The End of the Tea Party

As the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) overtook Washington this past week, the cheering for Dick Cheney, the sessions promoting "nullification" (the concept that states can opt out of federal laws, last heard from John C. Calhoun in the 1830s), and the angry rants about ACORN and homosexuality were a reminder that the idea that there is a "conservatism" that is measured, responsible, decent, and worthy of the word is a bit of a myth. As the historian Kevin Mattson showed in his 2008 book, Rebels All!, modern conservatism even in the era when William F. Buckley was founding National Review drew much of its energy from anger, mockery, and misinformation. This year the "tea party" movement has stirred up the old conservatives of CPAC (now in its 38th year) and given them a new confidence and passion.

The tea-party strain that increasingly dominates the Republican Party represents the latest wave of right-wing populism to sweep the country -- or, rather, the media. There were 200 journalists covering the 600 people who attended Sarah Palin's speech at the tea-party convention in Nashville. The "dean of the Washington press corps," David Broder, returned to declare that Palin's "populism" and "common-sense solutions" would "fit not just the wishes of the immediate audience but the mood of a significant slice of the broader electorate."

But we've been here before. In the mid-1990s, it was Newt Gingrich's revolution. Gingrich was 1995's Time "Man of the Year," and he and his movement terrified progressives and transfixed the media for most of it. It's hard to remember that period, though, because after just a few months, after a government shutdown and a crippling snowstorm in D.C., it was over. The Gingrich Republicans still controlled Congress, but they no longer had the ability to set the agenda, and soon they were negotiating with President Bill Clinton rather than giving him ultimatums.

Before the Gingrich revolution, there was Pat Buchanan's 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, there was George Wallace blasting through primaries north and south in 1968, there was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and before that there was Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who, on being relieved of his command for insubordination in 1950 by President Harry Truman, was briefly a hero of the emerging right and considered a likely presidential candidate in 1952.

Since Richard Hofstadter's 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," this ever-recurring force has been thoroughly examined by historians and sociologists. But what really binds these episodes together is their transience. McCarthy had much of Washington intimidated, until one day he was just a sorry alcoholic with no sense of decency. Gingrich boasted that after his revolution, Medicare would "wither on the vine"; instead, it was his movement that withered. What brings these movements to an end deserves as much study as what gets them started.

Many progressives are as transfixed by the tea-party movement as Broder, imagining it is the central reactionary force we will be facing through the midterm elections, the 2012 presidential campaign, and beyond. After perhaps underestimating its oppositional force, based on its first soggy protests attended by a few dozen oddballs last May, they now overestimate it. Some see in the inchoate populist anger an opportunity to redirect those feelings -- if you're mad about "bailouts," as tea partiers say they are, you should be mad at Goldman Sachs, not the government, we reason. The rise of the tea parties has left many progressives frustrated, not least because Barack Obama's cool and distinctly non-populist view of the world doesn't seem to match the tea-party mood, which calls for a hot response, one that names enemies and takes them on.

But the most reliable lesson of recent American politics is that movements dependent on that level of heat eventually -- or, actually, quite quickly -- burn themselves out. The tea-party movement cannot be sustained at the level of anger that's currently fueling it. It may leave a permanent impact on the Republican Party, giving it some new faces and new language, and most important, allowing the party to divorce itself from the legacy of that squishy moderate, George W. Bush. But regardless of the economic times or the political mood, hot populism of both the left and right varieties has never had a very long run.

In 1995, Clinton -- a political shape-shifter who was more capable of an angry populist response than Obama is -- understood the value of remaining cool, constant, and presidential, slowly regaining the initiative. Obama's measured tones and cautious response can be infuriating at the moment and may lead to tactical errors. But the proper response to the latest fad of right-wing populism is neither to bow down to it like Broder nor to run around trying to figure out how to equal it from the left. It is to hold to a straight line, do what's right in the short term, and have confidence in the longer term.

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