How the Chamber of Commerce et al lost control of their Brownshirts

Hemingway: I am getting to know the rich.

Colum: I think you’ll find the only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.
Never say that Chamber of Commerce types are stupid. Whatever our stereotypes of the "idle rich", many of them worked hard to get where they are, and have some sort of intelligence to which they can attribute their success.

But I think another quote about the rich, from F. Scott Fitzgerald, illustrates how we find ourselves in this pass:
Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.
It's that cynicism which is the reason we find ourselves where we are today, with the government shut down, and a debt default looming on the horizon.

Of course, not all the rich are callow and self-serving. Philanthropy and civic-mindedness amongst the moneyed classes has a long history in America. But it's no stretch to call the Republican Party the party of business, and many titans of industry expect a return on their investment.

With the Democratic victories of 2006 and 2008, Republican backers began to panic. The economic dogma which had obtained since Ronald Reagan's administration was no longer tenable. The crisis of 2008 promised to sweep away all their most cherished perquisites: lax regulation, laissez faire economics, the slow but inexorable withering of the welfare state. Suddenly bankers and other assorted masters of the universe were less popular than head lice. The world teetered on the precipice of a second Great Depression; the Great Recession which was the ultimate result was nearly as devastating to the US economy; in parts of Europe, it was a Depression in all but name.

Something had to be done, quickly. And ironically, Barack Obama's election provided the kernel of an idea.

Yes, it spoke to our maturation as a society that we were able to elect a black President. But the idea that we were a "post-racial" society was laughable. How laughable that was soon came to light.

The Tea Party movement which came into being soon after his inauguration should have been laughed out of the public square, with apoplectic middle-aged white men waving bags of tea and swearing on their sacred honor to "take back our country". But the now-demonized rich saw an opportunity; the mainstream Republican Party was demoralized, after two landslide defeats. Here was a ridiculous movement, but one which had a passion lacking on the Right as a whole. And the rich became rich by never missing the main chance.

Thus began the astroturfing. The Tea Party went from being a ranting rabble to something slick and organized. It injected the GOP with an energy it had lost in the waning days of George W. Bush's debacle of a Presidency. Suddenly the supine media was awash in stories about this vibrant oppositional movement. And because our media is a failed experiment, it never looked too closely into who was backing the anarchists, and why. To the media, it was just an upwelling of "people power", its claiming that the sky was pink treated with as much validity as the accepted notion that it was blue.

And it worked. In a depressed turnout for the 2010 midterms, the Republicans and their backers rode the Tea Party to retaking the House.

Now, this is the point at which the Tea Party should have been thanked for their efforts and shunted off to the sidelines. But, as with the evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s, once you release the crazy, it's hard to put the crazy back.

It's been a truism in American politics that a politician's main task was to bring jobs and funds back to his constituents. Not so with the Tea Party. They had a vision of politics as pure as that of any Bolshevik. They weren't sent to Washington to praise it, but to bury it. There could be no compromise with a President they saw as illegitimate, dangerous, not American. They weren't there to glad-hand and make deals; they were there to purge the DC cesspool of its decades-long mess.

And they couldn't be contained. Republican politicians who weren't fervent enough were primaried. Most survived those primaries, but mostly by lurching even further to the Right. Moderation was death.

The Tea Party became like Agent Smith in "The Matrix: Revolutions": it multiplied, and multiplied, until it took over the party, not by numbers, but by fear. The so-called GOP moderates are scared to death that any hint of moderation will earn them a primary fight. Even Mitch McConnell is fighting for his political life against an attack from his right. And with ample funding from the Koch brothers and allied entities, the Tea Party doesn't have to rely on traditional Republican backers, whom they see as part of the corruption in any case.

The government shutdown and looming debt default is the Armageddon the Tea Party wanted. Like Travis Bickle, they want a real rain to come and wash all the scum off the streets. They're not very smart; this gambit will not end well for them. But you don't have to be smart to smash things. And they're very good at that.

That a group of legislators which represents 18% of the electorate has such an outsized power is due to the rich's cynicism. The Chamber of Commerce thought it could control the rubes. Once you give someone a whiff of power, they're not likely to give it back.