By David Meyer
Protest movements sometimes have perverse effects, hastening outcomes they don’t want. The contest for the Republican presidential nomination has to be scored as a disappointment for the broad Tea Party movement, and perhaps a sign of its dissolution.
Social movements capture the imagination of participants and audiences, engaging and enlarging our sense of the possible. But, particularly in liberal systems, movements that succeed in reaching mainstream public discourse are ultimately consumed by it.
The American political system makes lots of space for social and political movements. It’s set up to enable challenges, then to water down, distort, and tear them apart. When Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, we saw just how the system works to dissipate the energy of a social movement, in this case, the Tea Party.
The Tea Party, a powerful movement that captured the imagination, for good and ill, of Americans during the first two years of the Obama presidency, exercised visible influence on political debate, public policy, and politics. It grew and developed in the wake of a Democratic rout in 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency and his party control of both houses of Congress. Conservatives lacked a visible institutional route to influence, and took to the streets in an attempt at redress.
An alliance between populist and plutocrat dissatisfaction with President Obama, the Tea Party coalesced just after Obama took office, and focused early on opposition to his effort to reform and extend health insurance in the United States. Proposed health care reform provided a focal point for economic and social conservatives who had been trying, for many years, to advance their vision of limited government, regulation, and taxation. Beltway groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, funded primarily by large corporate interests, most famously the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, needed Barack Obama as president and the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act to reach a broader audience. Of course, the Tea Partiers at the grassroots had many grievances beyond Obama and health care reform, but the proximate provocation of an ambitious reform that would affect virtually all Americans provided the leading edge and unifying issue for their efforts.
Grassroots mobilization, in conjunction with funding and direction from national groups, and in the context of a severe recession, allowed the Tea Party to shape the public debate in 2009 and 2010. After the Democrats (and only Democrats) passed a health care bill, Tea Partiers shifted their attention to debt and taxes. Although many Tea Partiers shared socially conservative views, the national leadership of the movement urged them to focus on economic issues to avoid divisive debates.
Taking advantage of the relatively frequent legislative elections built into the American system, Tea Partier worked with—and through–the Republican Party. Tea Party energies helped the Republican Party make huge gains in the midterm elections, picking up 63 seats to win control of the House of Representatives. (Ah, but the Tea Partiers also beat several mainstream Republican candidates in primaries, nominating candidates less suited for the general election and undermining Republican chances to win the Senate.)
As the Tea Party entered campaign politics, the dramatic, costumed, confrontational, and Constitution-quoting events of its heyday disappeared, as Tea Partiers watched Republican legislators carry their program—or at least one version of it. The American political system, however, makes it hard to get anything done, and what the House leadership wanted to do, mostly obstruct the President and make strong statements against taxes and borrowing, wasn’t enough for the Tea Party—but far too much for many Americans. Once in office, the Tea Party became a target and provocation for an opposing movement, saddled with the responsibility of governance, but not the capacity to govern. (This is a recurrent American movement story.)
Now, another irony of American politics, Obama’s most likely opponent in the general election signed the legislation on which Obama’s health care reform is based. Mitt Romney, who has campaigned the longest, raised the most money, and led in most polls, is preparing to run a campaign in which he will advocate taking health insurance away from tens of millions of Americans–but not the residents of Massachusetts, whom he’s already taken care of. Tea Partiers, and many Republicans, are understandably uneasy about this prospect. The potentially viable alternatives to Romney also represent, at best, a partial and distorted vision of the Tea Party’s claims.
Indeed, the Republican primary field now offers three distinct personifications of Tea Party politics. Representative Ron Paul has hewed to a libertarian line for decades, and appears as a sincere and consistent advocate of extremely limited government. But a government that doesn’t criminalize drugs or engage in active foreign and military policies is an anathema to most Republican voters. Former Senator Rick Santorum consistently articulates the social and religious conservatism of many Tea Partiers, but not their vision of limited government, nor a focus on the fiscal. His long record offers ample evidence of a willingness to use government to promote and police Christian values. And former Speaker Newt Gingrich, an inconsistent advocate for conservative economic or social policies, has captured only the Tea Party attitude, vigorously expressing a sense of anger and entitlement. Any of these three offers only a partial version of a Tea Party platform, and none is likely to be stronger in a general election than Romney.
But it’s worse than that. The Tea Party captured the imagination of conservative activists around the country, and was an immense aid in firing up Republican voters in 2010. It buoyed up the aspirations of several prospects who proved far from ready for presidential prime time, crowding out more mainstream–and credible–candidates for office. Thus, the Republican field came to include Representative Michele Bachmann, a vigorous campaigner and fundraiser, but a back bencher in the House Republican caucus, and Herman Cain, a radio host who had never won an election. It did not include Tim Pawlenty or Mitch Daniels, who had served as governors of Midwestern states (Minnesota and Indiana).
Republicans who were dubious about Governor Romney, including Tea Partiers, flirted with a series of alternatives who, for various reasons, were found wanting: Bachmann, Governor Rick Perry, Cain, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, the last of which has turned into an intermittent attraction/repulsion relationship. A longer list of prospects could include flirtations with Sarah Palin and Donald Trump as well. And it may not be over yet.
Tea Partiers seeking both a strong advocate and a strong candidate are likely to find neither. So, the successful mobilization of the Tea Party has produced exactly what most Tea Partiers didn’t want. It’s a common movement story in America.