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Burning Down the House

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
October 23, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo

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Originally published in Portuguese on Folha de Sao Paulo:

Breaking the public's confidence in government has long been the strategy of the Tea Party and of conservative Republicans. Torn by internal factions, the GOP has succeeded by at least one measure: public approval for the United States Congress stands at only 12 percent, the lowest in 25 years.

But the GOP's scorched earth strategy may burn down even its own houses. By the time the shutdown ended, according to the Washington Post, 77 percent of Americans disapproved of the Republican strategy. And within the party, a sizeable majority opposes the Tea Party itself.

The New York Times breaks the GOP down into six factions, ranging from a dying breed of those moderates who objected to the shut-down strategy, to Tea Party Members, Tea Party Affiliates, and moderates who nevertheless supported the shut-down in order to prevent Obama's health care law from going into force.

Political strategists from both parties are beginning to ask whether the Republican Party will have to overcome these internal divisions in order to keep its majority in the House in 2014. President Obama's legislative priority—to pass immigration reform—may further exacerbate the Republicans' factional conflicts by forcing, if not a vote, at least a public expression of support or opposition, for the more humane immigration policies that the majority of American voters, as well as new Latino voters, support.

One can envision a scenario in 2014 in which the Republican reliance for majority control on 30 or 40 "safe" seats with largely white voters will collapse under the repudiation of the Tea Party and the House leadership's failure to prevail during the shutdown. Could the Democrats then go into the 2016 presidential election controlling the House, Senate and the White House?

In 1787, James Madison, fourth President of the United States and one of the authors of the Bill of Rights, wrote in Federalist Paper #10 that minority factions in a democracy, especially in a small republic, could devolve into potentially damaging expressions of divergent social and economic interests. Only by "extending the sphere," or enlarging the republic—might the new democracy absorb the otherwise existential damage of factional conflict.

As Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of State, Madison negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, a step that doubled the size of the United States. The Monroe Doctrine, wars with Mexico and Spain, Manifest Destiny, or Woodrow Wilson's Caribbean deployments, literally or presumptively, reflected Madison's logic of extending the sphere. After the civil war, factional conflict subsided, and struggle for voting and other rights, though not always peaceful, extended the political franchise to once disenfranchised Americans.

America's 21st century wars have bled the treasury but failed to produce domestic peace. Hopefully the Tea Party's self-inflicted wound, not foreign wars, will bring this chapter of American factional conflict to an end.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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