January 23
EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo
EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

Senator Chuck Schumer gave a pretty good speech today about “the rise and potential fall of the Tea Party.” In it he dissects the blatantly self-interested nature of Randian plutocrats like the Koch brothers, and has a solid takedown of their set of preposterous underpinning ideologies. But while he is definitely on to something, I don’t think he has quite finished the case for why the Tea Party has been so successful. He does take on some of the structural problems which are plaguing the American political system, but more is needed.

Schumer’s speech was all about answering a question that far too few commentators have been willing to take on: how has the Tea Party, a minority of the American people even at its largest and most popular, managed to inflict so much dysfunction and stalemate on our ostensibly democratic system? The mere fact that he is addressing this question is itself a good thing, and Schumer also went on to suggest ways of weakening the tea party’s grip on our politics.

Schumer did lay out a policy program: raise the minimum wage, invest in education and infrastructure, and equal pay for women. Schumer argued that such a populist economic agenda could help weaken the tea party, by split the die-hard Republican base voters on Medicare from their plutocrat overlords. Along these lines, he argued that Dems should point out that the latter’s desire to dismantle the safety net isn’t in the former’s interests. But as Schumer himself outlines, tea partyers are almost totally impervious to empirical evidence, so that is probably a nonstarter.

Policy alone is not going to weaken the tea party’s grip on our politics. Schumer’s suggestions were a good start to what should be a much longer conversation. The reason the tea party has had so much power in Washington is simple: the American government has many veto points, so it is highly possible for a determined minority to obstruct almost everything. Actually doing so can threaten enormous damage to the nation, so there have long been norms about the boundaries of acceptable debate. In previous ages holding the full faith and credit of the government hostage to extract policy concessions simply wasn’t done.

The ability of the tea party to compel the GOP to adopt destructive party-wide strategies also underscores that deeper reform is needed. Campaign finance reform — which Schumer also suggested — probably wouldn’t be enough, since the radicalization of Republicans is largely an intra-party phenomenon. His suggestions for electoral reform are more relevant — he suggests changing to an open primary system, so that the top two winners from either party compete in the general congressional elections, thereby making it possible to compete for conservative seats without having to win among only Republican primary voters first.

If we are really going to start talking about structural reform, though, we should go further and at a minimum press forward with further changes to the Senate, such as abolishing the legislative filibuster and the “blue slip” rule. Schumer wasn’t willing to go that far. But at least a high profile official — and member of one of the party’s leadership — is out there talking about serious structural changes. Adapting a diffuse Madisonian system to an era of disciplined, ideologically-sorted parties will take some structural reform, and it’s high time we started talking.