In summer 2009, a new political force struck establishment politics when hundreds of thousands of self-proclaimed “Tea Partiers” descended on the National Mall. Prospects for President Obama’s healthcare legislation looked increasingly bleak, and Republicans nationwide trembled about the ascendancy of an alternative conservative third party.
But, this former political juggernaut is slowly fading into the background. Nearly three years later, the Tea Party website that promoted the 2009 protest no longer exists, and the remaining Republican presidential contenders are not significantly associated with the Tea Party. Simultaneously, the co-founder of the prominent Tea Party Patriots has resigned due to internal turmoil while the movement struggles to unite divergent factions to promote a consistent message.
While the Tea Party will likely remain politically relevant for the near future, its previous influence over the national agenda is over. The movement that originally claimed political independence has largely been co-opted by the Republican Party.
A Party in Transition
Naturally, some are loath to admit the Tea Party’s decreasing political relevance. Lucas Scanlon, a Texas transplant who founded and leads Harvard University Tea Party chapter, told the HPR that, “people are frustrated because nothing has gotten done [and] there’s no value in a political party,” creating an environment ripe for the Tea Party to flourish.
But outside observers see a different story. Van Jones, author and founder of Rebuild the Dream, an organization dedicated to progressive goals, characterized the Tea Party for the HPR as, “a dying gasp of a particular kind of racialized, divisive, small-minded politics from the right.”
John Halpin, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, also disagrees with Scanlon’s analysis, telling the HPR that, “there’s no infrastructure currently in place that suggests the Tea Party will be around in the long-term.” Regardless though, the Tea Party’s prior impact on political discourse in this country is indisputable.
One of a Kind or More of the Same?
The modern Tea Party’s roots stretch back to a televised rant by CNBC commentator Rick Santelli less than a month into the Obama presidency. The Tea Party Patriots, the most prominent Tea Party grassroots organization, confirmed in November 2010 that Santelli’s rant, “started [the] entire movement.”
Nevertheless, Tea Party enthusiasts stress that, despite popular perception, the movement is actually quite distinct from the Republican Party. Scanlon, who questions why Democrats have not adopted any Tea Party principles, said that both major parties were caught off-guard. “I think the Republicans and Democrats have been scared by the response to the Tea Party.” Scanlon also stressed that many individuals, himself included, became politically involved for the first time through the Tea Party.
Though Jones believes the Tea Party’s message was, “a repackaging of ideas that have been around for a very long time,” nobody could not deny that this, “particular uprising pulled in new leaders and new voices.” Halpin offered a similar analysis, saying that the movement primarily was, “just a clever rebranding of right wing activism,” spurred by Obamacare.
Strategy (or Lack Thereof?)
The Tea Party’s initial success in gaining press coverage and plugs by prominent conservative legislators led Obama’s supporters to inquire whether he could turn around the Democratic Party. Feminist Camille Paglia asked this very question in Salon magazine as early as September 2009. Though the Tea Party likely cost Republicans key senate races in Delaware and Nevada last election cycle, overall the midterm elections swept Tea Partiers onto Capitol Hill, leading most pundits to characterize the election as a triumph for the movement.
Scanlon however says this emphasis on the Tea Party’s electoral strategy misses the movement’s larger goals, claiming, “I see more focus on messaging [than electoral strategy].” Indeed, nearly every congressional Republicans signed the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” created by Americans for Tax Reform leader Grover Norquist. This document, which reflects Tea Party principles, states that legislators will not support net tax increases. Similar pledges with socially conservative goals also experienced immense popularity among Republican candidates.
The pressure the Tea Party has exerted on Republicans to adopt their views is largely undisputed by liberals and their allies. Halpin said the influence of Tea Party members in the House has put Speaker John Boehner, “on a leash,” and Jones noted the Tea Party can, “push the buttons of the Republican Party.
However, this messaging does not necessarily translate into electoral success, as Halpin notes, “They were not very successful at all at the senatorial level and they won’t be successful at the presidential level because they’re a marginal ideology.”
Indeed, the Tea Party’s message generated discourse, though not always for positive reasons. Jones discussed how the rigid ideology of the Tea Party prevent members from celebrating landmark pieces of legislation, including the New Deal safety net and environmental protections. He argues that those “are seen by the Tea Party as betrayals of the republic rather than our greatest achievements.”
Back to the Future
The impending Supreme Court decision regarding the constitutionality of Obama’s signature health care legislation has kept the Tea Party movement animated. One journalist described Tea Party protesters, “flood[ing] the steps” of the Supreme Court during oral arguments, protesting in a fashion reminiscent of summer 2009. Scanlon adds that, regardless of its decision, the Supreme Court’s verdict can only help the Tea Party. Should the legislation be overturned, the Tea Party will “see [the ruling] as a huge victory and it will bolster its ranks.”
Others are not quite as optimistic. Halpin argued that though as a, “grassroots group of people… [the movement] should be lauded,” their long-term prospects are dim. “I think they’ll have to do a lot more to define an agenda, a set of candidates, if they want to exist in the long-term.” Many have also highlighted the lack of a viable Tea Party candidate in the presidential race as a harbinger of their waning influence.
Such rhetoric does not bother Scanlon though, who sees the Tea Party’s message beyond a black and white electoral strategy. “I think there’s a question right now in what our country is going to become … as long as that question remains, I think the movement will continue.”
While Scalon remains optimistic, the Tea Party’s future is uncertain, and as voters have seen over the past year, the Republican Party will continue to subsume Tea Party rhetoric and candidates. The movement that once prided itself on its political independence is increasingly nothing more than a small, yet vocal, interest group within a larger entity.