Skip to comments.Why the Tea Party’s Waning, Not Winning: It strayed from its original focus on economic issues
Posted on 03/05/2014 7:11:33 AM PST by SeekAndFind
As the Tea Party celebrates its five-year anniversary, many commentators are asking whether the grassroots antiBig Government movement is still relevant.
In some ways, this seems a silly question. The Tea Party has been enormously successful in changing the terms of the national debate on issues such as debt and spending. And, while its favored candidates have suffered some high-profile defeats, it has also won important victories. The Republican midterm sweep of 2010 would not have been possible without its energy and enthusiasm.
Yet its also true that the Tea Partys clout is waning. According to the most recent Gallup poll, just 30 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the movement, the lowest level in its history. This seems particularly unsettling when polls also show that the public still overwhelmingly supports the Tea Party objective of limited government. In fact, a recent Gallup poll shows a record 72 percent of Americans feels that big government is the greatest threat to the future of the country. Voters who feel that way should be flocking to the Tea Party in droves.
They are not.
Some of it might be a question of tactics. Americans tend to dislike confrontation from their political leaders. Certainly, things like the government shutdown tended to turn off some voters, especially when misrepresented by a biased media. The overheated rhetoric of some tea-party leaders may also drive away otherwise sympathetic voters. Calling every dissenting Republican a RINO or inferring that President Obama is some sort of crypto-Muslim Communist is not going to win friends or influence people. Some tea-party activists definitely come across as a bit over-caffeinated.
But there is also a more fundamental issue at play here: Is the Tea Party still the Tea Party?
Sparked by outrage over the Wall Street bailouts, the original Tea Party was motivated by an opposition to Big Government. The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest and most influential groups, was fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets. The Tea Partys core issues were the skyrocketing national debt and opposition to Obamacare.
Social issues were not part of the platform. In fact, Jenny Beth Martin, leader of the Tea Party Patriots told the New York Times, When people ask about [social issues], we say, Go get involved in other organizations that already deal with social issues very well. We have to be diligent and stay on message.
In an April 2010 CBS News/New York Times poll, barely 14 percent of Tea Party supporters said social issues were more important to them than economic issues.
As a result, the group was able to build a broad coalition of economic conservatives traditional Republicans, of course, but also libertarians, and fiscally conservative socially tolerant suburbanites who had drifted away from the GOP in recent years. In national surveys, roughly 40 percent of Tea Party supporters once described themselves as libertarian or libertarian-leaning.
These disparate groups might have disagreed about whether Adam and Steve should be able to get married, but they agreed that both Adam and Steve were overtaxed and being spent into bankruptcy by an out-of-control federal government.
But the Tea Party has drifted away from its strict economic-conservative origins. Yes, opposition to Obamacare and government spending remain priorities. But increasingly issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and immigration have become the tail that wags the dog.
Thus you now hear Judson Phillips, the head of Tea Party Nation, a group that once said social issues were just not something that is on our radar, denouncing gay marriage as a freak show, involving 3 men, 5 women, 2 dogs, and a Bengal tiger. Or Scottie Neil Hughes, of the Tea Party News Network, suggesting that women who have abortions should be jailed. And, during last summers congressional town-hall season, Tea Party Patriots was organizing not against Obamacare or raising the debt ceiling, but against immigration reform.
According to the Pew Research Centers Forum on Religion & Public Life, Tea Party members are now farther to the right on social issues than Americans as a whole or even the Republican party. For example, while the public now narrowly approves of gay marriage, Tea Party members disapprove by nearly two to one. The public is largely split on abortion, but 60 percent of tea partiers believe it should be illegal in all or most cases. Tea Party members are roughly 20 percentage points more likely than the general public to oppose a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. A majority of Tea Party supporters now say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on issues.
As a result, economic conservatives, libertarians, and anti-tax moderates are leaving the movement. Fewer than a quarter of tea partiers now describe themselves as libertarian-leaning. In last falls Virginia gubernatorial election, socially moderate suburbanites overwhelmingly backed Democrat Terry McAuliffe over tea-party favorite and arch-social-conservative Ken Cuccinelli.
The tea party has begun to look not like a broad-based coalition of economic conservatives but simply the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. The tent is getting smaller. As Steve Billet, professor of political management at George Washington University, noted, The polls suggest that where the Tea Party has failed is when they tried to expand their agenda beyond the explicit budgetary issues, and got much more involved in some other social issues.
