Just when we think we have a handle on the Tea Party, it immediately slips out of our grasp. Up until quite recently, the Tea Party was widely accepted as a racist movement made up of grumpy old white men only interested in keeping their pockets well-lined. Then, only this week, the Tea Party pulls the tea tray right from under us by helping Nikki Haley, a woman of Sikh descent, and Tim Scott, a black man, to win Republican primaries in South Carolina—South Carolina, of all the states in the Union! This kind of unconventional, wisdom-defying behavior just won't do. It produces consternation in the minds of those who prefer never to change theirs. Some, of course, will still not change their opinions. Many will no doubt deride Haley and Scott as mere tokens supported by the Tea Party in order to conceal their true racist motives. Or perhaps Haley and Scott will be dubbed the unwitting stooges of the Tea Party, and of the sinister corporate interests which ultimately pull all the strings behind the scenes—in short, as stooges that other stooges were conned into voting for.
In the immediate aftermath of the South Carolina primary, however, two more charitable interpretations of the outcome were prominent in the media. The first is offered by those who seem to be stuck in the sixties. The victories of Haley and Scott indicate the depth of voter anger at "the establishment." Now, back in the '60s, I used to ask those who opposed the establishment what exactly it was they were opposing, and the answers I received ranged from "The Man" to "Monopoly Capitalism." But today's Tea Party opposes none of the things that riled people up back then. So why keep using the word?
The second interpretation stresses the anti-incumbency rancor among American voters. Yet this, too, doesn't explain why anti-incumbency sentiment is running so strongly in America today. Indeed, the desire to vote against candidates merely for the crime of having held office seems a bit bizarre, if not utterly irrational. If you want politicians elected from your state to have clout and power in Congress or in the state capital, then your operating maxim should always be: Keep voting for those who already have their seats, since the longer they have held power, the more they can do for your state in terms of offering it generous chunks of pork from the pork barrel. Why, then, would you want to replace candidates with seniority with neophytes such as Haley and Scott?
This question that can be easily answered by those who have argued all along that the Tea Partiers are just a collection of crackpots and dodos, incapable of seeing where their true self-interest lies. What else would you expect from such idiots? But there is another way of interpreting the South Carolina primaries. The real target of Tea Party wrath is not the establishment or incumbency, but cronyism.
Cronyism is when individuals are promoted and rewarded because they are the buddies and pals of those who already hold position and power within any organization. Instead of appointing to an important position the individual with the best qualifications, those in charge will select their longtime friends, often regardless of their lack of fitness to do the job assigned them. Cronyism is a pathology to which all organizations, large and small, are prone. It is the antithesis of a genuine meritocracy, where outsiders have an equal chance to become insiders, based not on whom they know but what they know.
There are three obvious problems with cronyism. First, it is simply unfair. Second, it stirs up resentment, because individuals with the right qualifications for a job are passed over in favor of those with the right connections. Third, and even more importantly, it invariably creates organizations where those at the top are surrounded by "yes men," who will agree with their bosses in order to curry favor and promote their own advancement. And even where there are no "yes men," the very fact that those in charge are hiring their pals automatically promotes a dangerous tendency to uncritical consensus among those at the top. Because our friends so often see eye-to-eye with us, any organization based on cronyism will succumb to the phenomenon of groupthink: "We all agree on this, don't we?" And, yes, of course we all do, because we are all pals, and agree on everything. This may be fine when we are in fact all right about something, but it is fatal when we are all wrong.
The primary victories of Haley and Scott are triumphs over the cronyism that runs rampant through both political parties. Neither candidate was the choice of political insiders. Indeed, both were extreme outsiders. No insider would have taken either seriously, precisely because neither fit the insider's stereotype of a viable candidate for a Republican race in South Carolina. But the Republican voters of that state had different ideas—and their message was clear: "We are fed up with cronyism."
This message resonates with many Americans today, including those who currently dismiss or deride the Tea Party movement: "We are angry about the blatant cronyism that has come to dominate so much of American life, in business, at the university, and in the government. We want a real meritocracy, not a fake one. We will vote for individuals, like Haley and Scott, on the basis of their individual merits, and not their skin color or their ethnic background. But we will fight tooth and nail against a deeply entrenched system of universal cronyism that masquerades as a genuine meritocracy, but which invariably keeps appointing and promoting the same insiders to the positions of power, authority, and influence over and over again. Our argument is not with government, but with a government that is contaminated with cronyism through and through. And we mean to change it."