Ted Cruz

Texas Senate Primary: Elite vs. Elite

Here are two campaign biographies. Choose which is the candidate of the "establishment" and which is the candidate of the "Tea Party".

Candidate 1:Son of a World War II pilot, left fatherless at an early age, he served in the US Air Force and then the CIA before launching his own hugely successful business. A graduate of the University of Arizona, he entered politics in his mid-50s. He now seeks the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in his home state.

Candidate 2:Son of poor immigrants to the U.S., he excelled at school, attending Princeton and the Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the law review. He spent almost all of his career as an appointee to offices of the federal and state government. He entered private legal practice for the first time in 2009. He declared his candidacy for that same U.S. Senate seat in February 2011.

I am of course describing the David Dewhurst-Ted Cruz race in Texas. Polls show Cruz, who entered the race as a longshot, likely to prevail in today’s primary against the powerful lieutenant governor which will (very likely) decide the next senator in the solidly-red state.

In this race, Dewhurst is conventionally described as the "establishment" candidate because he has good relationships with other Texas Republicans. Cruz is commonly described as the "insurgent" because he has had to make do with the endorsements and support of (among others): the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, Dr. James Dobson, Jim DeMint, Sarah Palin, and the radio hosts Sean Hannity and Mark Levin.

Make no mistake, there is a factional fight under way in Texas. But the self-presentation of the Tea Party faction as a hardscrabble crew, representing "the people" against "the elites" is facially absurd. American politics generally, and Republican politics in particular, is a highly elite game, dominated by small groups of people who are very well-educated, very wealthy, or (as often as not) both.

Different factions may use different rhetoric and make different kinds of appeals. They may mark themselves with different kinds of cultural and religious signifiers. But let's understand what is going on here:

The issue is whether conservative politics is best championed within existing institutions—or by radically challenging institutions. The Tea Party side is more radical, more anti-institutional, even perhaps fairly described as revolutionary. A candidate like David Dewhurst may have better relations with local politicians. A Ted Cruz may spurn those local politicians, and instead build his campaign upon national organizations. That's a pattern seen often enough: compare and contrast Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint in South Carolina.

But it's far-fetched to the point of being upside-down to say that a candidate who seeks office based on the support of the national conservative organizations—who gains the favor of talk radio and Fox News —is some kind of challenger to the existing Republican order. The supremacy of those national conservative organizations over the wishes of local political actors is the existing Republican order.

Ted Cruz's looming success confirms that truth, and reminds us that it's time to retire this language of "establishment" and "insurgency." We need a new language to describe a new politics, in which it is precisely the most strongly established political forces that are also the most radical and uncompromising.