The Establishment vs. The Tea Party; Or, Why Word Choice Leads to an Irrational Narrative

The lion’s share of internecine Republican warfare rests on a problematic assertion: That there’s a qualitative difference, ideologically, between the Tea Party and the so-called Establishment.

I’m not so sure that there is.

What’s the major difference between Tea Party and Establishment Republicans? Only one real distinction comes to mind: Experience.

The Tea Party is upset because they see what they believe is an America under siege by the forces of collectivism and fiscal profligacy. Agree or disagree, but their lament is at least coherent. They want change, and they want it now, and they don’t want it watered down.

The Establishment, by contrast, is probably more Right than Center, but years of observing the Buckley Rule — achieve the most conservative candidate or position that’s possible and don’t die for lost causes — has opened them up to compromise and incrementalism. You might not, for example, get an immediate change in entitlement spending, but you might get a bending of the curve downward with folks like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell in charge.

Thus, the struggle between Tea Party and Establishment is probably less about ideology — I think everyone’s fundamentally on the same page — than it is about tactics. The Tea Party folks, because they’re mostly not accustomed to holding significant elective office, fail to understand that you can’t just stomp your feet and get your way. The Establishment folks, because they’re more interested in playing chess with the Democrats than checkers with their co-partisans, seem tone-deaf to the implications of sacrificing an occasional pawn.

It’s convenient to fan the flames of internal discord by alleging a difference in value systems between these two wings of the GOP. In truth, the differences aren’t all that significant, and with a bit of time and good will, we could end up with a GOP that’s got a passionate base with a bit more wisdom, and an elected class with a bit less risk aversion.

As long as we stop letting MSNBC and The Nation set the terms of the discussion.

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