Small World: The Tea Party drops a leader

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

It may be time to sweep up some generalizations now that the dust and debris have settled from the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the recent Republican primary. He was crushed in the vote by an obscure small college economics professor, David Brat, who raised $206,663 compared to Cantor’s $5,026,626.

The question before us is why did defeat come to one of the rising stars of Congress? What went wrong — or right, depending on your point of view — to end his hopes of becoming House Speaker replacing John Boehner?

The professor — who also holds a degree in theology — was an appealing, probing but unknown candidate. Most importantly, he was the candidate of the local Tea Party — standing up against a biggie who became too closely identified with the wheeling of Washington. Brat overcame Cantor’s self-celebrated role as a top voice in the Tea Party movement, one who consistently opposed the Obama administration from the far right.

And here we’re on to our first clue: The Tea Party was originally conceived as an uprising of the little guy and gal against Big Government and Big Business and Banking. It was Main Street against Wall Street — something like a middle-aged Occupy Wall Street movement. But then, the little guys lost control. Professional politicians took over leadership nationally and big bucks flooded in to finance campaigns. Whereas the Tea Party founders wanted recognition and justice for their ordinary needs, their new sponsors wanted relief from regulations and taxes on the wealthy.

Cantor followed the Tea Party script but he also had a more attentive ear for his business and banking backers. He was one of the key members on Capitol Hill in responding to their needs. Proof? When he was defeated, the stock market fell in a reaction of severe disappointment. It is now uncertain, for example, whether funding for the Export-Import Bank, which supports U.S. sales abroad will pass the Congress. Boeing, in particular, feels its aircraft business under threat without Cantor’s leadership.

Cantor understood the needs of business and, an ambitious fellow, responded positively in order to gain lobbyists’ help in moving ever upward, tending to ignore his constituents only a couple of hours away in the Richmond, Va. area. He lost touch, particularly over issues important to them, but which were seen differently — and less important — in Washington.

Immigration was probably the key issue. Tea Party members opposed any form of amnesty for the maybe 11 million people who are illegally in the country. (What to do about them, however, they had no practical ideas.) Cantor talked the talk against amnesty, but stealthily sought ways to get around the prohibition. For him and for the Republican Party, the long-term loyalty of Hispanics was at stake. If he and the party appeared hostile to Latino interests in something important like amnesty, that community would make their future home with the Democrats.

The Tea Party concerns about immigration are usually represented as fears that jobs will be taken away — an authentic worry in fragile economic times as these.

But wait, look abroad! In recent elections all over Europe the anti-immigrant far right prospered, eating away at support for traditional mainstream parties. There’s something more than economics at play. Insecure people under pressure tend to move more closely together. Keep foreigners out. Don’t let heathen religions move into our neighborhoods. We see the same phenomenon in the Middle East where Moslem sects oppose others and in India where Hindu nationalists assert themselves. Think back to Germany in the 1930s.

The Tea Party platform has some of that flavor — although they would call it patriotism, not nationalism (which has a bad history and connotation.)

This country and its democracy will be served well if the Tea Party shakes up established parties and positions. And breaks the grip of vested interests. We will be ill-served if it brings into power no-nothings determined to weaken our deep heritage of tolerance.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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