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October 23, 2013

Tea party no longer an amusing distraction

Geoffrey Stevens

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In the early days of the American union, thoughtful commentators, from James Madison to Alexis de Tocqueville, worried about the extremes of democracy. Might the U.S. system evolve into a tyranny of the majority?

That particular concern seems unreal this fall as Washington finds itself trapped in the polar opposite: a tyranny of the minority. A handful of congressmen, no more than 40 of them — less than 10 per cent of the House of Representatives — has seized control of the machinery of government. They have brought Congress to its knees. They have cut off funds for vital public programs and day-to-day operations. Hundreds of thousands of public servants have been sent home without pay. National historic shrines, including the Statue of Liberty, have been closed.

It's happened before, most recently back in 1995-96, when congressional Republicans got in a snit with Bill Clinton, the Democratic president, over taxes, spending and relief for the poor. The public was not amused; it re-elected Clinton in the fall of 1996.

This time, the cause is "Obamacare." The Affordable Care Act, as it is officially known, was the signature legislative initiative of Barack Obama's first term, the first major overhaul of the health system in a half-century. It was approved by both houses of Congress and signed by the president. Then it was fought over again in the 2012 presidential election with the same result: another Obama victory.

You would think the opponents would concede defeat. They would say, "OK, we still don't like the law, but Congress and the people have spoken. It's time to move to on." (That's what happened here with the GST.)

But tyrants don't move on, even when they are a tiny minority. These people are a minority even within the Republican party. Mainstream Republicans want no part of them. Most are affiliated to one degree or another with the tea party.

The tea party began as an amusing diversion on the lunatic fringe of the political landscape — sort of interesting, but not to be taken seriously (hello there, Michele Bachmann). The tea party and its apostles are no longer amusing. They are only too eager to use the arcane levers of Washington power to damage the system — to make it inoperative, to deny taxpayers the services and benefits they have paid for, to cause hardship among those least able to bear it, to deny the majority of citizens the government and leadership for which they voted.

The polls reflect the public's angst. Even voters who don't like Obamacare reject tea party tactics (80 per cent disapproval, according to polls) — tactics, which, left unchecked, could do more than damage the system. They could destroy the spirit of goodwill, consensus and willingness to compromise that make it possible for democracy to function.

Canadians watching the battle unfold may feel complacent. It could never happen here, could it? Our parliamentary system protects us from tyrants, doesn't it?

One might wish. Twenty years ago, a minority party dedicated to the destruction of Canada became the official opposition in Parliament. It was called the Bloc Québécois. It's still around, though much reduced. Then along came Preston Manning and the Reform Party. After listening to the rhetoric at a Reform convention in 1994, Dalton Camp, the distinguished political commentator, sounded this alarm: "The speechifying gives off acrid whiffs of xenophobia, homophobia, and paranoia — like an exhaust — in which it seems clear both orator and audience have been seized by some private terror: immigrants, lesbians, people out of work or from out of town and criminals."

Three years later, this Reform party replaced the Bloc as the official opposition in Parliament. It went on to dump Manning, then rebrand itself as the Canadian Alliance. Its DNA survives in the ideological wing of Stephen Harper's Conservative party.

As prime minister, Harper would have no cause to shut down the government, tea party-style. But he might prorogue Parliament if it got in his way.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at

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