In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison wrote that one of the greatest fears he had for the viability of the new republic was the role that might be played by “faction.”
Clearly, Madison did not envision the formation of political parties or interest groups as we know them today, but he understood well the functioning of democracy when he warned that “the causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects” (Madison’s italics).
American history is replete with examples of extremist or fringe groups or political parties. From the anti-Slavery Free Soil Party to the Know-Nothing Party to the Dixiecrat Party to George Wallace’s American Independent Party to Ross Perot’s United We Stand/Reform Party, minority parties have sought to drive the political mainstream away from its historical center.
Perhaps in part as a result of Madison’s warning, however, those parties in America which have lasted largely have operated within the center of American politics. Those fringe parties with a significant following (Ross Perot received almost 19 percent of the popular vote for president in 1992) traditionally influence the system, but do not last.
It is in this context that the recent primary election results have created alarm and consternation in the ranks of both the traditional Republican and Democratic parties.
Senate candidates supported by the Tea Party movement saw success in Utah, Alaska, Colorado, Nevada, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Delaware. House candidates seeking Tea Party support prevailed in Alabama, Arizona, Maryland, and Utah. Unlike most third parties in American history, the Tea Party movement is not running a candidate — yet — for the presidency.
The Tea Party movement has developed an agenda on an entire array of social issues; has mixed in a generally hard-line international program; recruited candidates regardless of their political experience or sophistication; and touched a booming grass-roots, anti-incumbent base. The Tea Partyers are challenging both the dying Republican moderate wing as well as the Reagan/Bush/Bush conservative wing from both within and without.
This is the same public that former Gov. Sarah Palin — now one of the key un-official leaders of the movement — reached in her vice-presidential campaign in 2008. Like Palin, her new protege, Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, energized an angry, motivated, and largely conservative electorate in her upset victory last week over nine-term Representative Mike Castle. Since Sept. 14, it has been reported that she has received almost $2 million in fresh donations for her campaign.
In 1994, Newt Gingrich engineered the “Contract for America” campaign and brought a Republican wave to Congress, overturning Democratic control and forcing President Bill Clinton to endure six years of governing with a divided government. Unlike the Gingrich Revolution, however, this year the public appears truly angry at all incumbents, although more so against Democrats.
Based on the polls and results in this mid-year primary election season, together with the anti-incumbency mood in the country, the Tea Party movement could be a key force in the biggest potential election turn-around since 1994. Nor is it only the Tea Partyers who have voiced their displeasure with the Obama administration, although they are far more threatening to the nation’s political establishment than are traditional political rivals.
They are not merely a threat to the incumbents’ job security, however. There is a nativist, anti-intellectual, Christian, white, anti-minority, anti-gay, anti-immigrant strain to much of the Tea Party agenda. Even as their leaders denounce the extremists who show up at their rallies, and even seek to curry favor with Jews, the insurgents are promoting agendas which in the long run may be dangerous or damaging to Jews.
Many Jews are very disenchanted with the Obama administration, critical of its Israel policies, and disappointed with its economic recovery program. Nevertheless, extremist politics, no matter how well dressed they may appear to be, rarely present options which have long-term benefits for Jews.
The Tea Party movement eventually will run its course. Jews should heed well Madison’s further advice in recommending what to do should American political life seem to be moving away from the center: “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs [sic] of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.”