On GPS (Jan 22nd episode), Fareed Zakaria asked “what happened to the Tea Party?” suggesting that it may have disappeared. While posing the question to his guests, “The end of the Tea Party?” appeared at the bottom of the television screen. His guest, David Frum, said that the “Tea Party failed to provide an alternative to Romney,” while his other guest, Steven Rattner, proclaimed that “the Tea Party lost its mojo.” Has the Tea Party run out of steam?
To answer this question, it is important to ask, “Whose Tea Party is it?” Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson’s recent book on the Tea Party highlights the dynamic relationship between local grassroots Tea Partiers and the movement’s elite actors and organizations. The relationship is symbiotic, as Skocpol and Williamson discuss in their chapter titled “Mobilized Grassroots and Roving Billionaires.” The mobilization of discontent at the grassroots served as an opportunity for existing ultra-conservative elite organizations to advance their cause. At the same time, local Tea Party groups benefited from the resources of these organizations and the media attention they received. Nonetheless, there are tensions between grassroots activists and national organizations particularly since some local Tea Partiers are suspicious of larger national elite groups and worry about losing local autonomy.
Although the media has played a major role in getting the word out, the media has also shifted its attention away from the grassroots element of the movement towards the elite segment. In describing the critical role of the media – particularly, but not exclusively, the conservative media – Skocpol and Williamson note that “Media outlets from giant to tiny have been part of the Tea Party story all along. And, naturally, they are also pivotal to the most recent shifts in visibility – as elite spokespersons for ‘the Tea Party’ hog the cameras, while grassroots citizens and local Tea Parties fade into the shadows.”
There seems to be a growing consensus that the Tea Party is done for. Paul Waldman, in his article on Prospect.org, claims that “This institutional support allowed the Tea Party to rapidly become a political force, but it has been far less successful at achieving its substantive goals…When the Republican nominee is chosen — whether it’s Mitt Romney or someone else – things are only going to get worse for the Tea Party.” Indeed, Waldman not only suggests that the Tea Party has failed in its goals (and goals presumably refer to pushing the GOP further to the right), but that the outcome has actually been to damage the GOP image.
So when David Frum alludes to a decline in the Tea Party because “they” failed to find an alternative to Romney, or that DeMint “failed to deliver” in South Carolina, does this mean that Tea Party elites are contributing to the “loss of mojo?” If so, what of the grassroots Tea Partiers the media has neglected? Indeed, one blog refers to grassroots in the Tea Party as a myth. Maybe one possible negative outcome for local Tea Party activists is that elites, in coopting at least part of the grassroots base of the movement, coupled with the media which has shifted its attention to elites and ignored local Tea Party activists, have made it easy for many to call the movement a failure. Maybe some of those local activists who worried about an elite presence were justified. Waldman writes: “And so, the Tea Party has a hard and fast expiration date: the first day of the next Republican presidency. On that day, it will become little more than a memory—one of a fascinating and significant episode in our political history, but a memory nonetheless.”
If, as Skocpol and Williamson suggest in their New York Times piece, that “Tea Party members are only marginally aware of the national advocacy occurring in their name,” what can be said about the grassroots element of the movement? Has it expired? On Zakaria’s show, Arianna Huffington argued that even though the Tea Party may have lost influence in the GOP, “people on the ground” are still concerned about the economy. Perhaps this concern on the ground will continue to fuel grassroots mobilization. Even though the Tea Party brand promoted by elites has tarnished, those who mobilized locally have been forever changed by their activism and they aren’t simply going to disappear. Indeed, their activism is rooted in discontent that goes beyond the economic crisis. But, Skocpol and Williamson also go on to argue that although national elite advocacy groups help sustain the movement, the “limitation for the Tea Party is the age of its participants.” In that case, appealing to a younger generation may help sustain the cause, particularly at the grassroots, in the event that the movement finds new opportunities for mobilization during the primaries and the election season, but particularly after the November election.