This past week marked the fifth anniversary of the creation of the Tea Party Movement. Here are some thoughts on it.
1. The Tea Party arose from a justifiable concern with the expanding size, scope and reach of the federal government. It was an important factor in the epic 2010 mid-term election. At its best it has integrated itself into the GOP while continuing to apply pressure to Republican leaders to re-limit government and waring them against making careless and unprincipled deals.
2. Particularly early on, the elite media smeared the Tea Party as racist. The double standard was particularly evident in how the press covered the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which was responsible for violence, sexual assaults, arson and general filth in the areas it choose to occupy. If the Tea Party had committed a fraction of the lawless things done by OWS, it would have dominated news coverage for months. But because OWS was advancing a progressive agenda, the transgressions were politely overlooked. (I wrote about the bias here.)
3. The Tea Party has been an important factor in the political rise of senators like Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, who have been outstanding additions to Congress. But it has also gotten behind other candidates in primaries – Christine O’Donnell, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and others — who flamed out. The result is that Democrats still retain control of the Senate when they could easily have lost control of it.
4. How positive a force the Tea Party ends up being depends in large part on whether its populist sentiments are channeled in a constructive or destructive way. If the movement becomes one which finds its greatest satisfaction in (a) trying to excommunicate those whom they deem to be the ideologically impure — like those well-known leftists Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative Pete Sessions, both of whom have received 100 percent ratings by the American Conservative Union — and (b) championing tactics like shutting down the federal government, it will damage conservatism by discrediting it.
If on the other hand the Tea Party directs its energies toward supporting serious, principles candidates with cross-over appeal and who will advance far-reaching conservative reforms in areas like Medicare, health care, the tax code, elementary, secondary and higher education, and energy, it will be a hugely positive force in American politics.
5. It’s not clear right now which direction the Tea Party will go or what will ultimately become of it. At this particular moment the key to understanding what is animating members of the Tea Party is frustration and outright anger with what they derisively refer to as The Establishment, most especially the GOP establishment, which they see as supine, weak, craven, and timid. That is the thing I’ve heard most often from those who identify with the Tea Party – that Republicans, and in particular GOP leaders, are seized by an “abject fear” of the left, that they are constantly “caving it” to President Obama and Democrats, and simply unwilling to fight.
Those feelings, while not wholly unjustified, have, I think, led the Tea Party down some blind alleys and into some silly mistakes. The danger is that those feelings are stoked by demagogues in and out of office and that they intensify; that the Tea Party becomes more agitated, more consumed by resentments, and more apocalyptic in its rhetoric and outlook. That would ultimately be self-destructive.
This fate isn’t a foregone conclusion by any means. The Tea Party movement itself (as opposed to some of the organizations that claim to speak for it) is more variegated than is commonly thought, political movements are subject to shifting currents, and Republicans would be unwise to give up on the Tea Party or render sweeping, definitive judgments about it. What Republicans have to hope for is that figures emerge whom members of the Tea Party trust and who can help guide and direct the Tea Party in constructive and conservative, rather than a destructive and radical, ways.
A great deal in American politics hinges on whether such individuals materialize.