I was rereading Rudyard Kipling’s entertaining story The Man Who Would Be King the other day, and it got me thinking about some of the Tea Party candidates for Senate, like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky. Allow me to explain.
Kipling’s 1888 work is about two enterprising good-for-nothings, Dravot and Carnehan, who decide they want to be kings. So they show up in Kafiristan (in remote Afghanistan) with a set of rifles and go about establishing themselves as gods. Some cold-blooded slaughter is involved, as is some canny alliance building and some luck (they plug into some Masonic rituals that unexpectedly turn out to be part of culture).
All seems to be going well as they establish peace among warring tribes, repair bridges, and make other improvements. Then Dravot decides, if he is to establish permanent order, he must marry a Kafir woman. But when he tries to do so, he reveals himself to be a man, not a god, and the people turn on him. He is thrown into a chasm and Dravot is first crucified and then let go, which is how the narrator learns his story.
What does this have to do with the Tea Party? Angle and Paul are not good-for-nothings, but they have ideas that are a bit nuts. In fact, both have been avoiding the media because they get themselves in trouble every time they talk. Angle is even suing her opponent, Senate Leader Harry Reid, because he has been using copy from her website to show her positions on issues.
Angle, for instance, wants to phase out Social Security and Medicare and end the federal income tax, and she initially attacked the Obama Administration’s efforts to make British Petroleum pay for the costs of its oil spill. Paul also attacked the way that the administration was leaning heavily on BP, and in an interview following his election he criticized the 1964 Civil Rights act for forcing businesses to integrate.
The candidates try to appeal to inchoate fears as they talk about “taking back the country.” But as Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has predicted, the Tea Party will ultimately “die out” because “they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country.”
Coherent vision or not, however, the Tea Party has toppled some establishment Republican candidates. In the process, it has shown it has a fair amount of energy.
As do the two men in The Man Who Would Be King. The narrator is dubious about their prospects of success—he thinks they will go down in flames—but they gain their ends after all. Angle and Paul might do so as well.
Here’s what makes Kipling’s story particularly interesting. Dravot gets into trouble when he stops just following his glory-seeking impulses and starts taking his kingship duties seriously. He probably would be just fine, his partner tells him, if he basked in simply being a god. But he decides to be a leader.
So what if Angle and Paul are elected, come to Washington, put aside ideas that few take seriously, and enter into the difficult task of governing. What if they were to acknowledge the complexity of issues like immigration and the economy and seek to write legislation, build alliances, and make compromises. In Kipling’s story, some decent Britishness transforms Carnehan and Dravot from mere scoundrels into something more. I’d like to believe this could happen with Angle and Paul.
But here’s the rub. If they were to evolve in this direction, many of their followers would come to see them as traitors. This word was thrown at Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts by Tea Party members who had campaigned for him and gotten him to sign an anti-tax pledge—and who then saw him voting with Democrats for unemployment relief. Will Angle and Paul be crucified by their followers for selling out? Will they be thrown into the abyss the way moderate Republicans like Charlie Crist and David Frum have been thrown into the abyss? It’s a conundrum.
Then again, Dravot is head of a country, not one of 100 senators. Maybe the Senate can get away with irresponsible and substanceless rhetoric from some of its members. But I cling to the hope that those we elect will come around and do something more.