The Tea Party has been an awful drag on the U.S. economy, the U.S. Congress, and the level of discourse about U.S. politics and issues that matter. It has promoted hysteria (and bad policy) about the national debt. Its money, votes and organization have propelled more than a few certified idiots into positions of prominence and power. And it has poisoned political discourse with a toxic combination of nonsense, paranoia and vituperation.
But mostly, the Tea Party has been a good thing.
In fact, the more irate and bizarro that Tea Party members become, the more useful a service the party structure provides. Indeed, the Tea Party has performed brilliantly at the chief task of a political institution catering to resentful hotheads (many of whom, not incidentally, have an alarming affinity for guns): It has channeled their rage into socially and politically acceptable behavior.
To see what radical activism and rage-fueled politics look like without such constraints, just look back at the New Left. Black Panther shootouts. Symbionese Liberation Army shootouts. Kathy Boudin & Friends shootouts. The occasional ROTC building explosion. Reckless politics was a cause of death in those ugly years. To the extent that gun laws encourage suicide, homicide and manslaughter, it still is. But the word "laws" makes all the difference.
Unlike the New Left, the Tea Party has worked within the system. It has organized public demonstrations, supported candidates and lobbied legislatures. What it has not done is murder police officers or blow up buildings.
Of course, the Tea Party is populated by a much older cohort than the New Left was, and so it's demographically less prone to violence. (The Bill Ayers and Kathy Boudins of the 1960s aren't too violent these days, either. In fact, some of them may be Tea Partyers.) Still, it's hard to know what would have become of all that conservative rage without a Tea Party to give it voice, direct it into appropriate channels and designate violent behavior out of bounds.
Tea Partyers like to call themselves patriots. They're nutty about a lot of things. But not that.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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