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By Tom Cushing

Thinking ‘Bout the Government, Part Two (Don’t Follow Leaders … or was it TeaPers?)

Uploaded: Oct 18, 2013

My foray into lyricizing this blog met with indifferent reception, at best. Those impulses will probably be restrained in composing this conclusion. I reserve the right to inflict another year-end poem on the readership, however. You've been warned.

The first installment proposed that Americans are universally distrustful of government – for different reasons, left and right, but so consistently that it's practically in our DNA. This continent was settled by malcontents, after all, many having chosen a harrowing sea journey and the frontier's many risks over a more stable fate in their countries-of-origin. Fundamental protections against the depredations of tyrannical power are built-into the US Constitution's amendments.

So why did the TeaPers' recent challenge to the government's operations and duties fail so miserably to muster popular support?

To be sure, one reason is that the government we've created since the Founding has grown to a monstrous size. Its expenditures and reach are of such scale that it cannot be destroyed, or even suspended in any significant fraction, without damaging the rest of the economy. It may not be Audrey 2, the ravenous houseplant of Little Shop of Horrors (sorry), but many jobs and much commerce do depend on sustaining it. They were sorely missed during the Tea Party interlude.

However, I think the best answer to why so many, so uniformly rejected the metaphorical assault on the Capitol may be found in the body of Constitution. For while the citizenry often suspects the institution and dislikes the sausage-making of politics, there is deep allegiance to the system – the essence, the processes and the framework on which the country's polity is built are close to the American heart; I believe most folks felt a threat to those cherished traditions.

Americans share an abiding faith in the system that finds expression in the Constitution. That allegiance may come from a neighboring source of the intuitive distrust of institutional power – it's a sense of fair-play that is embodied in that process. The checks-and-balances built-into the three-branch government, to try to ensure both majority rules and minority rights has an instinctive appeal that has sustained it and us for more than two centuries.

The failure to recognize the difference between concern and occasional annoyance with government, as practiced, and the revered system of governance may have led the insurgents (there you go, S-P) to over-estimate their appeal. Their process had two immediate flaws – first, it used parlor-mentary tricks to allow their merry little band to hamstring the proper legislative process. It had the feel of an unnecessary, made-up crisis, and indeed it has been widely reported to have been months in the planning. It was clearly fomented by the 50-odd TeaPers – indeed, early in the debacle, they basked in the attention. And It was just as certainly an attempt at minority rule that struck very many fellow citizens as extreme – most folks just don't see the sky falling over ObamaCare.

The second problem with the shutdown strategy (to dignify it with the term) was that it felt to most observers like dirty pool. The ObamaCare law is so unrelated to the routine duty to make financial decisions about budget and borrowing that it give life to the 'hostage' imagery. It was at least in the nature of those unpopular earmarks whereby Congressfolk append unrelated provisions onto popular, important bills – usually to promote some narrow interest that would not pass otherwise. They hope it will be swept along, and under the rug.

Of course, this ploy varied the earmark theme by taking on the signature achievement of the current Administration. It also simply had no business being considered together with matter of finance. It offended senses of fair-play; and it only got worse as that flaw was attempted to be rationalized. It may be a corollary to Occam's Razor that if you have to go the heroic lengths to defend your actions, you're trying to be too clever. The attempts at convoluted explanation just pinned the public's BS-o-meter, and sent the TeaPers to ignominious defeat.

Will we see this kind of tactic used again? Maybe not soon, as the TeaPers will be lucky to sit down comfortably by Thanksgiving. But nothing really got fixed, here – it was just extreme behavior that got punished. To find ways to inoculate the law-making process against these shenanigans will require harder fixes, based on more remote, deeper causes.

More on that soon.