The Fall of the Tea Party

Published by timdean on

Hit prediction: the Tea Party is not long for this world.

I’ve implied as much before on this blog. But amidst the spirited hand waving and foot stomping we’re seeing by Tea Partiers these days, and the conservative victories in Congress in recent memory, it’s easy to forget that the Tea Party is just another populist movement, big on rhetoric, short on actual solutions.

Such movements can strike a chord with the people, get swept into power, and then they run up against real world problems to which their fantasy worldview has no answers. The very fact that the lynchpin of Tea Party doctrine is ‘no compromise’ makes them heartily unsuited to being players of any significance in the game of politics. No compromise might make a nice campaign slogan and sound bite for Fox News, but it doesn’t wash well when you need over 50%  on your side (or more in the Senate) to get things done.

And their gut wrenchingly unsophisticated attitude towards politics, and the world at large, make them weak, not strong. Take this little missive from Tea Party Nation (reprinted by The Economist’s Democracy In America blog) that came out in response to John McCain’s bipartisan response to Obama’s bipartisan message following the Arizona shootings:

John McCain represents everything that is wrong with the Republican Party.  He acts more like a liberal democrat than a Republican….Barack Obama a patriot?  Yes, and I am the Pope.

Obama is intent on using his time in office to advance our country’s cause?   When?  When he assaulted the rights of Americans? When his regime tried brand patriotic Americans as extremists?  When his regime tried to take over the Internet?   When they tried to impose a “fairness doctrine” on the only media conservatives dominate?   When they tried to shove a socialist agenda down the throats of Americans, despite overwhelming proof that Americans did not want this?  How about when he went out apologizing to every third world tyrant for America?  How about when he bowed to foreign leaders?

…What we see from Obama is not an incompetent fool.  He knows exactly what he is doing.   From being raised by a mother who hated America, to associating with America hating communists in his youth, he gravitated to communist, America hating professors in College and associated with America hating political groups until it looked like he might actually go somewhere in his political career…

Obama hates America and that is obvious.

It could easily be mistaken for the babblings of immature, cognitively feeble and emotionally unstable extremists.

I’ve stated before on this blog that I appreciate the strength that comes from having opposing views work in tension in a pluralistic liberal society. But one fundamental hurdle these views must overcome before they’re taken seriously is they must correspond to reality. They must respect facts and reason. Pluralism in values is a good thing. Pluralism in methods to advance the nation’s and people’s good is a good thing. Pluralism in facts – i.e. misrepresentation, falsehood and lies – don’t get you anywhere in the long run.

The test will be when the Tea Party is faced with real policy decisions to make, where they will be required to employ their worldview to find solutions. And they’ll fail. Probably quite spectacularly. And their support will plummet.

So don’t fear the Tea Party. The rebound towards the middle, and possibly the left, when they expire dramatically will be worth then pain of listening to their inane ravings now.


Paul · 18th January 2011 at 1:52 pm

I know that this will sound like a crazy idea, and it is, but perhaps the point of populist movements isn’t to enact any policy at all. Even more to the point, perhaps it isn’t the goal of populist leaders to enact any policies at all. It seems to me that populist politics is a brand of identity politics. So long as the “people”, however that term is defined, perceive a particular candidate as one of their own, and the macro-economy and the war front aren’t too horrendous, both populist voters and populist politicians will be pretty well satisfied with the status quo. Of course they won’t be too happy with immigration, but readers of this blog should already know why that is.

Tim Dean · 19th January 2011 at 10:03 am

That’s possible, Paul, although I see things the other way around. I think populist leaders genuinely believe they speak for the masses, and they genuinely believe their policies are best.

However, their policies are usually ill thought through and based on irrational preconceptions rather than sophisticated reflection on the problems of society. Often, popularists are dismissed. But when the major parties fail to satisfy, or if external events trigger an outburst of insular, defensive, xenophobic feelings, then popularists emerge and tap in to these sentiments. Then they fail to offer solutions, and are abandoned again.

Paul · 19th January 2011 at 3:46 pm

Tim, I think you are correct about populists in general. The Tea Party is really funny, as the policies “Tea Party” candidates ran on were, in policy terms, very close on a whole lot of issues to Democrats. Republicans didn’t just run on repealing the healthcare law, they also ran on replacing that law with a new law that contains all of the elements that would be popular with the voting public. Republicans may not be willing to spend more money, but they are willing to do fiscal stimulus in the form of tax cuts. Be that as it may, I think that highly ideological parties, whatever form they take, have problems dealing with reality. Populists often are ideologues, although, since much of populism is driven by emotion and not by a desire to see specific policies enacted, populist politicians often obtain a wide range of freedom in the sphere of policy making and satisfy the emotions of populist voters largely through symbolic gestures. Like reading the Constitution on the floor of congress. I think that the Tea Partiers will be around for a while(not that I like them) precisely because it is such a diffuse and emotional movement that it has no concrete goals, however much hot air people associated with the movement spew. The Tea Party worldview is so vague that one can cloak a great many different things under it if one has a clever mind and a good press secretary. In some ways, it is really indistinguishable from the right in the U.S., and the right certainly isn’t going away.

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