This “Tea” Swallows Republicans

The Tea Party’s surge in the midterm election primaries may lead to its peak on Election Day, writes Eric Alterman.

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Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul raises his arms to the cheers of supporters at his primary victory party in Bowling Green, KY on May 18, 2010. Paul is one of several winning Tea Party candidates in the midterm election primaries. (AP/Ed Reinke)
Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul raises his arms to the cheers of supporters at his primary victory party in Bowling Green, KY on May 18, 2010. Paul is one of several winning Tea Party candidates in the midterm election primaries. (AP/Ed Reinke)

“The 2010 electorate has swallowed an emetic—disgorging in a series of retching convulsions officeholders in both parties who seem to embody conventional Washington politics.” So sayeth Politico’s John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, the sages of up-to-the-second insider conventional wisdom, about the recent results of this year’s midterm election primaries.

And while the beltway is atwitter with earthquake metaphors—which, personally, I much prefer to Allen and VendeHei’s projectile vomit-based explanations—the authors admit that, “The anti-establishment, anti-incumbent fevers on display Tuesday are not new.” In fact, however, almost all the rebellion is on one side. Now it may be that Democrats are planning a rebellion against their political establishment, but it’s a hard argument to make when Exhibit A is a lifelong Republican.

A vote against Alan Mollohan (D-WV) in Washington was a vote against corruption. And Democrat Blanche Lincoln—who proved a particular pain in the ass on health care reform, the president’s primary political project, and did not support the Employee Free Choice Act—was forced into a runoff by a member of Arkansas’s political establishment—its lieutenant governor, Bill Halter. Mark Critz, the easiest Democratic establishment target and a not terribly charismatic ex-staffer to John Murtha, beat a Tea Party Republican in a special election in a voting district that chose John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. In a straightforward “people versus power” election that guy should be filing for unemployment today.

So the story on the Democratic side is, well, no story.

As for Republicans, the Man of the Hour is clearly Rand Paul, who won his closed primary battle by a large margin Tuesday night over Tray Grayson, the Republican establishment candidate. Paul believes we should get rid of both the Federal Reserve and Department of Education, and he is not so crazy about Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act and all that came after it. He leads on behalf of a movement whose demonstrations regularly feature racist hate speech and posters directed at our president, and whose spokespeople—including particularly Mark Williams—call the Islamic deity “monkey-god” and all Muslims “the animals of allah.” And therein lies at least one of the Republicans’ new problems.

Paul’s victory is hardly an isolated phenomenon. The Tea Party movement showed the door to Utah Republicans’ conservative incumbent senator Bob Bennett earlier this month as well as Florida’s governor, Charlie Christ. And yesterday, UPS pilot Todd Lally took the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth in Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District. He beat three candidates, including Jeff Reetz, the favorite of the House Republican campaign committee.

Pundits are focusing on how the Tea Party takeover of the Republican Party will play out in the November elections. But given the fact that the party in power almost always loses significantly it’s going to be awfully hard to determine how much of the loss is entirely natural and how much is due to the angry “mood” of the voters. Even this will not tell us much about where this movement comes from and where it might take us.

Whether the movement’s primary motivation is racist, nativist, religious, economic, or merely psychological is hard to say. But we must accept the fact that the movement is deeply irrational. How else to explain its hysterical complaints about the awful tax burden Americans allegedly carry at exactly the moment when Americans are paying their lowest tax rates since 1950? What’s more, inflation is also at its lowest point in more than four decades. (And I suppose us having a black president at the moment is mere coincidence as well.)

Paul Krugman doesn’t see much of anything new in the Tea Party. He instead believes that the media simply “have taken notice” after more than a decade of denial. He points to “the Texas Republican platform of 2000, which called not just for eliminating the Federal Reserve but also for returning to the gold standard, for killing not just the Department of Education but also the Environmental Protection Agency, and more.”

Somehow, though, Texas Republicans’ radicalism wasn’t a story in 2000, an election year in which George W. Bush of Texas, soon to become president, was widely portrayed as a moderate. Krugman also quotes Washington Post media cop Howard Kurtz in 2002—though for some reason he does not name him—running interference for Rush Limbaugh, attacking Limbaugh’s critics for allegedly having “lost a couple of screws” for getting all worked up about this “mainstream conservative” who talks “mainly about policy.”

