The Strange Death Of The Tea Party
They came by the hundreds. Or the tens. Possibly singly or in very small groups. It is hard to say exactly how many as scattered news reports have confused just how few people showed up to a series of right-wing rallies held across the nation this past Saturday. There were lots, though – several dozens, at least — just ask the data-mining and fundraising outfit that organized them.
The protesters had a message, though, and they proclaimed it loud and clear across the land to any who would listen – mostly the homeless, the odd passersby, and bored local news crews who were forced by their bosses to show up. Their cry, which reverberated throughout the land of conservative talk radio, was that King Obama – the dreaded and most cruel bringer of health care reform – would not take their guns away from them.
Crying as one, the assembled enjoined their fellow citizens to fight back against the unnatural tyranny of universal background checks, the banning of high-capacity magazines, and any attempt to infringe upon the rights of the mentally deranged to arm themselves to the teeth. These brave patriots, rallying to the cause of freedom – if not the rights of children to not be blown apart by gun-wielding maniacs – declared that they would stand up to that foreign-born socialist tyrant currently residing in the White House.
If you missed this nationwide rally of well-armed Second Amendment “resisters” this past Saturday – billed as a National Day of Resistance by Tea Party groups and associated right-wing Internet sites – then you aren’t the only one. Reports indicate that 121 such rallies were held with perhaps a couple hundred participants each, meaning that anywhere from 24,000 to 50,000 people nationwide may have shown up at these right-wing protests.
Death of Tea Party by pro-gun backlash?
At first blush, this seems like quite a large number of people. After all, to get that many rugged individualists to all come out on a frigid Saturday in February for a collective action like this takes some amount of organization and motivation. Could this, at long last, be the pro-gun backlash that political pundits have been warning the nation about since gun control advocates made the first, timid suggestions on guns in the days and weeks after the massacre of school children in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14?
If it is, it is a decidedly tepid one. Fifty thousand is a lot of people, but, by way of comparison, consider that nearly a million people turned out to watch President Obama’s second inauguration ceremony on the National Mall. This was down from the nearly two million individuals who showed up to watch his first inaugural four years earlier. This is also on the low end of the number of individuals who participated in an Occupy Wall Street march on Wall Street in May.
It is also a far cry from the numbers that Tea Partiers could rouse at the height of the movement’s inchoate backlash against the Obama administration in 2010. Then, the Tea Party was an active, well-financed force that could not only influence elections, but was popular enough to bring 87,000 to 100,000 people out on the National Mall to hear Glenn Beck speak about restoring America’s honor. All that, however, appears to be in the past; now, even Glenn Beck has been relegated to the back pages of American cable television.
The recent elections also point to the decidedly deflated state of the Tea-Party Right. In 2010, for instance, the Tea Party was able to channel conservative rage against the President and his party into sweeping gains in Congress — especially in the House of Representatives where the GOP gained a crushing majority that ousted Nancy Pelosi from the speakership. In the Senate, Republicans gained seven seats in 2010 and brought forth Tea Party darlings like Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Scott Brown of Massachusetts. The Left, it seemed, was on the run and President Obama destined for a single-term presidency.
A bare two years later, the 2012 elections delivered a stunning rebuke to a political movement that seemed on the cusp of overturning America’s leftward turn in 2008. The GOP’s candidates for Senate, nearly all Tea Party extremists, were soundly defeated. The House remained in conservative hands, but only did so due to such egregious partisan gerrymandering that only a huge landslide could have dislodged them. Even then, Democrats still made gains in that body. Then, of course, we come to Mitt Romney – the Republican candidate for the White House that many on the right were sure – certain, even – would win. Instead, he was handily defeated by a confident Obama campaign.
Rush Limbaugh declares defeat
Even Rush Limbaugh, the fire-breathing radio conservative who launched a thousand imitators, has recently admitted defeat. Declaring that he was ashamed that his country had devolved into, in his words, a mass of “uneducated, low-information” voters, he announced recently that, “the Left has beaten us.” “We’re outnumbered,” he said, and in a democracy, “People get what they want, they vote what they want and they get the way they vote.”
Indeed. Which begs the question, how did a movement that had accomplished so much in 2010 fail so dramatically in 2012? What happened to the rage? What happened to the huge numbers? How did the Tea Party collapse so suddenly and so quickly to the point where “nationwide” rallies are now relegated to coverage by local news outlets and vigilant left-wing media?
Pundits, political experts and political operators each offer their own explanation. The current narrative pushed by mainstream commentators is that Republicans, in classic fashion, overreached by pushing forward candidates so extreme in their views that there was no way they were going to win in a general election. This may be true, but in 2010 equally extreme candidates were pushed forward and won convincingly. Moreover, the GOP is not completely the same as or in lockstep with the Tea Party movement and overreach doesn’t explain the dénouement of the movement as a whole.
Some blame it on Mitt Romney
Another explanation centers less on the GOP field as a whole than their presidential nominee in particular. Mitt Romney, goes this argument, was a bad candidate – a moderate masquerading as a conservative who was so wooden, phony and out of touch that he repelled voters. Again, this may be true but it also does not explain how widespread GOP losses were in 2012 and the degree to which, again, the movement itself has withered away.
A third explanation is that a combination of national-level forces – demography, economic recovery, and the like all coincided to dampen right-wing enthusiasm and turnout. 2012, in this story, offered a fundamentally different political environment than 2010 and each factor cited above worked to first let the steam out of the Tea Party engine and then send it into reverse. Of the arguments about why the Tea Party has dissipated as a political force this seems the most likely, but consider an addendum to this theory.
What if it turned out that there was no there, there to begin with – that the televised mobs bearing Lipton Iced-Tea bags and flying American flags were really never as big, powerful or menacing as they were made out to be? What if they were mostly the product of a concerted effort by billionaire industrialists to gin up the perception that a mass, grass-roots movement that opposed regulating Wall Street and enacting health care reform actually existed? What if it turned out that conservative media served as an echo chamber for this effort, in the process magnifying its perceived importance far out of proportion to the power it actually wielded? What if the rest of the media, looking for a story, helped create one?
That would mean the Left’s defeats in 2010 were not so much a product of an irresistible force meeting and unmovable object, but of a timid Progressive coalition so bruised by 30 years of defeat that it could not recognize when the political tide, at long last, had finally turned. If so, then that timidity in the face of a cornered and wounded opposition gave time and space to a disorganized, dispirited enemy that then used it to regroup and counterattack with the political equivalent of a Potemkin village – nearly driving the Left from the field in the process.
Going forward, it would be a tragedy if the Left allowed the faux populism of the Tea Party right to intimidate it, and so prevent Democrats from accomplishing progressive policy goals. We should remember the old maxim, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” The next time self-styled patriots show up dressed as Minutemen we should remember that for all the sound and fury of the Tea Party Right, it doesn’t signify much of anything at all.
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