On November 2 a wave of straight-ticket Republican votes swept 22 Democrats out of the state House of Representatives, a victory of unprecedented dimensions. After 2 Democrats switched parties in the days following the election, the House stood at 101 Republicans and just 49 Democrats, not even a sufficient number to break a quorum. Republicans envisioned a historic opportunity to tackle a budget shortfall estimated at press time to be $25 billion. Here was the chance to institute fiscal restraint, to enact anti-immigrant laws, and to turn out the lights at inefficient state agencies. With the Democrats essentially powerless, the new Republican supermajority could do anything it wanted to do.
And what, do you suppose, Republicans wanted to do? They wanted to fight. Not against the hapless Democrats. Against other Republicans—in particular against Joe Straus, the incumbent Speaker of the House and (at this writing) the favorite to be elected to a second term. The protagonists in the battle to come are old and familiar adversaries. On one side are the grassroots activists, the folks who went to the polls and cast the votes that sealed the victory. On the other side are the politicians, the officeholders who are the beneficiaries of those votes. The divide is as ancient as democracy itself. But the fundamental issue remains unsettled: In a democracy, are the people the boss? Or are the public servants? As any freshman political science student knows, one argument reflects the tea party view that elected officials are mere delegates the voters have put in office to do their bidding. The view of the political establishment is that elected officials are trustees who have been empowered by the voters to exercise their best judgment. That is the great rift in American politics right now, and the establishment isn’t winning.
Political pros have every reason to be alarmed. The grassroots organizations—the tea parties, the right-to-life groups, the newsletter publishers who relentlessly stir up the base, and their counterparts on the left, such as MoveOn.org—have no respect for the collective wisdom of the pros, and certainly none for the trustee theory. A memorable confrontation took place in September on Fox News. Karl Rove was a guest on The Sean Hannity Show. Hannity was defending Christine O’Donnell, a woman who had once admitted to dabbling in witchcraft but who defeated longtime Delaware congressman Mike Castle for the Republican senatorial nomination. Rove was at the top of his game. “It does conservatives little good,” he said, “to support candidates who . . . while they may be conservative in their public statements, do not evince the characteristics of rectitude and truthfulness and sincerity and character the voters are looking for.” Hannity could only sputter. As most people who follow politics will recall, O’Donnell and another tea party favorite, Sharron Angle, of Nevada, cost Republicans two Senate seats they were once heavily favored to win.
Like him or not, Rove is a political pro who knows that amateurs who subscribe to the delegate theory can be dangerous. When a talented but untutored figure like Sarah Palin emerges out of nowhere to win the loyalties and affections of the masses, it is a mixed blessing. Politicians who lack the instinct to locate the fine line between mainstream positions and extreme viewpoints are going to make mistakes, and the next thing you know, they’re being lampooned on Saturday Night Live .
This is why Rove continues to question Palin’s suitability as a presidential candidate. He knows that the wrong nominee can sink a political party. When Barry Goldwater said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” in his defiant acceptance speech for the Republican nomination in 1964, he lost the election then and there. The moderate Democratic party of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson disappeared with the flawed candidacy of George McGovern in 1972, reappeared with the rise of Bill Clinton, and hasn’t been heard from since. As the votes were being counted on November 2, the question foremost in the minds of political professionals was whether the insurgent masses who had carried the day for the GOP were the best thing that could happen to the Republican party—or the worst.
The problem is that the delegate model works only when the politicians know what the people want and trust them to be right. But what if the people are wrong? Take the Bush bailout of the financial industry. The tea parties hated it, but they were wrong. It saved the financial system. The delegate theory assumes that the public is capable of making informed decisions and passing them on to their representatives. That is a flawed assumption. Politics is complex. It requires compromise. Even the pros can have a hard time figuring out what is going on. The public is often in the dark, like Jake Gittes, Jack Nicholson’s character in Chinatown, who is told by the rich, utterly amoral Noah Cross, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.”
I hold to the trustee model, which advances the idea that “representatives must transcend the short-term particular interests of their constituency and advocate for the long-term comprehensive interests of the nation.” As Edmund Burke, the great British student of politics—and acknowledged by many as the founder of conservatism—put it, “You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament.”
Still, there is much to admire about the tea parties. They mobilized; they organized; they brought new people into the political process. But the Republican party has absorbed—or has been invaded by—a movement that demands fealty to a single ideology. Many Republicans, Rush Limbaugh included, consider themselves conservatives first and Republicans second. If turning a big-tent party into a small-tent party is their objective, they are on the right track. Of course, Republicans have no monopoly when it comes to eating their young;