Recent discussion with advocates of the Tea Party and also watching the first episode of Ken Burns' "Prohibition" has clarified my thinking. There is nothing evil or unusual about the Tea Party. It is a single-issue special interest group focused on cutting government spending. Tea Party followers may say that there's more to it than this, but for the purposes of analysis I think it is enough to just look at the "cut spending" issue; this explains most of the actions of the Tea Party so far. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, it is in the great tradition of U.S. politics. The Democratic party has a number of special interests that compete for attention and the Republicans have others as well.
But aren't we seeing unusual things on the political stage right now? Government grinding to a halt, heated, high-stakes negotiations over things that used to be routine, one party voting in lockstep even more than normal? Yes, there's definitely something different going on.
Here's what has happened: the Republican Party is now controlled by the Tea Party special interest. And because the single-issue concern of the Tea Party happens to be government spending, this has impact on almost all legislation.
Let's do a thought experiment. Suppose in 2013 we see the emergence of a group known as "The American Party". It started out with the Wall Street protests of 2011, got stronger after the 2012 Presidential Election, and now it opposes anything that President Christie wants to do. (Okay, I don't think Romney can beat Obama, but Christie might). With one exception, it did support his 500 billion stimulus bill (What?! say the Tea Partiers; but I told you, he's from New Jersey, not Texas). Then in the 2014 midterms the Democrats win back the House (but not the Senate, which they lost in 2012) thanks to the populist energy of the American Party. Forty new Democrat Representatives are from the American Party and the rest of the democrats are afraid to vote against them. So what is the American Party interested in? Workers rights. They want to pass "Card Check" (the bill making it easier to organize a union), but they also want a Constitutional amendment ending "Right to Work" laws. So far, so good, progressives? Although only controlling the House of Representatives, they apply great leverage by obstructing all legislative operations of government, including raising the debt ceiling. What's more, they punish any democrats that won't go along by guaranteeing a high-profile challenge in the primary.
At this point as a progressive I am thinking, "I like the American Party, I agree with most of their aims. However, right now they control the Democratic party. This is not good for the long term. Somehow we need to change our primary process to discourage their targeting. Also, it is bad for the country if we obstruct everything, we can't go along with this. And blackmail over issues that threaten the well being of the U.S. is totally out of bounds no matter what. So much as I like what they're doing, I will either get the American party to change their tactics, or I will speak out against them every chance I get."