Its not as though the issues that first sparked the Tea Party have gone away: TARP itself may have been largely repaid, but the culture of crony capitalism behind it still thrives. Deficits are in temporary decline, but the national debt continues to grow and the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare continue to mount. Obamacare, if anything, is proving to be an even bigger disaster than anticipated. The need for a strong voice in opposition to Big Government is as great now as it has ever been.
And the Tea Party is far from powerless. It continues to tap into grassroots mistrust of the Washington establishment. Its ability to mount primary challenges will keep Republicans from straying too far from its agenda. But if it hopes to regain the power it once had to reshape the American political landscape, it should remember why it started in the first place.
Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.
I was apalled to find 10% of Republicans vote in the Texas primary. THAT is the problem.
Won’t be well received here on FR, but the guy is absolutely right. The Tea Party was very influential in 2010 because its message on taxes, deficits and government’s role in the economy resonated with a broad section of people. That is no longer the message.
More GOPe hit pieces on the Tea Party from the water carrying National Review. Seems the Ones Cruz endorsed won or are leading in the runoff.
Count me in on that. I agree.
To get out the real "tea party" vote, a candidate has to be uncompromising about sending invaders home and keeping them out of the US.
Rick Santelli started the Tea Party with his rant about the housing meltdown and taxpayer bailouts. See a link here:
Rick Santelli Started The Tea Party With A Rant Exactly 5 Years Ago Today Here’s How He Feels About It Now
I still have my homemade sign I used at on of the first gatherings:
The judiciary candidates endorsed by Texas TP groups won their primaries, too. It's a long march.
“I was apalled to find 10% of Republicans vote in the Texas primary. THAT is the problem.”
You shouldn’t be so surprised here. The race was never real. It got overblown and turned into something it was not and never was. Stockman was a cartoon character and Stovall et al were no names with no foundation.
I am sad today that Cornyn is back in as Senator (and he will be) but I’m also sad that so many outside the state invested so much hope in this race which never was.
Maybe from your experience or perspective.
You nailed it. Of course there are going to be some social conservatives in the tea party, but that is basically overlap. In general, they have focused on the big problem facing this nation: impending bankruptcy and all that will entail for the world. That is the big asteroid coming toward us at an accelerating pace.
One of the things Democrats do very well is establish lots of niche/speciality activist orgs that draw individuals into the larger coalition by focusing on specific issues while still providing mutual support to sister organizations that are focused on different issues.
That’s exactly what we need to do. And understand not only is it acceptable and even desirable/beneficial for a Conservative Org focused on fiscal issues to say “if you want to talk about gay marriage or abortion my good friend in the next booth over can help you more than I can.”
If it were just about economic issues, then the Tea Party would not be all that different from Occupy Wall Street.
Both born in raging anger over the Wall Street bailouts.
Clearly that’s not the case.
I was in DC for the giant rally and waded thru a million or so co-Tea Partiers. The conversations I was in and heard were not about "my taxes are too high".
Immigration is not an economic issue?
As I said, your experience.
I’m not saying that it has evolved into anything bad; I’m still involved with the Tea Party. But it did begin with the taxpayer bailout and economic issues.
No, it’s a race issue.
I completely disagree. Just like everyone else, this guy is reading things into the Tea Party. How does he know they strayed from fiscal restraint???? Their original goal was to CUT SPENDING. They did not take libertarian positions on social issues. They probably had a mix of views on social issues. Some people who labeled themselves “Tea Party spokespersons” tried to leverage the brand to push their own issues, but there never has been a formal “Tea Party” that sets positions on issues. The Tea Party was an unorganized protest movement in the best sense of the phrase. It was average people who were tired of Democrats and Republicans spending like there was no tomorrow and then wringing their hands and looking at the floor when people told them they needed to cut back spending. This article is complete BS.
Its be fine if they won on the social issues, but we keep getting these embarrassing routs like over that recent AZ law and the birth control mandate play in 2012.
When your team keeps heading for the hills under massive fire its time to recalibrate and try a different attack approach.
We'll have to agree to disagree on that. Santelli's rant galvanized some people but the movement predated him.
