The phenomena known as the Tea Party is as much a fascinating study in American society as it is a confounding analysis of its politics.
Beginning with a television reporter's rant about President Obama’s plans to help overwhelmed homeowners in 2009, the Tea Party’s meteoric rise and subsequent flame out is a present day marvel. Before fading from public view, the movement helped to elect nearly 50 members of Congress in the 2010 mid-term elections and, for the short-term at least, change the face of American government. The Tea Party gelled as a unifying idea of resisting big government in a very general sense. Ultimately, however, the Party was undermined by nebulous concepts, self-promoting opportunists, and ironically, its own success.
Using the acronym Taxed Enough Already, the Tea Party’s first cause du jour was lower taxes. Often, President Obama was the target of Tea Party angst despite 95% of America receiving a tax cut shortly after Obama’s election. At Tea Party gatherings, protesters displayed intense opposition to government run health care with signs like, “Keep your government hands off my medicare." At times, it was difficult to discern if there was really a focus for these gatherings, besides being anti-Obama.
Of course, to a large degree this might have been due to the support, funding, and perhaps manipulations of the Tea Party by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks conservative organization. While the Tea Party started out and, at times, seemed to have made attempts to be non-partisan, ultimately its fortunes were aligned almost exclusively with the Republican Party. With Fox News promoting every gathering as though it were truly grassroots, the Party’s doings attracted all sorts and caught on as a national movement.
The mid-terms of 2010 were a watershed moment for the Party, and perhaps its zenith. Although only 32% of the candidates it supported were elected, that’s still an impressive a number for an organization still in its infancy. Mid-terms historically go against a sitting president, which may have helped smooth the way for Tea Party successes.
Soon, however, the Tea Party became a victim of its own good fortune. With talking heads such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann too eager to assume Tea Party leadership, the party may have made Faustian bargains it could not survive. In February 2010, Sarah Palin received $100,000 to appear at the first Tea Party convention in Nashville, Tennessee, a development many within the party found distasteful and used as a reason to stay away. Tea Party caucus head Michele Bachmann’s disjointed and confusing run for the GOP presidential nomination may also have damaged Tea Party legitimacy.
After the mid-terms, the Tea Party members got down to the business of governing, or not governing as it were. Mistaking their sudden rise and surprising elections as a mandate to obstruct, this Congress has been one of the most impotent in American history. With a my-way-or-the-highway approach to governance, ideology has trumped common sense and has spread to intransigence on both sides of the aisle. With slogans such as "gridlock is good," Tea Partiers have refused to compromise on a number of issues and the party within a party has caused the GOP to lurch even further to the right than before. Candidates desperate to tap into Tea Party support have had to adopt ideas so extreme, they will find it tough, if not impossible, to win the next general election.
If the Tea Party wishes to remain relevant, it will have to identify and develop more capable leadership, define its platform more clearly, and then decide how it can inject its principles into the process of governing. “Just say no” will not resonate with voters and isn’t good for the American political process.
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