Why the Tea Party Isn't Going Anywhere

The movement's structure means it can withstand low popularity and continue to exert a huge pull on the GOP. 
More
Donna Carson/Reuters

The demise of the Tea Party was loudly announced right after Congress voted on October 16 to lift the debt ceiling and reopen the federal government. “Finally! The Republican Fever Is Broken,” exulted Jamelle Bouie atThe Daily Beast, while Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson proclaimed President Obama’s “victory” over the Tea Party just as “devastating as Sherman’s march through the South.” With most Americans telling pollsters they do not like the Tea Party and its tactics, the GOP will eventually have to pivot back to the median voter, explained Noah Feldman in his Bloombergcolumn, “How the Tea Party Will Die.”

Other optimists placed greater emphasis on the supposed new will of business interests and Republican Party elders to recapture party control. Offering reassurance, supporters of Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner told the pre-eminent inside-the-Beltway gossip site Politico that their guy was more effectively in charge of his raucous GOP caucus following the shutdown debacle. Karl Rove vowed to block far-right Tea Party challengers in GOP primaries, and the Chamber of Commerce started to make noises about supporting some supposed “moderates” against Tea Party candidates in 2014 GOP primaries.

But we have heard all this before. The Tea Party was supposed to be dead and the GOP on the way to moderate repositioning after Obama’s victory and Democratic congressional gains in November 2012. Yet less than a year after post-election GOP soul-searching supposedly occurred, radical forces pulled almost all GOP House and Senate members into at least going along with more than two weeks of extortion tactics to try to force President Obama and Senate Democrats to gut the Affordable Care Act and grant a long laundry list of other GOP priorities suspiciously similar to the platform on which the party had run and lost in 2012. The Tea Party’s hold on the GOP persists beyond each burial ceremony.

In 2011, Vanessa Williamson and I published our book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, which used a full panoply of research—from interviews and local observations to media and website analysis and tracking of national surveys—to explain the dynamics of this radical movement. We showed how bottom-up and top-down forces intersect to give the Tea Party both leverage over the Republican Party and the clout to push national politics sharply to the right.

At the grassroots, volunteer activists formed hundreds of local Tea Parties, meeting regularly to plot public protests against the Obama Administration and place steady pressure on GOP organizations and candidates at all levels. At least half of all GOP voters sympathize with this Tea Party upsurge. They are overwhelmingly older, white, conservative-minded men and women who fear that “their country” is about to be lost to mass immigration and new extensions of taxpayer-funded social programs (like the Affordable Care Act) for low- and moderate-income working-aged people, many of whom are black or brown. Fiscal conservatism is often said to be the top grassroots Tea Party priority, but Williamson and I did not find this to be true. Crackdowns on immigrants, fierce opposition to Democrats, and cuts in spending for the young were the overriding priorities we heard from volunteer Tea Partiers, who are often, themselves, collecting costly Social Security, Medicare, and veterans' benefits to which they feel fully entitled as Americans who have “paid their dues” in lifetimes of hard work.

On the other end of the organizational spectrum, big-money funders and free-market advocacy organizations used angry grassroots protests to expand their email lists and boost longstanding campaigns to slash taxes, shrink social spending, privatize Medicare and Social Security, and eliminate or block regulations (including carbon controls). In 2009, groups such as FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, and Tea Party Express (a renamed conservative GOP political action committee) leapt on the bandwagon; more recently, the Senate Conservative Action Fund and Heritage Action have greatly bolstered the leveraging capacities of the Tea Party as a whole. Elite activities ramped up after many Tea Party legislators were elected in 2010.

Here is the key point: Even though there is no one center of Tea Party authority—indeed, in some ways because there is no one organized center—the entire gaggle of grassroots and elite organizations amounts to a pincer operation that wields money and primary votes to exert powerful pressure on Republican officeholders and candidates. Tea Party influence does not depend on general popularity at all. Even as most Americans have figured out that they do not like the Tea Party or its methods, Tea Party clout has grown in Washington and state capitals. Most legislators and candidates are Nervous Nellies, so all Tea Party activists, sympathizers, and funders have had to do is recurrently demonstrate their ability to knock off seemingly unchallengeable Republicans (ranging from Charlie Crist in Florida to Bob Bennett of Utah to Indiana’s Richard Lugar). That grabs legislators’ attention and results in either enthusiastic support for, or acquiescence to, obstructive tactics. The entire pincer operation is further enabled by various right-wing tracking organizations that keep close count of where each legislator stands on “key votes”—including even votes on amendments and the tiniest details of parliamentary procedure, the kind of votes that legislative leaders used to orchestrate in the dark.

The 2010 elections were a high watermark for Tea Party funders and voters. Amid intense public frustration at the slow economic recovery, only two of five U.S. voters went to the polls. The electorate skewed toward older, whiter, wealthier conservatives; and this low turnout allowed fired-up Tea Party Republicans to score many triumphs in the House and state legislatures. And the footholds gained are not easily lost. Once solid blocs of Tea Party supporters or compliant legislators are ensconced in office, outside figures like Dick Armey of FreedomWorks (in 2011) and Jim DeMint of Heritage Action (in 2013) appoint themselves de facto orchestrators, taking control away from elected GOP leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.

