Are Reports of the Death of the Tea Party Greatly Exaggerated?

Elaine Kamarck

Start with the fact that 2013 has not been a great year for the movement.  It ended with the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, finally lashing out at the Tea Party for the tactics that led to the government shutdown.

That uncharacteristic outburst was preceded by a lackluster November.  Dean Young, a tea party candidate for Congress from Alabama’s first congressional district lost a primary to a more moderate Republican, Bradley Byrne, who was heavily backed by traditional big business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Tea Party conservative Ken Cuccinelli lost the Virginia Governor’s race to Democrat Terry McAuliffe and mainstream Republican Chris Christie sailed to victory in the New Jersey Governor’s race.

In October the government shutdown, engineered at Tea Party insistence, largely backfired on the Republican Party and for a brief moment (until the health care roll out injured President Obama) it looked like it would have serious consequences for the 2014 midterms.

The year began with Republican master-mind Karl Rove forming the “Conservative Victory Project” a super PAC designed to prevent extreme candidates from capturing the Republican nomination.  This project could help Republicans take the Senate if it manages to defeat extremist candidates in the Republican Primaries.  And the year ended with the Tea Party registering higher unfavorable opinions with the public than ever.

So it is not unreasonable to predict that Tea Party influence is declining.  But before mainstream Republicans and other critics of the Tea Party break out the champagne they should take time to read the series of excellent essays on the topic in the winter issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

Theda Skocpol reminds us that the Tea Party’s influence “…does not depend on general popularity at all.”  And that: “Even as most Americans have figured out that they do not like the Tea Party or its methods, Tea Party clout has grown in Washington and state capitals. Most legislators and candidates are Nervous Nellies, so all Tea Party activists, sympathizers, and funders have had to do is recurrently demonstrate their ability to knock off seemingly unchallengeable Republicans….”

Further evidence of the Tea Party’s strength is provided in an essay by Alan I. Abramowitz who shows us that it is their strength inside the Republican Party that matters. “According to the 2012 ANES data, strong supporters of the Tea Party (only 29 percent of Republicans) comprised 49 percent of Republicans who displayed a yard sign or bumper sticker for a candidate, 47 percent of Republicans who gave money to a Republican party committee or candidate, 55 percent of Republicans who attended a GOP campaign rally or meeting, and 61 percent of Republicans who volunteered to work on a campaign. Moreover, a Pew survey conducted in July 2013 found that 62 percent of Tea Party Republicans reported voting regularly in Republican primaries compared with only 45 percent of other Republicans.

And Christopher Parker argues that the Tea Party is motivated by much more than the racial anxiety “provoked by his [Obama’s] mere presence in the White House. …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.”

Reading “Is the Party Over?” reminds us that social and political movements like the Tea Party have deep and complex roots and that it will take more than a bad year for their impact on American politics to be over.