Tea Parties: Dead, Mostly Dead or What?

by Jonah Goldberg

I am getting very tired of all the “Is the Tea Party Dead?” chatter. Obviously, for the mainstream media, it’s a subject with great appeal. Wishful thinking drives so much political coverage. As Dave Weigel noted on Twitter, a GOP strategist insists the Tea Party is dead to National Journal, but the strategist is afraid to do it on the record:

One conservative strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said years of bad press for tea party candidates has eroded the group’s appeal to just about everybody—Republicans included. In polls this strategist has seen, with the exception of the most conservative states, a majority of GOP electorates no longer identify themselves as members of the tea party. Yet many conservative challengers still insist on labeling themselves part of the tea party.

“The tea party as a brand is dead in general elections,” the operative said. “It’s on death’s door in primaries.”

That analysis may have some merit, though it strikes me as overdone and misleading. It kind of depends what you mean by the tea party. If you mean some consultant-huckster’s mailing list operation, then I hope it is dead and dying. If you mean the spirit of the movement, then I hope he’s wrong, and I’m pretty sure he is.

First of all, people only ask obsessively, “Is it dead? Is it dead?” when they are really afraid the thing might not be. No one is filled with panic that the fly they just swatted may only be unconscious. But if you’re not sure if you killed a bear, you hide behind a tree asking your expendable buddy to poke it with a stick while you keep asking, “Is it dead? Make sure it’s dead!” No one is asking whether the Whigs are dead because the Whigs are dead.

But the analogy falls apart when you consider that political movements aren’t wild animals. They live on as ideas and passions. And it is a sign that all of this talk about the tea party’s demise is a bit premature and misplaced precisely because no Republican is willing to speak ill of it. Sure, plenty of GOPers will criticize this or that self-appointed leader or spokesman, but the criticism is almost always that they are breaking faith with the true spirit of the tea parties. Unlike Democrats and Occupy Wall Street (which the MSM celebrated rather than pilloried), Republicans need to say nice things about the the tea-party movement, because the tea-party movement is very powerful within the GOP. Indeed, nearly all of these “establishment” conservatives won by coopting or embracing tea-party messages. As someone who works at a magazine that has been trying to have a similar rightward pull on Republicans for over a half-century, that doesn’t look like failure so much as remarkable success. As commented on Twitter last night, for all the talk about a GOP civil war, there’s been a whole lot more civil than war.

The tea partiers decided, collectively, not to become a third party. They wanted to exert their influence within the GOP because they understood that third parties invariably help the party they are most opposed to. At the same time, most tea partiers I’ve talked to — and I’ve talked to thousands, all over the country — wanted to do everything they could to push the GOP in the right direction, without pushing it off a cliff. This lesson had to be learned the hard way, i.e. from failure. But by and large, most tea partiers understand there’s a tension between purity and electability. There may be — in fact, there most definitely are — serious disagreements about what makes for an acceptable compromise on all sorts of issues. But that’s fine. Those are ancient, and healthy, arguments to have (and they don’t breakdown neatly into “establishment” versus “tea party” either. There is a lot more ideological diversity on the right than nearly all liberals and a great many conservatives are willing to see).

It was a smart and — by my lights — deeply patriotic decision not to become a third party. And it’s being vindicated. Yes, there have been some big and nasty fights. And yes there are some hard feelings. And that will continue. But that happens in politics, which ain’t beanbag.