In the latest such maneuver during the summer of 2013, radical-right Texas Senator Ted Cruz put himself forward as a bold Tea Party strategist calling for a renewed all-out crusade to kill Obamacare long after it was assured survival by the Supreme Court and the 2012 presidential election. With his strong ties to far-right funders and ideologues, plus a self-assured, even arrogant, pugnaciousness that thrills much of the GOP electorate, Cruz could direct a chunk of House Republicans to pressure a weak Boehner into proceeding with the government shutdown and debt brinkmanship. Apologists say Boehner was “reluctant,” but what difference does that make? He went along.

After the immediate effort flopped and caused most Americans to further sour on Republicans, Cruz remained unbowed. And why not? After all, Cruz gained near-total name recognition and sky-high popularity among Tea Party voters. He now appears regularly on television, and his antics have allowed elite Tea Party forces to lock in draconian reductions in federal spending for coming rounds of budget struggles. Americans may resent the Tea Party, but they are also losing ever more faith in the federal government—a big win for anti-government saboteurs. Popularity and “responsible governance” are not the goals of Tea Party forces, and such standards should not be used to judge the accomplishments of those who aim to undercut, block, and delay—even as Tea Party funders remain hopeful about holding their own or making further gains in another low-turnout midterm election in November 2014.

The bottom line is sobering. Anyone concerned about the damage Tea Party forces are inflicting on American politics needs to draw several hard-headed conclusions.

For one, at least three successive national election defeats will be necessary to even begin to break the determination and leverage of Tea Party adherents. Grassroots Tea Partiers see themselves in a last-ditch effort to save “their country,” and big-money ideologues are determined to undercut Democrats and sabotage active government. They are in this fight for the long haul. Neither set of actors will stand down easily or very soon.

Also worth remembering is that “moderate Republicans” barely exist right now. Close to two-thirds of House Republicans voted against bipartisan efforts to reopen the federal government and prevent U.S. default on loan obligations, and Boehner has never repudiated such extortionist tactics. Tea Partiers may not call for another shutdown right away, but they will continue to be able to draw most GOP legislators and leaders into aggressive efforts to obstruct and delay. In the electorate, moreover, more than half of GOP voters sympathize with the Tea Party and cheer on obstructionist tactics, and the remaining Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are disorganized and divided in their views of the likes of Ted Cruz.

Speaking of which, Cruz is very well positioned to garner unified Tea Party support in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries. During the last election cycle, no far-right candidate ever consolidated sustained grassroots Tea Party support, as those voters hopped from Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum. But this time, Cruz may very well enjoy unified and enthusiastic grassroots Tea Party support from the beginning of the primary election season. In the past, less extreme GOP candidates have always managed to garner the presidential nomination, but maybe not this time. And even if a less extreme candidate finally squeaks through, Cruz will set much of the agenda for Republicans heading into 2016.

When it comes to “reining in” the Tea Party, business associations and spokespeople may talk bigger than they will act. They have lots to say to reporters, but they show few signs of mounting the kind of organized, sustained efforts it would take to counter Tea Party enthusiasm and funding. Groups like the Chamber of Commerce have spent decades using right-wing energy to help elect Republicans, who, once elected, are supposed to focus on tax cuts and deregulation. It used to be relatively easy to con Christian-right voters with flashy election symbolism and then soft-pedal their preferences once Republicans took office. Today’s far right is unmistakably another cup of tea. Even as business funders realize this, however, they will be tempted to keep replaying the old strategies, because turning to Democrats will usually not seem acceptable, and it will be almost impossible in many states and districts to mount GOP primary challenges from the middle-right without improving Democratic prospects in general election contests.

Finally, Democrats need to get over thinking that opinion polls and media columns add up to real political gains. Once the October 2013 shutdown ended in supposed total victory for President Obama and his party, many Democrats adopted a cocky swagger and started talking about ousting the House GOP in 2014. But a clear-eyed look shows that Tea Party obstruction remains powerful and has achieved victories that continue to stymie Democratic efforts to govern effectively—a necessary condition for Democrats to win enthusiastic, sustained voter support for the future, including in midterm elections. Our debates about federal budgets still revolve around degrees of imposed austerity. Government shutdowns and repeated partisan-induced “crises” have greatly undercut U.S. economic growth and cost up to a year’s worth of added jobs. Real national challenges—fighting global warming, improving education, redressing extreme economic inequalities, rebuilding and improving economic infrastructure—go unaddressed as extreme GOP obstructive capacities remain potent in Washington and many state capitals.

True, the events of October 2013 helped millions of middle-of-the-road voters—and even quite a few complacent political reporters—grasp the dangers of the sabotage-oriented radicalism in today’s Republican Party. But it will take a long and dogged struggle to root out radical obstructionism on the right, and the years ahead could yet see Tea Partiers succeed by default. Unless non-Tea Party Republicans, independents, and Democrats learn both to defeat and to work around anti-government extremism—finding ways to do positive things for the majority of ordinary citizens along the way—Tea Party forces will still win in the end. They will triumph just by hanging on long enough to cause most Americans to give up in disgust on our blatantly manipulated democracy and our permanently hobbled government.

This article originally appeared in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, an Atlantic partner publication.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to a Seaside Town in Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In