Ron Johnson. Photographer: Julia Schmalz/Bloomberg
Ron Johnson. Photographer: Julia Schmalz/Bloomberg

As the government shutdown and the debt-ceiling fight drags Republicans' approval ratings ever lower, the fundamental tension in the Tea Party's message is getting harder to overlook: Is it a populist movement trying to protect Americans from the federal government? Or an elitist movement trying to protect Americans from themselves?

At a Bloomberg Government breakfast last week, Republican Senator Ron Johnson, the first-term Tea Party standard bearer from Wisconsin, called the debt ceiling his party's only leverage for winning cuts to social programs. But what about elections, Johnson was asked -- aren't those supposed to be where political parties gain leverage, by winning majorities?

Johnson's answer was revealing. "Look at how awful the information is during the election," he said. "Anybody think Americans really understand this problem? What percentage of Americans do you really think understand this problem?"

"What did we spend, six or seven billion dollars during the last campaign? What did Americans learn? They certainly learned what a dirty rotten scoundrel the opponent was. And then they learned a lie. Because it was foisted on them time and time again, with hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of advertising: They learned that if we just make the rich pay their fair share, and we do a balanced approach, we can fix these problems. No we can't. That's not going to do it.

"The American public is not adequately informed. Let's face it, most people live their lives, they've turned this place off. It's a huge challenge."

It's worth noting the specific challenge Johnson is referring to here. He's not talking about the policy challenge of balancing the budget, which is indeed huge. Instead, he's talking about the challenge posed by the majority of Americans who don't share his view that programs such as Medicare and Social Security should be cut. In Johnson's telling they just don't know enough to support those cuts.

There's a term for those who believe they know better than the public what's good for them: They're called elitists. And they used to be the people Tea Partiers railed against -- at least until Johnson and others found out that cutting government programs wasn't a winning message in last year's election. And by clinging to the debt ceiling and the shutdown as the party's only "moments of leverage," Johnson seemed to acknowledge that the message of less government doesn't stand a great chance of carrying the midterms either.

Doesn't the Republicans' inability to win elections on its platform of cuts say something about its message? According to Johnson, not at all; instead, it says something about the public. Specifically, the weakness of human nature.

"The left has got a diabolically simple, depressingly effective strategy: Addict Americans to government. They've been doing it since FDR. Politicians have very effectively addicted Americans to government, but it's not sustainable."

At first glance, Johnson's disregard for the wishes of voters' offers what may seem like a tempting parallel with Democrats. Since President Barack Obama took office, the federal government has implemented a series of policy initiatives that polled badly -- the stimulus, Dodd-Frank, quantitative easing and the health-care law. If Democrats were to speak candidly, they would probably argue those policies were too important not to pursue, public opinion be damned.

But the analogy only goes so far. People generally supported the goals of those initiatives (economic recovery, a more stable banking system and better access to health insurance) while disagreeing with how the government is trying to achieve them.

By contrast, Johnson acknowledges that most Americans don't support the cuts he's proposing. They are, in his terms, addicted to government. And only Republicans can save them.

That sentiment offers a lot to wonder about. It delegitimizes opposing policy preferences; dismisses voters as idiots; and assumes, falsely, that the only two options for the U.S. are deep cuts to beneficiaries of social programs or total fiscal collapse. But most of all, it demands the question: How long can a populist movement speak for the people and down to them at the same time?

(Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)