The authors nod at this notion, writing that the Tea Partiers’ “anger evinces a determination to restore that remembered America.” And that anger leads to something deeper and darker than a partisan reaction. In a movement riven with paradoxes, perhaps the most alarming is how a vibrant manifestation of democracy can itself hold such anti-democratic views. Skocpol and Williamson report that in all their interviews, they “never heard anyone acknowledge the need for two-way dialogue with other Americans who think differently from Tea Partiers.” Non-Tea Partiers who don’t hold the same views just need to be “educated.” And Democrats? Engaging them would be “a waste of time,” and compromise would “verge on the illegitimate.”

The irony for American politics is that the Tea Party arrived just as a fervent believer in civic virtue assumed the presidency. Intellectual historian James Kloppenberg traces Obama’s political thought to William James’s philosophical pragmatism and James Madison’s belief in democratic deliberation. Obama’s governing ethic is premised on the very act of dialogue. As Obama himself wrote in The Audacity of Hope, our democracy is “not a house to be built, but a conversation to be had.” That conversation, especially between people who disagree, is the soul of the American experiment.

Obama’s democratic faith has proven poignant, even tragic, in the face of an adversary that sees democracy less as a conversation than a scorched-earth battle. Indeed, Obama himself has lately abandoned those principles, shifting from conciliation to confrontation, to the relief of supporters who blanched at his repeated overtures to an immovable opposition.

The next year will be ugly. But the years after that will likely be ugly, too, and our hopes lie in that very thing the Tea Party hates the most—America’s capacity for change. In the meantime, this is the dolorous legacy that the Tea Party has left us: an ever-more radical GOP, yes; a hobbled presidency, sure; but, most important, the interment of good-faith deliberation as a central tenet of the democratic creed. 


Elbert Ventura is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.