Image Courtesy of alan.com
Lost in the reaction to Sen. Ted Cruz’s 21-hour “filibuster” of Obamacare (transcript for masochists here) was this comedic trifle: a Moveon.org petition was launched to rescind Cruz’s Harvard Law School degree for his not being “Harvard material.” The primary charges are that the motivations behind the senator’s long speech, in concert with his prior conduct in the Upper House, do not befit his attendance at his alma mater. Further, the effort comes at the heels of a GQ report including the viral detail that Cruz had refused to join a study group with anyone lacking a degree from Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. (Wait, there are socially exclusive groups at Harvard?)
Unsurprisingly, the aftermath of the short-lived petition was more comical than fruitful, enjoying a brief flare of glory in the Twitterverse. The academic objection to the endeavor is easy enough: stripping Cruz of his degree as a result of misguided outrage would reflect political intolerance and, by extension, a cheapened, lazy version of intellectual curiosity whereby opposing viewpoints, even if fallacious, are dismissed out of hand rather than carefully examined, an especially flagrant offense given how college diplomas should be a sign of the rigorous application of exactly said examination, etc. etc.
A much more interesting (more aptly, a less boring) take on the whole matter—the most successful counterarguments to Sen. Cruz’s speech were enhanced by their laughter as much as by their logic. Most readers likely had a similarly comic reaction to Cruz’s “lesser Ivy”-lacking study group, and the combined reaction to the flurry of Cruz news may tell us more about what exactly Cruz’s political agenda is all about, and how he can expand his role beyond that of designated irritant in the Republican caucus.
We know the Senator, wherever his future ambitions may lie, has no broad-based coalition that he wishes to create to spur on his pet causes. It would be prohibitively hard for him to attempt to generate such a base of support, given his minor mutinies against party leadership and his overall unpopularity among even similarly minded colleagues. Cruz’s approach can hardly be legislation-focused, given that the current makeup of the Senate disallows even the token approval of Tea Party-stamped bills that the House seems to relish in these days.
Nor can we reasonably infer that Sen. Cruz is trying to argue past his colleagues directly to the American public. Were that the case, we might expect some triangulation from the Senator away from his stereotype, some degree of restraint in fulfilling the bluster that has propelled him to the national stage. On the contrary, however, the more Cruz’s national profile has grown, the less people seem to like him, a fact that can hardly have escaped his notice.
The logical conclusion, then, is that Sen. Cruz has given up entirely on building a favorable national image in favor of appealing directly to the most staunchly conservative members of his party; the strategy, if flawed, does not seem ridiculous given the growing political polarization of Congressional districts, especially among Republicans.
The fault in the strategy, however, lies in the relatively obstructionist position of the Tea Party platform: while the Paul Ryan wing of the GOP can point to their budgetary ideas and the Cantor/Boehner faction to their repeated negotiations within their party and with the White House, the Tea Party has little substantive in its history or its aspirations to point to as a source of confidence going forward. That stance severely limits the group’s potential for growth, and makes it almost entirely reactionary to perceived liberal outrage. It’s no coincidence that the 2010 peak of the Tea Party movement was a direct response to the apparent tyranny of Obamacare—the strength of the movement relies on conservative groundswells of opposition to similarly regarded injustices.
The glaring weakness of Cruz’s reliance on such a group of supporters is their relative lack of self-sufficiency. Without commensurate large-scale liberal opposition, the Tea Party reduces to an echo chamber; when the crosshairs are focused on the Party’s activities, however, its reputation and voice grow to occupy the stage that the newfound attention procures. Laughter, then, is as fatal a counter to the Tea Party platform as ignorance—it serves as a clear marker of how far the group’s positions stray from that of the average member of the general public without providing the necessary polemic fuel that the organization needs to survive.
In many ways, the aims of Sen. Cruz’s study group were probably similarly aligned. “Traditional” socially exclusive organizations (whether they are incarnated as fraternities, eating clubs, final clubs, etc.) are, at their core, relatively benign, self-selecting groups that provide a valuable social space for members with compatible personalities. They are not inherently antagonistic. The notion of a “higher Ivy”-exclusive study group, however, must have been spurred on by the negative reaction it must have garnered, both from the truly outraged and those with an outsize case of FOMO who wished they could be a part of the club. With no such reaction, however, the group, like the Tea Party, inherently loses a core part of its purpose. In a vacuum, the benefits that each group has to offer to its members wanes significantly, and its utility with respect to the general public diminishes to practically nil.
All this comparison suggests is that future opposition to Sen. Cruz should err more on the side of Comedy Central than the Moveon.org petitioners who seemed all too eager to match the Senator’s level of ridiculousness. Cruz, and in fact, the Tea Party as a whole, resemble less the Socratic gadfly and more the mosquito that quietly exits an AC-lacking classroom when it is allowed to leave an opened window in peace. Senator Cruz has chosen to participate in the theater of the absurd—to succeed, his opposition needs only to refrain from writing the next Act for him.