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Tea Party and Me

By Jimmy Carter

This op-ed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was published in the Sept. 29, 2010, issue of USA Today.

A number of readers of my new book have noted parallels between today's frustrated and even angry mood and a similar mood in the mid-1970s. Indeed, in some ways my successful campaign for the presidency in 1976 resembled the Tea Party movement of today. We capitalized on deep dissatisfaction with the policies and practices of government officials, especially those who served in Washington.

Thirty-five years ago, the American people were eager for fundamental changes after the embarrassment and lies of Watergate and the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedy brothers, and revelations that the CIA and top leaders had been involved in criminal acts, including murder. As a Georgia farmer, I was considered by many to have no association with these stains on our national character, while most of my opponents were stigmatized, although unjustly, because they were incumbent politicians.

My basic campaign themes were simple: to tell the truth and to guarantee that our government would be as good, honest and competent as the American people.

Big donors carry clout

Other factors are very different now. Much of the financial support for the "grassroots" Tea Party movement has come from extremely wealthy owners of petroleum and energy companies whose profits depend on preventing strict environmental standards and regulations that promote safety and competition. Another is that a powerful news organization has provided the requisite publicity and promotion for the Tea Party movement.

As president, I had the advantage of strong bipartisan support in the Congress, which made substantial legislative success possible. Now, unfortunately, political polarization throughout the nation and especially in Washington has reached an extraordinary level, making it almost impossible for President Obama to secure even a few token votes from Republican members of the House or Senate — even when his proposals match those previously espoused by those same legislators.

What has caused this quagmire? For one thing, the political center has disappeared: Almost all of the relatively large number of moderate Democrats and Republicans have been defeated at the polls or resigned in despair.

For another, huge amounts of money now flood into election campaigns, and the need for these contributions makes candidates amenable to supporting the policies of the special interests who fill their coffers. In fact, these "legal bribes" will now play an even greater role because of the Supreme Court ruling in January that permits unlimited campaign contributions from corporations and labor unions. Much of this campaign funding, unfortunately, is spent on negative advertising, which is designed to destroy the reputation of political opponents. Although almost everyone deplores this practice, it works — and as a result, even final victors are seen by many constituents as unfit for office.

This partisan alienation carries over to governing, where unofficial and friendly contacts between Democrats and Republicans are infrequent. Legislative decisions — once made after substantive public debate — are now made in closed party caucuses. A bare majority becomes a party's uniform position, and those who dare deviate from a bloc vote can lose both choice committee assignments and support for attractive projects in their state or district.

Frozen government

The Senate has become particularly dysfunctional. The previously rare use of filibusters has become routine, and now 60 votes are required even to bring a controversial proposal to the floor for debate. With just 41 members out of 100, a cohesive minority party can block almost any legislation; meanwhile, the majority party needs virtual unanimity to pass a bill. This gives enormous power to those who cast or control swing votes, and powerful lobbyists are quick to exploit this opportunity for influence.

Another polarizing factor is the increasing tendency by state legislatures to gerrymander congressional districts to create safe seats for members who parrot and support the most extreme partisan positions.

The genius of our democratic system is that it is self-correcting, which is why extreme and ill-advised political trends have never prevailed. We face enormous budgetary and social challenges, and I believe it is all but inevitable that constructive governance will ultimately emerge. Surely our government will, once again, be as good, honest and competent as the American people.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (1977-81) is the author of the new book "White House Diary."

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