Although I had planned to devote this week to deconstructing my experience at The Rally to Restore Sanity, the elections last night and the corresponding discussion of their impact have encouraged me to divert slightly today. I promise I’m not done with the rally yet!
Amidst all the discussion last night, talk about the implications of the Tea Party movement was key. Mitchell Bard argues that the Tea Party and its candidates hurt the GOP by costing them races a more moderate candidate might have won, while others credit the enthusiasm that the Tea Party brought to the GOP for their victories. Speculation is also rampant about the role that the Tea Party will play as Congress turns to governing: will the GOP continue to reach out to them or will they ignore them as they seek more moderate positions in hopes of compromise (as Tea Partiers fear)? It will be interesting to see what they decide to do: as many other writers have pointed out, the government shut-down in the mid-90s hurt the GOP, blamed for the problem and their refusal to compromise.
But whatever their future may be, this still begs the question: who is the Tea Party? Many argue that the conservative leadership is eagerly attempting to polish their Tea Party credentials, i.e. that the Tea Party has hijacked the Republican party. But it seems possible – or even likely – that it is instead the Republicans who have commandeered the Tea Party movement for its enthusiasm. With the two-party dominance, this is the typical route for the major parties: ignore a third-party until it drums up enough enthusiasm, than co-opt their issues. It is also possible that it was even more strategic: that Fox and the GOP endorsed the group to allow conservatives a new home seemingly outside the political process, without changing many of their ideals – much in the way that the major breweries quickly adopted pseudo-microbrews after microbrews gained in popularity.
There is some evidence that this occurred with the Tea Party and the Republican party in 2010. The Tea Party’s “core” principles – of fiscal restraint and small government – are ones I argue are very appealing, especially when the other parties aren’t addressing them. Yet Tea Party candidates tended to run on extreme social positions, including expressing skepticism in global climate change, not just opposing government efforts. This may be evidence that the GOP and conservatives were attempting – often badly – to take advantage of Tea Party enthusiasm.
But before I get carried away, it is worth noting that the Tea Party is a diverse and fluid group, allowing voters to project their own positions. Tea Party members tend to be even more religious and more closely tied to Fox news than even Christian conservatives, so the emphasis on social policies make sense. These conflicting ideals should make governing difficult.
Whatever their roots and whomever their members, however, the Tea Party is likely to be defined by the actions of the candidates elected to Congress under this title. But one thing seems clear: another third-party movement appears to have been limited in scope, in part because of the efforts of the two major parties. For those interested in the original Tea Party ideals, they should probably look elsewhere.