Liberal myths die hard, but if there is one thing the 2012 Republican presidential race has achieved it is to undermine the misperceptions that many on the left have had about the force they’ve called a menace to American democracy: the Tea Party movement. Liberal attacks on the Tea Party have been a staple of American political discourse for the last two years and persist to this day. An example is the slur uttered by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee who revived the canard that Tea Partiers were somehow responsible for the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords a year ago. For many liberals who understood little about the people or the ideas that drove this phenomenon, it was a sinister force that was a catch-all repository for everything about American society they hated including racism and violence, even if they had nothing to do with the political activism that helped turn the 2010 elections into a debacle for the Democrats. In particular, they’ve attempted to pretend that rather than being a genuine grass roots movement, it was merely a top-down conspiracy fomented and funded by the Koch brothers.
But the failure of the movement to unite around a single conservative candidate and the way its members have been unable to act in concert on the 2012 race illustrates a diversity that people who had actually followed its activities — as opposed to the liberal fearmongers — always understood. Having bubbled up from the grass roots of American politics, the movement was always far more about some basic ideas: the size of government and its out-of-control spending and taxing and not accepting the status quo rather the specific agendas of any one politician or faction. It was bigger than that and some of that comes across in a New York Times Magazine feature by Matt Bai.
Bai’s article, which will be published on Sunday but is already available on the paper’s website, has a bit of a National Geographic feel to it as it takes its largely liberal readership on a triptych through backwoods South Carolina to meet Republican primary voters. Bai details the factional squabbles and the way people who identify with the Tea Party have splintered by supporting the different GOP candidates. Though many in the movement speak as if their priority is to stop Mitt Romney, the state’s Tea Party governor is backing the frontrunner.
What Bai discovered is that the movement was largely driven by people who are newcomers to politics and seek to build a community for their families. They are, he says, allergic to political pragmatism, which rendered them unable to compromise and settle on one candidate. These attributes were fatal to the politicians who sought to build a candidacy on their support such as Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry. And it’s a potential problem for Mitt Romney, the man who appears to be the inevitable GOP nominee, because selling the Tea Partiers on the common sense calculation that he is electable and thus better than four more years of Barack Obama is, as Bai writes, like trying to “sell an Escalade to Greenpeace.”
It may encourage many readers of the Times to believe the Tea Party fervor that drove the GOP victory in 2010 may not be as much of a factor this year, and they may be right about that. But it should also teach them that the myths they embraced about the movement during the last two years were false.
There was nothing sinister about the Tea Party. Rather than an attack on democracy, it was its embodiment. Its inability to unite around a single Republican candidate proves its focus was on ideas, not the ambitions of a party or its backers. The idea that it was a top-down group that took its orders from the Koch brothers or Karl Rove or some other liberal bête noire was a way for Democrats to avoid thinking about taxpayer anger. Though it may not determine the outcome of the GOP primaries, it remains a potent force in American politics. If Barack Obama and the Democrats believe they can safely ignore it, they will soon find out that the frustration with the stimulus, the bailouts and Obamacare that made it the top political story of 2010 will come back to bite them.