Rarely do extremists ever get a majority of the public to support their agenda. To get power, they must attract more mainstream allies who can see a possible benefit in joining with extremists. Historically, this has led to some pretty awful things. For example, Italian elites were willing to support Mussolini, seeing his Fascist hordes as a bulwark against the Left. For years northern Democrats were willing to bend over backwards to please their Dixiecrat wing, even if it meant not pushing for anti-lynching legislation. Power is a drug, and those threatened with losing their connection to it will make all kinds of dirty deals with all kinds of unsavory characters to maintain their positions.
That is exactly what we're seeing in Washington this week. The Tea Party extremists like Cruz, King, and Bachmann are getting the blame, but they would not have been able to shut down the government without the machinations of John Boehner. As Speaker of the House, he has control over what legislation reaches the floor, and he has totally refused to allow a vote on a continuing resolution to fund the government. I have no doubt that plenty of moderate Republicans would join Democrats in voting for it, which would bring a quick end to an entirely avoidable crisis. The nation would win, but Boehner would most certainly lose. The Tea Party base of the GOP, along with some of its hardline moneymen, would call for his orange head on a pike.
Conversely, great things are done by politicians with the courage to do the right thing, even if it means losing power. Lyndon Johnson admitted that the Civil Rights Act would lose the South for the Democrats, but he knew it had to be done. Back in the late 1800s, Illinois governor John Altgeld pardoned the three surviving members of the group of eight anarchists convicted of the Haymarket bombing on scant evidence. He was rewarded with the kind of vitriol pictured below, and lost the governorship. However, it was much more important to him that three innocent people were not put to death. Justice trumped personal gain, as it should.
It is easy and fitting to blame ideological extremism and hyper-partisanship for our current impasse, but much of it boils down to pure venality. That the future of this country could be hanging in the balance over such base motives might be the most depressing thing of all about this mess.