“Establishment” vs. “Tea Party” — how explosive is the dispute?

How seriously should we take the acrimonious tension between so-called establishment Republicans and the Tea Party. I take it pretty seriously, but Charles Krauthammer does not.

Last night on Fox, Krauthammer said that the rift is overblown by the mainstream media, and isn’t a major problem because it pertains to tactics, not ends. In the case of the government shutdown, for example, both sides wanted Obamacare repealed; the dispute was over whether the shutdown would advance that goal.

Krauthammer may be right not to be very concerned. But I am not convinced.

First, the clash isn’t just about tactics. The Republican party/conservative movement is split on important substantive issues. These include: how much money the U.S. should spend on national defense; the extent to which the U.S. should involve itself overseas, especially in the Middle East; the proper scope of U.S. intelligence activity designed to counter terrorists; immigration; gay marriage; and, more generally, the extent to which the government should uphold traditional social norms.

Moreover, although Krauthammer is correct that both factions want to shrink the size and influence of government, does broad agreement exist as to the proper magnitude of the shrinkage? I’m not at all sure that it does.

I also question Krauthammer’s premise that only disputes over substantive goals can create a serious fissure in a political movement. The rift between Trotsky and Stalin began as a tactical dispute over whether the goals of Communism were best achieved through “Socialism in one country.” The Bolshevik-Menshevik split was also mostly about tactics, most notably whether to work with liberals in Russia.

Is it fair to cite instances of sectarianism that arose outside of a democratic context? Perhaps not. Leaders of political factions can come to despise their former allies for almost any reason. But in a democracy, they need to inflame large numbers of followers in order to create a rift that makes a difference.

Maybe this can’t be done where the differences are mainly tactical, at least not at the level of presidential politics. But arguably it has already occurred several times at the level of senatorial politics. And when tactical decisions are cast, plausibly, as blunders that prevent a philosophy from prevailing or a party from gaining power, the resulting bitterness can easily be destructive.

In any case, as argued above, the current dispute within the conservative movement isn’t just about tactics. In this regard, we should keep in mind how extraordinary it is that the modern conservative coalition — social conservatives, foreign policy and national security hawks, and free marketeers — has held together for so long.

It may not require a large match to blow this coalition up.

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