Of course, at the time Kurtz was writing, Limbaugh had already accused Hillary Clinton of accessory to murder and compared her child to an ugly dog. Today he’s blaming the BP oil spill on the Sierra Club, which for him is not a particularly crazy day. So what’s changed? Nothing much except that together with Rand Paul and Roger Ailes, Limbaugh is now the titular head of the Republican Party.

Krugman finds a compelling explanation for the movement’s strength in a recent paper by economists Markus Bruckner and Hans Peter Gruner, who notice:

…a striking correlation between economic performance and political extremism in advanced nations: In both America and Europe, periods of low economic growth tend to be associated with a rising vote for right-wing and nationalist political parties. The rise of the tea party, in other words, was exactly what we should have expected in the wake of the economic crisis.

(You can read the paper here or the summary here.)

They in turn rely heavily on analysis by economist Benjamin Friedman, who finds that gross domestic product growth per capita is a key factor for a political system’s development. They write that Friedman’s analysis is based on various historical case studies and “points out that only a continuous improvement of individual living standards provides the ground for the development of what he calls a more ‘open’ society. Accordingly, it is not so much the level of GDP that determines the way in which a democracy develops but the growth rate.”

The net result is that “roughly a one percentage point decline in growth translates into a one percentage point higher vote share of right-wing or nationalist parties.” By this logic, when the economy improves most of the adherents of the Tea Party will find a more productive use for their time.

Mark Lilla, writing in The New York Review of Books, sees continuities, of course, but differs from Krugman in finding a new amalgam of views in the Tea Party enthusiasts:

Many Americans, a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites—politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers—are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop.

It does not matter whether anybody doing the telling knows something they do not. Global warming, TARP, health care mandates, whatever. Lilla continues:

Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets. Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.

In Lilla’s view, just how long they can keep it up depends on two factors: how successful the likes of Limbaugh and Beck continue to be in ginning them up—Beck’s ratings are down a full 50 percent in the past year—and how well Obama and the Democrats can coopt the issues that drive them.

John Judis, a longtime observer of the right, looks deeply in The New Republic into the opinion data available on people who consider themselves to be members of the movement. He finds a generally unstable coalition of various groups that have been around for quite a while but have gained particular traction from the current economic difficulties facing the country. As with most right-wing populist movements, this one—which commands the active allegiance of between 13 percent and 15 percent of the electorate—look to be “almost entirely white, disproportionately middle-aged or older, and more male than female…A majority of their adherents generally are not college-educated, with incomes in the middle range.”

Their views, while not in Judis’s view quite “fringe,” are well beyond the mainstream regarding most significant issues. He notes that according to the Economist/YouGov poll, 74 percent of Tea Party members think abortion is “murder,” and 81 percent are against gay marriage. Sixty-three percent are in favor of public school students learning that “the Book of Genesis in the Bible explains how God created the world,” 62 percent think that “the only way to Heaven is through Jesus Christ,” 34 percent think our president was not born in the United States, and another 34 percent are not sure.

Blogger Matthew Yglesias, reading Judis, finds nothing usual in the alliance of this particular constellation of forces, and thinks the author gives too much credence to its staying power. Yglesias believes its apparent strength merely reflects the fact that in the United States (like most countries I’m familiar with), a minority of the population strongly adheres to populist nationalist views and mobilizes when its political adversaries are running the country.

Indeed, if Tuesday’s results demonstrate anything, it’s that the media have so far exaggerated the Tea Party’s importance to the future of the country—at least in its discussion of a potential takeover of our government. Thirteen to 15 percent of the public is a large enough number to win a Republican primary or two at the state and local level if they are sufficiently motivated and organized. But it is not nearly enough to mount a successful national candidacy.

Rand Paul has the potential to become an important voice in our national debate—a la Jean Marie LePen in France during the 1980s or perhaps even Ross Perot in this country in the 1990s. But fringe movements—and I disagree with Judis here—only come close to power in nations with proportional representation and coalition governments. (See under: “Israel, Italy.”)

Everything about the Tea Party indicates that it will peak in power on Election Day 2010 at the latest. After that, two factors will almost certainly intervene to cause its demise. First, a few of its minions will be elected to office and begin to fight with one another on the one hand and reality on the other. And second, the kind of people who do not vote in off-year primaries or are not even aware of their taking place will re-enter the political debate and inject a measure of common sense.

In the meantime, however, a few more jobs and some tough rules on runaway banks wouldn’t hurt. An awful lot of people just need to know their president is on their side.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is,Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically hereand he is a regular contributor toThe Daily Beast.

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