The Tea Party versus the Republican Party (again)

The Republican Party in Congress is riven between legislators who want to represent their politics clearly and consistently and others who want to govern.  We often score the first group as acolytes of the Tea Party, but it’s a little more complicated, because the Tea Party isn’t so unified.

After an election that disappointed both purists (who lost elections they thought they could have won) and pragmatists (who blamed the Tea Party for costing them elections they thought they could have won), internecine battles are surfacing.  Even as partisans argue about the future of the party and the future of the movement, they are also working to secure their own futures.

In the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner has purged purists from the important budget committees.   It’s not that all the conservatives lost their seats on Budget and Financial Services committees, but a select few who had defied the leadership on important votes will have a harder time doing so in the future.  The Republican Steering Committee, which makes assignments at the behest of the Speaker, won’t give a public explanation, but the disciplined members have explained that they’re being punished for their zeal in representing their constituencies and refusing to go along with the leadership.

The party leadership can offer (or deny) a variety of perks to induce compliance from its caucus, including committee assignments, office space, and television time, but the ousted members are not likely to suffer in their districts.  Of course, the discipline is targeted more to the rest of the caucus than those who are punished.  The message is clear: members of the House who want to do well have to work with the leadership–even if it means disappointing movements that supported them.

Tea Party Republicans are also looking out for themselves, perhaps at the expense of the movement.  Dick Armey, formerly House Majority Leader and chair of FreedomWorks throughout its life, resigned his position with the activist group.  Although Rep. Armey declined to provide specifics, he was clear about the acrimony within the organization, demanding that his name be removed from everything in any way related to the organization.

At Politico, Kenneth P. Vogel reports that the dispute at the root of the departure was between Rep. Armey and FreedomWorks president, Matt Kibbe, over a book deal that Armey judged to be corrupt and dangerous to the organization.  Armey charged that Kibbe used organizational resources, including staff time, to write a book that he alone would profit from; Kibbe says he wrote the 416 page book on his own, over a Christmas vacation.  For a buyout of $8 million, Armey agreed to postpone public discussion of the matter, as well as his impending departure, until after the 2012 election.  Of course, all of this is now being framed as a dispute about strategic differences within the organization.

And Senator Jim DeMint (Republican, South Carolina), a stalwart Tea Partier in government, dead set and emphatic against compromise with the president, announced his resignation from the Senate, leaving government with four years remaining in his term.  Senator DeMint is leaving to become president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Senator DeMint says that he’ll be more effective as a voice outside of government.  He will also be considerably wealthier.  One of the least affluent members of the Senate, he is leaving a position that pays $174,000 a year; his predecessor at Heritage, Ed Feulner, earns well over $1 million a year.

The potential for tension between looking out for yourself and working for the country, as a legislator or an activist, is always present in movements.  Activists on the left who manage to earn a lot of money are often challenged about the authenticity of their commitment to the cause.

On the right, the problem is somewhat more acute.  If you believe that the country does best when every one is looking out for himself or herself, first, last, and in between, there’s no shame in cashing in–rather than selling out.  It may be the ultimate goal.

But it’s not good for a social movement.

According to conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin, it’s not so good for Heritage or the war of ideas either:

Let me first explain why this is very bad indeed for Heritage. Even DeMint would not claim to be a serious scholar. He is a pol. He’s a pol whose entire style of conservatism –  all or nothing, no compromise, no accounting for changes in public habits and opinions — is not true to the tradition of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk and others. By embracing him, Heritage, to a greater extent than ever before, becomes a political instrument in service of extremism, not a well-respected think tank and source of scholarship. Every individual who works there should take pause and consider whether the reputation of that institution is elevated or diminished by this move. And I would say the same, frankly, if any other non-scholarly pol took that spot.

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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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5 Responses to The Tea Party versus the Republican Party (again)

  1. sherkat says:

    I don’t see how this is bad for Heritage, they have never been a scholarly “think tank” in the likes of Brookings or Rand. As a far-right halfway house, Heritage can operate in ways that foster the movement through focusing on developing young ideologues through their college outreach programs, and provide funding for pseudoscientific studies to help bolster their cause. Having a former Senator at their helm is a positive. It isn’t like conservative pundits of constituencies care about academic credentials or rigor. Even if the far right is on the outs with the party, they can use Heritage as something of an abeyance institution.

    What is more fascinating is that this harkens back to Hechter’s work on the weakness of political parties in the US. It seems like that in the last four years the Republicans have been able to do something that has not happened previously in American politics—crack the party whip. And, now they are smacking around some previously powerful actors to try to achieve compliance. We’ll see if that works.

    • I think you’re absolutely right about the growing consistency within the Republican Party. It’s a consistency, I think, that will lead to diminishing electoral returns for some time to come. And as the party gets smaller and more homogenous, it’s harder to make room for broader perspectives. The vast majority of Republicans in the House won reelection by large margins. They don’t have to respond to the constituencies and issues that swamped Mitt Romney.
      Regarding Heritage–and I’m happy to learn otherwise from someone who knows more–my take is that it has long housed both ideologically driven polemics and substantive research. It’s a place where an independent scholar/activist/polemicist can work if s/he can generate money for the endeavor. For a variety of reasons, that balance has shifted to a more partisan stance over the past few years.

      • Let me recast, just a little. Heritage has always been conservative, but there was substance in some of the work that went on there in the past.
        I quoted Jennifer Rubin on Heritage losing credibility; in saying so, she may lose her credibility with the conservative constituency she’s supposed to speak for–and to.

  2. sherkat says:

    No, I understand, They did sometimes dovetail into the academic front, and pair with other think tanks, including liberal ones. I once gave a talk at a thing co-sponsored by Heritage and Childtrends. An old friend, Jennifer Manlove is at Childtrends or I would have never done it….But most of their work is far less academic, those events are veneer.

  3. Pingback: Bankrolling Tea Party radio | Politics Outdoors

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