The prolonged and frustrating debt ceiling debate and its chaotic aftermath have disillusioned voters, made our elected officials look impotent and done nothing to invest in jobs and improve the economy.
Moreover, politicians know that its a sign of more to come.
The series of debates over extending unemployment benefits, ending the budget impasse and raising the debt limit have been stops in an escalating campaign (the Super Committee's work will be the next battlefield) and the culprit seems to be the Tea Party's presence in Congress. Many Democrats have adopted the language of calling them "economic terrorists," Joe Nocera of the Times referred to their "war on America" and there's an effort to brand S&P's actions as "The Tea Party downgrade."
These linguistic salvos may turn out to be good politics if they can erode Tea Party support before the next fight, but there's an underlying question we need to answer if we're going to limit their ability to disrupt the political process: Why is the Tea Party doing this?
While I think there are a number of rabid Republicans who want to see the president fail at all costs (think of Jim DeMint's "Waterloo" comments before the healthcare debate), I don't believe that animates most of the Tea Party representatives and certainly isn't at the core of their supporters' motivations. There are too many members of Tea Parties around the country who are hurting from the economy and to explain their motivations away as simply rooting for chaos and uncertainty isn't going to provide them relief, either.
Of course, as is often noted, many Tea Party voters vote against their own economic interests. Supporting tax cuts for the rich means underfunded programs for the rest of us. Cuts to Medicare or Social Security hurt our country's working families as they approach their senior years. Playing games with unemployment benefits causes calamity for regular Americans of all political stripes.
So are Tea Party members serving the goals of a network of rich funders who use a right-wing grassroots movement as cover? In part, yes. It is absolutely true that the Koch Brothers network of political entities, Dick Armey's operational support and Rupert Murdoch's megaphone have misinformed the public, inflated the Tea Party and distorted our national debate. It is true that decades of investment in conservative think tanks have moved the country's view on the estate tax, capital gains and the solvency of Social Security.
It is true that that the "government is the problem" trope and the Club For Growth fanaticism of Grover Norquist and his pledges for no taxes, ever are viewed as mainstream.
But it isn't just that the Tea Party's enthusiasts have been tricked by all this - it's that we all have been tricked. Democrats rail against taxes. President Obama has moved away from talking about investment to instead cheer on tax holidays. Since the 90s, when President Clinton took his own turn as Ronald Reagan in declaring "The era of big government is over," the center of our discourse has accepted the economic arguments and frameworks put forward by right-wing think-tanks funded by wealthy elites.
From the Simpson-Bowles Commission to the upcoming Super Committee, there's an acceptance that somehow government needs to be smaller, the free market will provide a solution and we're all waiting for the wealth to trickle down.
Both sides are saying it - the real difference is that Tea Party fanatics are acting on it with all their convictions. If you truly believe that the size of the government is the problem, you use every tool in your toolbox to shrink government. If you embrace the idea that the economy will be juiced when money is in the hands of private individuals - even despite evidence of major cash reserves in corporate coffers or increased savings by our nation's wealthiest - then you fire every weapon in your arsenal to keep that money out of the government's treasury.
It doesn't make sense economically, and has been disproven again and again from Clinton's surplus to Bush's decade of sluggish growth. Yet every time Democrats capitulate, they suggest there's something to that economic view. Every time the president talks about the need for cuts and for balancing our budget like a family, he accepts that ideology. Nevermind that families don't balance their budgets - they take loans for homes, cars, college and priorities that invest in their security and longterm prosperity. But reason can't enter into this.
The Tea Party simply embraces this belief more passionately and authentically than the rest of Washington which passively rolls along with it. We might never convince them they are wrong, but every time we accept their language and meet more than halfway toward their radical fringe, we suggest that they are, in part, right. The President, in his State of the Union, wanted to invest so we could out-compete the rest of the world. First, though, we need to out-compete bad ideas here at home and show Americans a real alternative they can believe in.
Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."