The Tea Party Legacy
MAY 24, 2014
THE Tea Party is finished: smashed, at last, by the power and dollars of the Republican establishment, whose candidates — including Mitch McConnell, the most establishment Republican of all — easily turned back right-wing primary challengers last week.
No, the Tea Party has won: There simply isn’t that much difference between an establishment Republican and a Tea Party Republican anymore, and if grass-roots challengers are losing more races it’s because they’ve succeeded in yanking the party far enough to the right that there isn’t any space for them to fill.
These are the two narratives that swirled around the G.O.P. after last Tuesday’s primaries, and both contain a measure of truth. But there’s a third way to look at the State of the Tea Party, circa 2014, which is that the movement’s political legacy still has a big To Be Determined sticker on it.
To understand why, think about another recent grass-roots movement that reshaped our politics: the netroots/Deaniac/antiwar insurgency, which roiled the Democratic Party between 2003 and the ascendance of Barack Obama.
In a 2008 article for The Nation, the future MSNBC host Chris Hayes profiled some of that insurgency’s activists. He found that while they were (as you would expect) liberal or left-leaning, they were also people who had been mostly apolitical until the Bush era, and who had been prodded into activism by the Iraq-era sense that Something Had Gone Wrong, that an America they took for granted was suddenly imperiled.
This is a useful way to think about Tea Party activism as well. The movement was always essentially right-wing, which is why it was embraced (and, at times, exploited) by the right’s pre-existing network of professionals and pressure groups. But it changed Republican politics precisely because it mobilized Americans who were new to political activism and agitation, and who behaved like people awakened from a slumber to a situation they no longer recognized. Wait, we bailed out Wall Street ... ? Our deficits are ... how big? And this Barack Hussein Obama, where did he come from?
This mix of passion and paranoia, commitment and confusion, explains why the Tea Party’s precise ideological lineaments were so hard for many observers to discern, why its leaders were so varied — libertarians and evangelicals, entitlement reformers and ex-witches — and why all the attempts to essentialize the movement (as libertarian or authoritarian, anti-Wall Street or pro-Wall Street, pro-military or pro-defense cuts, pro-Medicare or anti-New Deal) didn’t capture its complexity.
Thus Paul Ryan’s green-eyeshaded Medicare blueprints and Herman Cain’s fanciful 9-9-9 plan were both “Tea Party” phenomena. Likewise Glenn Beck’s conspiracy-scrawled blackboards and his teary, apolitical Washington Mall consciousness-raising. Likewise Ron Paul’s and Rick Santorum’s presidential campaigns, in which two ideologically dissimilar Republican politicians both claimed a “Tea Party” mantle.
Likewise Mitt Romney ... well, no, actually, the one thing about Republican politics that pretty clearly wasn’t “Tea Party” was the man the G.O.P. ultimately nominated in 2012.
And therein lies a crucial difference between the left-wing insurgency of the Bush era and the right-wing insurgency of the last five years. It isn’t just that the Bush-era Democratic Party didn’t end up as imprisoned by its insurgents’ self-destructive tendencies. (The antiwar movement did not produce a government shutdown, for instance.) It’s also that the Democrats found, in Barack Obama, a liberal politician who could transmute the anger of the Michael Moore/Cindy Sheehan era into a more uplifting message, and transform a left-vs.-center civil war into a new center-left majority.
For Republicans, no such transformative conservative politician has emerged. But — and this is why the Tea Party’s legacy is unfinished — there are several politicians, all elected as insurgents and all potential presidential candidates in 2016, who still aspire to be the Tea Party’s version of Obama: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. And because each embodies different facets of the Tea Party phenomenon, each would write a very different conclusion to its story.
A Rubio victory would probably make the Tea Party seem a little less ideological in hindsight, a little more Middle American and populist, and more like a course correction after George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” than a transformative event.
A Cruz triumph would lend itself to a more ideological reading of the Tea Party’s impact, but one that fit readily into existing categories: It would suggest that Tea Party-ism was essentially the old Reagan catechism in a tricorn hat, movement conservatism under a “don’t tread on me” banner.
A Paul victory would write a starkly libertarian conclusion to the Tea Party’s story, making it seem much more revolutionary — a true break with both Reaganism and Bushism, with an uncertain future waiting beyond.
And what about a Jeb Bush victory, you say? Well, then maybe it will be time to talk, not about the Tea Party’s unsettled legacy, but about its actual defeat.