By Richard Lloyd and Steven Tepper
In order to think about the influence of the Tea Party it is first important to understand the “essence” of the movement. What is the nature of its supporters’ discontent? How coherent are their political and policy goals? Is it something new on the political landscape that is forcing a realignment within the Republican Party?
Research conducted with Andy Perrin, Neal Caren, Steven Tepper and Sally Morris, concludes that the Tea Party phenomena – from the perspective of public support – is a case of “old wine” in a “new bottle.” The key politico-cultural dispositions of Tea Party support represent the same dispositions that have made up support for the Republican Party over the past few decades. These include an authoritarian orientation (seeking control and order); libertarianism (small government, free markets); nativism (mistrust of immigrants); and what we call ontological insecurity, which is a general concern with the pace of social change. The demographic characteristics of Tea Party supporters also parallel those of core Republican supporters – slightly older, white, male, better educated, higher income, and more religious. In fact, since 2009 when the Tea Party first appeared on the national stage, its general appeal has waned and it has increasingly come to look like the super conservative core of the Republican Party (with a slightly higher dash of libertarianism thrown in).
So, if the Tea Party is not new, then what explains it meteoric rise in American politics? We suspect that the Tea Party became an “attractive” brand to conservative voters following their lopsided defeat in 2008 to Barack Obama. Angry and dissatisfied with their “home team” – conservatives were attracted by the cultural work of the movement – the use of the Constitution, references to the Founding Fathers, nostalgic gestures to simpler times, notions that Obama was un-American (explicitly with the “birther movement” and more subtly with references to socialism) and the pageantry and drama of their protests and marches. The cultural rebranding helped sustain conservative Republicans sense of identity in the wake of defeat. This focus on culture and identity fits with recent scholarship that has shown that while the country is no more divided than it was a few decades ago on substantive policy issues, we have become more polarized in terms of our political self-identification. The labels “conservative” and “liberal” have come to represent “lifestyles” or a cluster of associations that are increasingly salient for people’s identity. The Tea Party was just the right “new wine” to give coherence to an otherwise inchoate sense of frustration and discontent among self-identified conservatives.
The Tea Party brand is probably not going to have legs – even with the sweeping midterm Republican victories, self-labeled Tea Party candidates like Joe Miller, Sharon Angle and Christine O’Donnell embarrassed the party, and showed the potential harm that an inflamed far right could do to Republican interests. So did the subsequent brinksmanship in congress over the debt ceiling, led by a seemingly incorrigible band of freshman representatives. Moreover, in contrast to the initial eruption of carnivalesque, telegenic Tea Party protests around the country, the Tea Party has done little that is actually newsworthy since Obama’s first two years in office.
Tea Party influence in the primaries might be said to minimal; we hear the phrase much less in the news or from the mouths of candidates than was the case in the 2010 midterms. There was a “Tea Party” debate among the many, many primary debates held, which distinguished itself mainly by the intemperate behavior of the audience, further alienating mainstream voters. But if the Tea Party was always just the far-right of the Republican base, well, the galvanizing effect of the new bottle may have waned, but they remain engaged voters and an important force in primary season.
What is notable is the failure of that faction of the base to unite around a single candidate. Putnam notes that despite the professed libertarianism of the movement, in fact Tea Party identifiers are likely to advocate for a stronger role of religion in public life, and it is the case that Tea Party identified candidates like O’Donnell, Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry campaigned more on religious values than economic issues. Each of their campaigns proved embarrassing disasters, though. Meanwhile, Ron Paul, while enjoying support from a solid and enthusiastic base, is not typically associated with the Tea Party and alarms evangelicals with his reluctance to bomb Iran.
Still, while failing to propel an insurgent candidacy, the conservative base has put a ceiling thus far on the presumptive eventual nominee, Mitt Romney. Romney, who has run a generally disciplined campaign and dwarfs his rivals in money, organization, and establishment support, is handicapped in two significant ways: by his Mormon religion, which repulses at least some evangelicals, and by his association with the Affordable Care Act, which bears uncomfortable resemblance to the reform Romney championed as governor of Massachusetts. These result in Romney staying stuck in a polling holding pattern as challengers experience meteoric rises and falls around him.
Finally, there is Newt Gingrich, the whack-a-mole candidate whose South Carolina victory has sent the Republican establishment scrambling. On a number of fronts, Gingrich, with his troubled marital history and nutty aspirations to extend manifest destiny to the moon, would appear a poor fit with the Tea Party. But he exemplifies a core feature of Tea Party dynamics, difficult to track in polls but glaringly evident in the demonstrations and town halls of 2009 – the attraction to apocalyptic imagery, and the propensity for histrionic acting out. Romney, playing a long game even while being unable to close with the base, is inhibited from howling at the moon. Gingrich has not such compunctions. Gingrich and Tea Party protesters are manifestations of the Republican Id, and both have demonstrated in the past a willingness to torpedo party interests through the exercise of their passions.
A national campaign has much different dynamics than the Delaware primary, and we expect that Romney’s money and organization will win out, particularly given that no other plausible challenger to Barack Obama remains in the Republican field. Nevertheless, the Id remains a powerful force in Republican primaries, and though the Gingrich threat is suppressed once again in Florida, further eruptions should be expected through a long season.