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In the beginning, it was nothing more than knee-jerk catharsis, drawn from the tattered, frustrated, and disenfranchised remnants of small-c conservatives and angry libertarians. It was disorganized and chronically off-message, defenseless against being used as a public soapbox by every ‘birther’ conspiracist and one-world-government loon that didn’t feel he had a large enough audience on the Ron Paul internet forums. It was derided as far-right fringe, dismissed as corporate astroturf, and joyfully mocked as latently homosexual.

But after everyone took their jabs, everyone cracked their jokes, the guffaws died down and the cable news anchors dried their eyes of the tears of laughter they had shed, it remained. Now, as the Tea Party Movement gears up to hold its first national convention in Nashville next month, it does so with polling numbers from NBC/WSJ that suggest it is substantially more popular than either the Democratic or Republican party. It has evolved from an amateurish, angry mob to an increasingly organized and cogent operation with a base of followers that rivals the major parties.

The time for snickering at the “teabaggers” is over. They’re “tea partiers.”

“Elections have consequences.” Those three words deftly understate the impact that 2008 had on the Republican Party. In the aftermath of their defeat, the GOP was not merely out of power, but also leaderless and adrift. In the year that has followed, there has been little consensus on who is in charge, on what platform Republicans should compete, on whether or not the party should move to the right or the left, or even on what “right” and “left” really mean. In the braying, bickering din that has become the Republican Party’s not-quite-internal monologue, Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney compete for airtime on equal ground with Rush Limbaugh and Joe the Plumber.

It is against this backdrop of intense Republican dysfunctionality that the Tea Party has risen to prominence. In the power vacuum, the Tea Party became the loyal opposition not by choice, but by default. As an anti-establishment, populist voice in an era of widespread economic and security fears, the Tea Party Movement gained power just by showing up. There was no grand coalition of shadowy interests or savvy media manipulators behind this feat — it was a matter of circumstance, of right place and right time.

What has resulted is simultaneously the best and the worst of democracy.

The best: despite all the epithets that are thrown at it, the Tea Party Movement has tapped into a deep and genuine dissatisfaction over the direction of the country. It represents the ability of spontaneous, grassroots activism to spur democratic change. It has ushered in a groundswell of political involvement that believers in democracy should hope to sustain, rather than quash.

The worst: just as the Tea Party gained power by circumstance, it seems to choose its standard-bearers just as arbitrarily. The absurd process by which the Tea Party adopts its favorite sons is best exemplified by Joe Wilson, a no-name congressman from no-where, who instantly raised a staggering $3 million for his 2010 race ($1.2m more than his opponent) merely by being disrespectful to the President on national television. If you promise fame, money, and power to those who say outrageous things, you will find no shortage of outrageous people. Waves of demagogues and unscrupulous politicos have made Tea Party gatherings their stalking grounds, speaking whatever shibboleths are necessary to attract their next clutch of followers.

“Elections have consequences” is a fun, snarky way of telling those who are out of power to sit down and shut up. However, after witnessing a few recent elections, it might be more apt to say “Elections ARE consequences.” In the face of overwhelming public opposition, Democrats supported the bailout. As a consequence, they’ve lost governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, and might even lose their filibuster-proof Senate majority in a fight on the homiest of their home territory. Their job approval ratings have tumbled — Obama is down roughly 16 points since his inauguration (bringing him under the magical 50 percent line), while his congressional colleagues have fared even worse. The favorability numbers have flipped — when Rasmussen asked them on the eve of the 2008 election who they trusted more to handle issue X, the public favored Democrats over Republicans on every single issue they were polled on, with a 20-point margin on health care, and double digit leads on education, the economy, Social Security, and ethics. Now, the picture is reversed, with the Democrats’ sole leading issue as education, and the Republicans holding double digit leads on the economy, national security, immigration, and Iraq. Everywhere, anywhere, Democrats are hurting.

The most telling statistic of all comes from Nielsen. In 2008, cable news viewership spiked, reflecting the increased interest in the news that comes with an election. Between 2007 and 2008, average daily viewership of conservative Fox News went up by 260,000 for a total of 1,070,000, left-of-center CNN went up by 200,000 for a total of 700,000, and liberal MSNBC gained 180,000 for a total of 480,000. Between 2008 and 2009, average viewership fell at CNN and MSNBC by 100,000 and 80,000 respectively. In contrast, viewership at Fox News continued to rise, gaining another 120,000.

For those who don’t parse statistics well, here is the short and dirty: when the election was over, liberals went home and tuned out. Fox News watchers did not. That makes a big difference when you’re trying to get out the vote during a boring mid-term election and no longer have the coattails of a charismatic Presidential candidate to ride on. The populists are at the gate. They are outside the castle, building their siege engines and sharpening their axes. One day very soon, they are going to ask for something, like Tim Geithner’s head on a pike, and it’s not going to be Republicans they blame when they don’t get it.

It is easy to imagine scenarios where Democrats survive the crush of populists. Ross Perot tapped into a similar discontent in 1992, and fizzled out soon after. Populism alone does little to bridge the sometimes wide ideological gulf that exists between the wings of the Republican party, of which the house election in New York’s 23rd district is a fresh reminder. The Tea Party Movement might turn out to be just another faction of a fractious Republican party, and a potentially embarrassing one if it fails to rein in its more extreme elements.

But it is more likely that the Tea Party represents a huge boon for Republicans. As long as dismal economic conditions continue (and they will), elections are going to be won by the party that best harnesses the force of populism. Not only has the Tea Party captured populist sentiment, but it has focused it on an issue that is inherently in Republicans’ favor. This is not the dreaded takeover of the party by the religious right or some other undesirable, unelectable faction. Beneath it all, the core message of the Tea Party is fiscal conservatism.

It’s a message that appeals to independents and moderates, it’s a message that resonates with the conservative base, it’s a message that’s brought the GOP back to power after its defeat in the 90’s, it’s a message that fits well with the current times, it’s a message that can form the basis for a big tent — any Republican can stand up and talk about entitlement reform and fighting the deficit while agreeing to disagree on the rest. It’s a message that (despite the profligacy of Bush), the public consistently trusts the Republicans to act upon better than the Democrats.

To win in 2010, Republicans are faced with the relatively simple task of embracing the Tea Party as fellow travelers. If they are principled, they will do so while disavowing, rather than adopting, the hyperbole that the tea partiers have been rightly ridiculed for. But even if Republicans take the reins of populism by shouting about death panels, Democrats are in for a long year.