The Tea Party: Where Does It Go From Here?

The Party is Nearly Over
The Tea Party is best understood as the latest reactionary lurch to the right of the Republican Party during the past 60 years: the Birchers who saw the civil rights movement as a vehicle for communism, the Goldwater supporters who thought the 1964 Civil Rights Act was verboten, the election of the first true conservative (Reagan), the Gingrich Revolution and the Contract With America in 1994, and now the Tea Party. (Some would extend the historical analogy to the Dixiecrats, the KKK, the Know-Nothings, the Reconstruction Era Democrats and John C. Calhoun's "nullification" theory, though I think this is all a historical analogy bridge too far).

All of these GOP reactionary movements are composed of the same demographic: older white Protestant males (mostly) who are heterosexual and from the middle-class (sometimes upper-middle class). Some scholars and commentators think that this means the Tea Party is simply the same reactionary vessel with a different name. Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol does not think the Tea Party is going anywhere:

[The Tea Party] 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.

Another political scientist, Chris Parker, thinks that the Tea Party may wane a bit after Obama and still carry on if Hillary Clinton is elected, but:

Of course, this logic suggests that should a white male Democrat win the White House in 2016, the Tea Party movement will vanish. If this comes to pass, the movement will go underground--I guarantee it.

These analyses aren't quite right. First, Skocpol -- who in her book on the Tea Party made the fatal failure to discuss the racial resentment aspect of the Tea Party -- wrongly discounts the business groups' well-documented frustration with the "inmates running the asylum" nature of the GOP. Business groups have far more money than the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth, so Skocpol's dismissal of such is puzzling.

She also fails to note that once-Tea Party darling Paul Ryan is now taking flak from the right over his budget deal with Democrat Patty Murray. Skocpol also ignores Speaker Boehner's recent attack on the Tea Party over their political nihilism. Maybe Skocpol can see into the future better than I, but these developments undercut her strong thesis that the Tea Party might accomplish its goals.

Parker gets closer to the mark: at very least, he recognizes that racial resentment plays some part in the Tea Party's vociferous dislike of anything Obama touches:

But this isn't all about race, as many believe. People who think that Tea Partiers' anti-Obama sentiment is driven solely by racial resentment are mistaken. Tea Partiers are driven by a more general perception of social change. Race may be a big part of that, but Tea Partiers also remain wary of the improving status of all historically marginalized groups. Consider their hostility to reproductive rights and gender parity. Or their wrath over the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage and adoption, and the open inclusion of gays and lesbians in the armed forces. Or their continuing opposition to immigration reform.

But given this, it is difficult to understand Parker's pronouncement that the Tea Party will simply go "underground" if a white male Democrat wins in 2016. Has he so quickly forgotten the paroxysms of rage Bill Clinton sent the right into? Moreover, any white male Democrat will support all those policies listed above that the Tea Party dislikes. It is difficult to take Parker's prognostication too seriously with this shoddy of an analysis.

So whither the Tea Party? No, there will not be a date that the party is called off, time to go home. And what's surprising about both Parker's and Skocpol's analyses is that neither takes into account the fact that the Tea Party is demographically challenged. Yes, we have seen reactionary whites (mostly men) take up political arms before, but now they are an increasingly endangered species. And recruitment of younger whites to take their place is not looking good -- the Great Recession may have a created a generation of liberals. Moreover, we know that it is unlikely that a Tea Party challenger will win the GOP nomination in 2016, because the longer a political party has been out of power the more likely it is nominate a moderate.

The Tea Party will remain a thorn in the Republican establishment's side for near future, but it won't gain much more traction than that. There is not much further the GOP can move to the right -- political scientists have shown that the GOP has moved much further to the right than the Democrats have to the left over the past 30 years, if you're keeping score on the polarization front. There are almost literally no moderates left in the GOP. Movement conservatism has won. The Tea Party is simply the nihilistic dead end of Republican political goals. And inherent in dead ends is that they, well, eventually end.

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