the kind of economic and political breakdown that we used to associate with failed states across the world.