You are correct. It is a battle against big government which is far bigger than taxes and bailouts. Inspired by the citizens revolt leading up to the revolution, it is about protecting our god given rights and freedoms, which extends across all spectrums. I can understand it not being overly focused on abortion but the current judicial attack on marriage and the immigration issue are front and center.
Also believe message discipline is important to success but not exclusion of any issue outside of taxes and spending.
that was one of the great sound bites ever. I watch CNBC in the late afternoon just to see what Santelli says, although most of the time its a more technical review of the market.
According to the most recent Gallup poll, just 30 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the movement, the lowest level in its history. This seems particularly unsettling when polls also show that the public still overwhelmingly supports the Tea Party objective of limited government. In fact, a recent Gallup poll shows a record 72 percent of Americans feels that big government is the greatest threat to the future of the country. Voters who feel that way should be flocking to the Tea Party in droves.
They are not.
Here in Kaufman County the Tea Party candidates ALL either won out right or will be in the run-off in May. That includes TWO State seats - one Senator and one Representative.
There is a tendency on this site for some folks to think their opinion which may be on the extreme side of an issue is the majority opinion of the country—and to denigrate anyone who has a different opinion as some kind of false conservative.
I call it the Pauline Kael syndrome. She was an editor of the NYT who said,”I simply don’t understand how Nixon got elected. No one I know voted for him.”
With all the issues related to Constitutional liberty, it’s like playing whack-a-mole for which one is at the forefront.
Good enough. We all need to work together for the future.
This from the "conservative National Review?
The short list of groups that want to see the Tea Party fail is:
The Chamber of Commerce
The ENTIRE Beltway media, including NR & WSJ
And of course the media/government complex
W/ this array of enemies its amazing, simply amazing, that we're still in the game.
NRO has gone down the drain.
Sometimes in the AM they will get Steve Liesman to purposely irritate Santelli. Probably the network trying to improve their ratings.
“The original issue was those brave citizens sitting on the US-Mexican border with binoculors, working to stop the invasion of the US.”
No, the teaparty really got moving when Obamacare passed.
RUSH: You know, it's interesting to try to pinpoint exactly when the Tea Party began. Now, the modern incarnation of the Tea Party as we understand it is a television phenomenon, and that was Obamacare. Obamacare and the stimulus, the debt and the spending, is what motivated people who were already thinking in a different way. Some people might think that the Tea Party's origins really could be traced back to Clinton.
There was a group back in the 1990s -- and they still exist. There was a group in the 1990s that were malcontents, renegades, and off the mainstream plantation of conservatism as articulated by the party. Those were the people that were the early participants in the website Free Republic . They were known as Freepers. They were... I say all this in a positive sense. I don't want any negative connotation.
I agree too. Too many people here want someone who agrees with them 100%, and if they don't they would rather have a liberal communist, that someone who agrees with them 90% of the time.
Oh yes, I enjoy Liesman vs Santelli. Sometimes they just let them go at it while the others just watch and chuckle at how much they dislike what the other says.
stand by for attack from the social(ist) conservatives in 3...2...1...
That’s because they allowed the Liberals to define what the “Tea Party” is.
Once you let your opponent define you, it’s over.
This kind of illiteracy--at NATIONAL REVIEW!
According to the media...
Tea Party didn’t exist
Tea Party was just astroturf
Tea Party is racist
Tea Party is dying
We had some very large rallies that didn’t even extist according to the media.
We had elections won that didn’t happen according to the media.
Blah, blah, blah. The Tea Party is alive and doing well with people in office now fighting for the things that we as Americans believe in all levels of government.
The Tea Party helps to form national debate as well as local, statewide and national policies and laws.
you did not talk to me
The republican insider meme has gone out to the media.
Tea party “flounders”
Tea party “wanes”
this is the RINO BS of trying to split conservative into social and fiscal. Conservative is conservative there is no division.
This is about protecting the RINO staffers who are DC homosexuals.
If the government has unlimited social objectives it’s a little difficult to focus on just the spending. It’s treating the symptom not the disease. Oh, and liberals have the ball, so it’s their agenda that we are paying for.
I agree with you and the article. Most people can get behind the original, economic message of the TEA Party, but not when the social issues get attached. I have watched people who used to admire the TEA Party but now they are against it simply because of the abortion and gay issues. Now fiscal conservatives have lost an opportunity to take back some control from the liberals, and social conservatives gained nothing while weakening the influence of the TEA Party. Dumb, dumb, dumb.