Is the (Tea) Party Over?

Mostly, yes.  On election night, before any results come in, I feel confident in saying that the influence of the Tea Party as a mass movement peaked 6-8 weeks ago, with the end of the primary season. The Tea Party movement is one of the most attractive stories of the year: populist revolt against intrusive government, mobilizing previously dormant constituencies, and shaking up the political process.  It’s such an attractive story that it will be told over and over again, even if it’s only a (tiny) part of the truth.

Important elections came relatively early in the Tea Party’s development, confronting activists with the dilemmas Madison built into the Constitution.  Frequent elections, and lots of them at lots of levels, mean that there is almost always the promise of affecting influence by channeling your efforts through the electoral system.  Madison’s insight was that government became more stable when you brought conflict into it.

But that system, as Madison argued, promotes moderation.  Seeking majorities in single-member districts, candidates play to the center of the district (or state), and activists have to decide how much to compromise their ideals in pursuit of a victory.

Once elected, politicians have to compromise with others elected by different districts in order to get anything done.  At the grassroots, activists again have to come to terms with sacrificing purity for pragmatic gains on matters of policy.

In the primaries, where turnout is low and passion is a value, the Tea Party exercised serious influence.  A very passionate minority can sway such elections, and some of those Tea Party victors will win office tonight.   The Senate contests in Alaska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Delaware were shaped by the Tea Party movement; you can credit or blame them for the results.

But this election is more about the recession and near 10 percent unemployment than anything else.  Political scientists using the simplest models were predicting massive Democratic losses in the House months ago, as Michael Wagner points out.  (Thanks to Maryann Barakso for the reference.)  The Tea Party offers a more colorful and contingent way of working through the election results tonight.  It’s just not as good an explanation.

The better the Republicans do tonight, the rougher it will be for the true Tea Partiers.  Most Republicans want to win elections, organize majorities, and make policy, and are willing to compromise to do it.  The Republican leadership has already promised to sell out the Tea Party in its Pledge to America.  They wanted to say something to the Tea Party, but avoid saying anything specific enough that it might fracture a broad electoral majority.  Predictably, it engendered ridicule from the Tea Party base.  As Erick Erickson blogged at Red State:

These 21 pages tell you lots of things, some contradictory things, but mostly this: it is a serious of compromises and milquetoast rhetorical flourishes in search of unanimity among House Republicans because the House GOP does not have the fortitude to lead boldly in opposition to Barack Obama.

I have one message for John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and the House GOP Leadership: If they do not want to use the GOP to lead, I would like to borrow it for a time.

Yes, yes, it is full of mom tested, kid approved pablum that will make certain hearts on the right sing in solidarity. But like a diet full of sugar, it will actually do nothing but keep making Washington fatter before we crash from the sugar high.

It is dreck — dreck with some stuff I like, but like Brussels sprouts in butter. I like the butter, not the Brussels sprouts. Overall, this grand illusion of an agenda that will never happen is best spoken of today and then never again as if it did not happen. It is best forgotten.

The election of a few true believers will not change the Republican leadership, nor more significantly, the electoral and funding constituency any set of Republican leaders will continue to need.  They will have to take positions on divisive issues the Tea Party has mostly avoided, including the role of social conservatives (anathema to libertarians) and foreign policy (Rand Paul’s stance on Afghanistan isn’t notably different from his father’s, and that was a non-starter for the Republican mainstream).  A Republican leadership concerned about winning elections will gesture to the radicals in the Tea Party rhetorically, and tack toward the mainstream where there are more votes.  (Jacob Weisberg makes this case clearly at Slate.)

So what will the Tea Partiers do?  The Tea Partiers have never rallied behind a clear agenda–beyond stopping President Obama’s initiatives.  The closer the Republicans come to running something, the more they will have to move beyond opposition to an agenda–and every initiative has the potential of fracturing their coalition.  And at the grassroots–and in the Tea Party organizations, some will swallow hard and endorse the party.  Others will grow disaffected and go home.  Still others will take the issues they care most about and continue to push them.  It’s not that it won’t matter, but it won’t be much of a party.

(More to come.)

 

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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