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October 19, 2013 9:14 AM Good Morning

The Tea Party is everything bad.

By Max Ehrenfreund

Good morning, everyone. I’m happy to be joining you again on this Web log. Today, I’ll be taking a long, hard look at the Republican Party in an effort to understand what exactly motivated leadership and rank-and-file members alike to close the government for over two weeks and risk global economic collapse. This inquiry may seem redundant, since so much electricity has been burned in writing about the party since Thursday, but I still haven’t seen convincing answers to several important questions. It may also seem hopeless trying to make sense of an organization that has recently behaved like a random number generator with a mean streak. I don’t expect to find many conclusive answers, but I do hope to eliminate some of the wrong ones, and I hope you’ll read along with me.

This ought to be a weekend when we are all celebrating an unequivocal defeat for the conservative faction in Congress. In fact, I am too incensed to gloat. And my anger is personal. Put aside all the needless economic harm that’s been done this month and previously. Put aside the missed opportunities, both for Congress and for the president. You’re left with a group of truly arrogant people lacking in moral imagination, who have traded their empathy for a set of elaborate fantasies. As a body, they cower before the realities of present human suffering and the facts of historical struggle, and they’ve taken refuge in a more comfortable world of their own collective creation. Their sheer thoughtlessness is appalling.

I’m not just describing the right wing of the G.O.P. conference in the House, but also everyone who has helped them win and maintain power. In the last few days, this vanguard of liberty has reminded us just how convinced it is of its own historical importance. “I feel like we have just lost a war to the Communists,” Rush Limbaugh said this week. He caught himself a moment later:

I use the term ‘Communists’ generically, but I can remember back in the ’50s. I’m a child of the Cold War. As a child, the threat that the Soviet Union was gonna succeed was a daily thing you lived with. If you were one who was engaged in all that, that was a frightening concept, and I almost feel like that’s happened here — and then in addition to that, it seems like it happened overnight!

Brit Hume was a little more restrained. Acknowledging that the effort by conservative Republicans was bound to fail, he praised them for trying. “They see an American population becoming unrecognizable from the free and self-reliant people they thought they knew,” he said. “And they see the Republican Party as having utterly failed to stop the drift toward an unfree nation supervised by an overweening and bloated bureaucracy.” What he means to say, you see, is that the Republican Party is nothing but Communist spies.

These statements, this entire attitude, is deeply offensive. (Some conservative activists have been even more colorful.) There have been times in history when freedom really has been in danger and the country has confronted existential threats. The Cold War is one example, and perhaps most notably, the Cuban Missile Crisis. As Limbaugh says, people really weren’t sure whether democracy would endure the twentieth century. As we know, there have been times when Americans have made real sacrifices for their freedom, in many cases, giving up their very lives. I’m thinking particularly of the Civil War and the civil rights movement a hundred years later. Now just is not one of those times. Comparing yourself to those who have gone before you, in this case, seems to minimize their contributions to the country you live in now. Not to get all patriotic or anything — there are others fighting the same fight this very moment, from Moscow to Aleppo to Tibet.

By talking as though our own liberty is in serious danger because of health care reform, Hume and Limbaugh show they haven’t spent much time thinking about what liberty means. If it were more than just a word to them, they’d appreciate how much of it they have.

Our own problems — global warming, surveillance, an enduring economic depression — are much less interesting and much more frightening. Apparently either through a lack of interest or a failure of courage, the Tea Party has imagined a different set of problems into existence and chosen to deal with them instead.

For the rest of the day, I’m going to focus rather bloodlessly on intramural conflicts and parliamentary strategy within the Republican Party, but not because I think it is all just a game without consequences. These people are contemptible. Their worldview is odious. Let’s keep those broader, more fundamental facts in mind as we continue.

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund

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