For good reason, the government shutdown has been dominating the national consciousness over the past week. Throughout the nation, pundits and media figures have, with varying degrees of vitriol and irony, bemoaned the pathetic state of the United States’ political institutions. Public trust in Congress has reached an historic low, and constant dysfunction on the Hill has many Americans wondering if their representatives paid much attention in high school civics. Much of the blame has fallen on the shoulders of the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement for demanding that a clause halting the enactment of the Affordable Care Act be attached to any continuing resolution that would fund the government. Confounding the Republican leadership and intimidating moderate members of their caucus, the Tea Party has ground the entire government to a halt, enraging much of the country in the process. Still, the question remains: Are they wrong in adhering so rigidly to their beliefs?

Certainly, the spirit of the times makes it easy to answer in the affirmative. A symptom of America’s political dysfunction has been the development of a cult of compromise, whereby political efficacy is judged by a politician or party’s ability to pass laws that garner bipartisan support. In this spirit, the most contentious fight in post-shutdown America has been fought over which party is more willing to change its position. When every side is rushing to portray themselves as conciliatory and productive in the face of massive public disapproval, the Tea Party stands alone as the group willing to unabashedly oppose cooperation that detracts from their ideals. As such, a desperate desire to see Congress accomplish anything at all makes the Tea Party an easy target. Nevertheless, this raises a more complex issue. Should politicians always compromise their principles when the alternative seems to obstruct progress?

The Tea Party’s hardball tactics have been variously termed bullying and anarchism by their liberal opposition, but would progressives feel differently if the tables were turned? It is not difficult to find issues on which liberals would take similarly absolutist stances. Recently, in Texas, progressive activists were ecstatic that citizen protests ran out the clock on a special session of the legislature, postponing the passage of an anti-abortion bill. Surely, behavior like that cannot be considered so-called responsible governance. It is unclear under which circumstances a politician is ethically compelled to compromise a strongly held belief and almost everyone has issues on which he or she would refuse to capitulate. Therefore, although the Tea Party has yet to make a compelling case for its intransigence, its opponents must prove the effects of their actions detrimental, not the inherent irresponsibility of their tactics. Making policy is a complex process of negotiation, and it is always easy to argue for compromise when compromise would favor one’s own position. The Tea Party is in the wrong, but it is in the wrong because it is wrong on policy, not wrong in its desire to hold firm to its positions. Principled resistance and obstructionism are two sides of the same coin, and while they may seem to have become a depressingly common currency on Capitol Hill, the problem goes far deeper than aggressive Tea Party tactics.

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