Thought Police: How the Tea Party's Assault on Dissenting Thought Has Trapped the GOP
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Newt Gingrich probably thought he was being smart when a week ago he publicly rejected the budget plan put forward by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan. After all, Ryan's idea to change Medicare into a voucher program is profoundly unpopular, particularly with the seniors now enjoying the program's benefits. So when Gingrich went on Meet the Press and responded to a question about the Ryan Medicare plan by saying, "I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering," it probably felt politically shrewd. He could distance himself from an unpopular idea and position himself not as the partisan bomb-thrower people used to consider him but as the innovative, post-partisan thinker he fancies himself to be.
It might have been a reasonable strategy -- in a different era. But in 2011, identity defines politics more than ever. Gingrich's mistake was his failure to understand that particularly at this stage of the race, no question is more important for a presidential candidate to answer than this: Are you one of us?
This question is crucial for both progressives and conservatives. Politics in America is deeply tribal and always has been. But in today's political world, the right has a more highly developed system of policing its ideological borders. And since only Republicans have a primary race this election, that system is operating more swiftly, efficiently, and effectively than anything the left could dream of.
What the right has -- as Gingrich discovered last week to his chagrin -- is a ruthless identity border patrol, with agents spread throughout the political system. Step over any one of a number of lines, even lines that didn't exist just weeks ago, and those agents will inform you, with all the subtlety of a truncheon to the kneecaps, that you are no longer within the conservative nation. "For Republicans running for president in 2012, there's a new political reality: Support Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan -- or else," wrote the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza. "Newt Gingrich learned that lesson the hard way." And did he ever. "A candidate who is timid on entitlement reforms is not qualified to be president," wrote Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks, a group that trains and organizes Tea Partiers, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. "He's done," Charles Krauthammer declared on Fox News. "He didn't have a big chance from the beginning, but now it's over." Republicans in Congress lined up to condemn the former speaker, who, it must be said, already had more than a few enemies on the right and handed Democrats a juicy video clip they'll be sure to use in future ads ("Even Newt Gingrich called the Ryan plan 'right-wing social engineering'").
As much as liberals like to imagine the right as a hierarchically organized, smoothly humming machine, the truth is that their system is diffuse, much more like a school of fish than one giant shark. A variety of players influence the school's course: politicians, media figures, activists, and advocates. It isn't a conspiracy in which orders are delivered from above. If there really were a conspiracy, it would be headed by someone with enough sense to say, "This Medicare plan is really risky. Let's not make it a litmus test."
But no one has that ability, particularly in a party that is still both in thrall to and terrified of the Tea Party. After mounting successful primary challenges against sitting Republicans in 2010, the Tea Party has settled comfortably into its role as the vanguard of the Republican identity border patrol, deciding who is and who isn't a conservative in good standing. Some Tea Party challenges for 2012 are already materializing (Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, respected on both sides of the aisle after 35 years in office, is likely to be booted by his Tea Party opponent), while even hard-right conservatives like Orrin Hatch are forced to abase themselves before the border patrol agents to demonstrate their bona fides.