The Tea Party: Struggling for Political Relevance

Eric Alterman explains why we should’ve seen the struggles of the Tea Party coming a long time ago.

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Cincinnati Tea Party supporters hold signs and cheer for speakers at a Tea Party rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, Thursday, April 15, 2010. (AP/Tom Uhlman)
Cincinnati Tea Party supporters hold signs and cheer for speakers at a Tea Party rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, Thursday, April 15, 2010. (AP/Tom Uhlman)

In the New York Times this past Sunday, Sam Tanenhaus, senior editor of the New York Times Book Review and a student of conservatism, pronounced the impending death of the Tea Party. He noted that “even in South Carolina, a seat of conservative activism, the opposition to Mr. Romney appears to be fragmented and diffuse, as Matt Bai reports this weekend in The Times Magazine. Others have put the case more bluntly. ‘Where’s the Tea Party?’ a headline in Politico asked last week.”

My, what a difference a presidential election year makes. In the same article Tanenhaus quotes William Kristol, publisher and editor of The Weekly Standard, who “exulted that the Tea Party protest was ‘the best thing that has happened to the Republican Party in recent times.’” However misguided, Kristol, a true believer in conservative power divorced as an end in and of itself, can be forgiven for believing the hype he published in his own magazine and consumed elsewhere in the media. As for the rest of us, well, it seems we never really fell for the conservative hype or the misguided rush to embrace this idea by the mainstream media.

Recall how much of the mainstream media treated the Tea Party as if it were the center of the “real America.” This was evident almost everywhere, but perhaps nowhere so much as on CNN. Remember when that allegedly unbiased station decided to treat the Tea Party as if it were deserving of its own “State of the Union address” by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN)? Even then, as I noted in this space at the time, its views represented fewer than one-fifth of the nation’s views according to most polls. “To get a liberal equivalent of Rep. Bachmann, CNN would have had to turn over their cameras right afterward to Ward Churchill.”

How did they justify it? CNN Political Director Sam Feist defended the decision at the time by explaining, “Based on our news judgment, we decided it was worthwhile to take it live.” He added, “The Tea Party has become a major force in American politics and within the Republican Party. Hearing the Tea Party’s perspective on the State of the Union is something we believe CNN’s viewers will be interested in hearing, and we are happy to include this perspective as one of many in tonight’s coverage.”

Dave Weigel, notes The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, added some crucial context at the time, observing that “CNN has a longstanding romance with the Tea Party Express,” the political action committee that promoted Rep. Bachmann’s speech. In fact, CNN and the Tea Party Express co-sponsored a GOP presidential debate in September.

But all this rush to brand the Tea Party as hugely relevant never caught on in the minds of the broader American public. A study of the views and attitudes of 2,000 voters sympathetic to the Tea Party presented to the 2011 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association by four academics noted that their attitudes could be characterized as reflective of “four primary cultural and political beliefs” in greater measure than in other Americans: “authoritarianism, libertarianism, fear of change, and negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration.”

Indeed, the audience for the CNN/Tea Party Express debate showed why this may be the case. The audience cheered the death of a sick man who lacked health insurance. They booed when one of the candidates pointed out that not all Muslims were responsible for 9/11.

As political scientists Davie E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam pointed out in August, “The Tea Party is increasingly swimming against the tide of public opinion: among most Americans, even before the furor over the debt limit, its brand was becoming toxic.” They noted that:

In April 2010, a New York Times/CBS News survey found that 18 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of it, 21 percent had a favorable opinion and 46 percent had not heard enough. Now, 14 months later, Tea Party supporters have slipped to 20 percent, while their opponents have more than doubled, to 40 percent. … [the Tea Party is] even less popular than … “atheists” and “Muslims.”

The true test of how far the Tea Party has fallen in popularity will be the remaining Republican presidential primary contests and then the general election in November. Those who still boast of their Tea Party loyalties are divided over whom to support. For a movement that already lacks a cohesive leadership, this failure to unite behind one candidate could be the final struggle highlighting its increasing irrelevance.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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