The Decline and Fall of the Tea Party

Support for the conservative protest movement has dropped by two thirds since 2010. Here's why that's bad news for the country.

t fullness.png
Future Atlas/Flickr

As the Tea Party peaked, I told NPR's Guy Raz that the protest movement was a 2010 phenomenon and would fade unless its membership supplemented its presence in the streets with a clearer idea of the policy changes it sought. Ensuing months offered evidence that I was right. The Tea Party could never square its demands for smaller government with the desire of its membership to hold Social Security and especially Medicare sacrosanct. Its electoral wing failed to put forth any viable candidates in the 2012 primaries and was scarcely mentioned at the RNC.

But even I'm surprised by the decline in support that Rasmussen has found, based on a recent telephone survey of voters. Back in 2010, the polling organization found that 24 percent of voters identified as Tea Party members. In its most recent poll, only 8 percent of voters identify with the Tea Party, and just 30 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of it.
Although I've frequently pointed out the Tea Party's flaws, I still regard this as bad news. The Tea Party is the only faction in the Republican Party that is at all concerned about civil liberties, as evidenced by Senator Rand Paul's lonely efforts to safeguard the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. And while I think Tea Partiers made a fetish out of intransigence at the expense of compromise that would've delivered at least some policies sought by their constituents, it isn't as if the post-Tea Party GOP isn't every bit as bad on that metric. The establishment assimilated the movement's pathologies but not its refreshing, anti-insider populism.

Would I encourage rank-and-file conservatives to attempt a rescue of the movement?

In theory, I want a pro-civil liberties, fiscally conservative, dissident faction to survive in the GOP, but how can I in good conscience encourage people to remain Tea Partiers, when in practice it largely means helping well-connected conservatives to line their pockets? In a recent post, I pointed out that Dick Armey got an $8 million pay package when he left FreedomWorks, a Tea Party-affiliated nonprofit. It sure seemed like he was being paid to keep quiet rather than revealing information that could destroy the organization, but perhaps not, given what he told Media Matters:
Former FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey says the conservative outlet that helped launch the Tea Party paid Glenn Beck at least $1 million last year to fundraise for the organization, an arrangement he said provided "too little value" for the money. 

"The arrangement was simply FreedomWorks paid Glenn Beck money and Glenn Beck said nice things about FreedomWorks on the air," Armey, the former House majority leader, told Media Matters Friday. "I saw that a million dollars went to Beck this past year, that was the annual expenditure."

Armey, who left the organization this past fall after a dispute over its internal operations, said a similar arrangement was also in place with Rush Limbaugh, but did not know the exact financial details.

The Tea Party isn't entirely captured by the inside-the-Beltway huckster complex, but the ties are close enough that every earnest donor runs a risk of having a portion of their hard-earned contribution siphoned off. In Washington, lots of leeches get fat on the idealism of the grassroots. In a world where an idealist can help a friend run for city council or donate mosquito nets or make micro-finance loans or sponsor a church mission to build houses in a third world country why risk helping to pay for Beck's next mansion? Especially when the folks running things have so mismanaged the Tea Party's image that former members are abandoning it in droves.