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Thomas L. Friedman: Tea party tactics crossed line

  • New York Times
  • Published Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, at 12 a.m.

It turns out that all my years covering Sunnis and Shiites, Israelis and Palestinians, tribal conflicts and “Parties of God” have been the best preparation for covering today’s Washington, D.C., and particularly the tea party. You’d get a much better feel for Washington politics today by reading “Lawrence of Arabia” than the Federalist Papers. This is not good news.

A column I wrote from Kansas (Aug. 13 Opinion) noted the parallel between monocultures and polycultures in nature and politics. It began with the scientist Wes Jackson, the president of the Land Institute, explaining that the prairie was a diverse wilderness, with a complex ecosystem that naturally supported all kinds of wildlife, until European settlers plowed it up and covered it with single-species crop farms. Today, noted Jackson, we now use high-density fossil fuels to sustain these annual monoculture crops, which are much more susceptible to disease and are exhausting the nutrient-rich topsoil that is the source of all prairie life.

What is going on in the Arab world today, I argued, is a relentless push, also funded by fossil fuels, for more monocultures. It’s al-Qaida trying to “purify” the Arabian Peninsula. It’s Shiites and Sunnis, each funded by oil money, trying to purge the other in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The more these societies become monocultures, the less they spark new ideas and the more susceptible they are to diseased conspiracy theories and extreme ideologies.

The same is true of the Republican Party in America today. Tea party conservatives funded by the Koch brothers and other fossil-fuel donors are trying to wipe out whatever is left of the Republican Party’s polyculture and turn it into a monoculture. When Senate Republicans first offered their compromise proposal to end the shutdown, tea party Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, warned that “anybody who would vote for that in the House as a Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger” from the tea party. In short: They’d be purged in favor of a monoculture.

When the GOP was more of a polyculture, it gave us ideas as diverse as the Clean Air Act (Richard Nixon), daring nuclear arms control (Ronald Reagan), cap-and-trade to curb acid rain (George H.W. Bush) and a market-based health care plan (“Romneycare” in Massachusetts). The purge being mounted by the ultraconservative, oil-funded monoculturalists in the GOP today will kill the Republican Party if continued.

That is, unless the GOP can avoid other lessons of Mideast politics: Extremists go all the way and moderates tend to just go away. And it is not enough to just stop extremists from acting extreme; you have to take on and take down their ideas.

The tea party is not a terrorist group. It has legitimate concerns about debt, jobs and Obamacare. But what was not legitimate was the line it crossed. Rather than persuading a majority of Americans that its policies were right, and winning elections to enact the changes it sought, the tea party threatened to undermine our nation’s credit rating if the Democrats would not agree to defund Obamacare. Had such strong-arm tactics worked, it would have meant that constitutionally enacted laws could be nullified if determined minorities opposed them.

If nothing else comes out of this crisis than the fact that such tactics have been discredited in our politics, then the pain of the past few weeks will have been worth it.

Thomas L. Friedman writes for the New York Times.

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