It’s no secret that the Tea Party, the conservative-libertarian protest movement whose candidates found success during the 2010 midterm elections in the United States, is floundering and it’s no secret why — the once refreshing group of outsider candidates willingly shut themselves out of mainstream politics in a backfired attempt to maintain the essence of their original appeal.
The group’s sweeping victory in that year can be attributed to the support of two groups: the Baby Boomer generation and their parents, a demographic that’s notably distrustful of government authority and much more conservative than following generations and worried, politically independent middle-class voters (many of whom were small business owners) who were dissatisfied with the relatively slow economic recovery after Obama’s first two years in office.
Beyond having demographics on their side, the Tea Party was also comfortable in using the tendency of the American voting system of encourage polarization. Because moderates and political independents typically don’t find either major party alluring, and because third parties are so easily wedged out in the American two-party system, the Tea Party, with sufficient money and momentum, was able to appeal to the most stalwart conservatives without having to mind the moderate voters at all, many of whom had lost faith in electoral politics completely after the Great Recession.
The movement struck a chord with the disillusioned American populace, and as many as one in three adults in America supported Tea Party values. Over two-thirds of Americans felt that Republicans in Congress needed to be more sympathetic to the Tea Party. With such numbers, it seemed assured that the Tea Party would go down in American history as a highly influential, meaningful group, a political juggernaut whose formation signaled the beginning of a new dynamic in American politics; and, for a few years, that was indeed how the situation looked.
During the period from the 2010 midterms to the presidential election in 2012, the Tea Party became the blood and bones of capital-C Conservatism in America. Their rhetoric quickly became the tone of the Republican Party at large, and it seemed to have an appealing quality that the establishment party somehow lacked; the movement and its candidates were populist, rousing, and passionate. Their influence continued to grow after the 2012 elections, although their numbers did not grow significantly. The large shift in the Republican Party towards the values of the Tea Party, however, may serve to exaggerate the true influence of the Tea Party in Congress.
About fifteen Senators became involved with the Tea Party Caucus, the official “receptacle” of the Tea Party in Washington according to the Caucus’s founder, Michelle Bachmann. Given that the Republican Party has been the minority in the Senate for the whole of Obama’s presidency, its influence in the Senate is meager at best and meaningless at worst. The caucus does, however, have greater influence in the House.
At the beginning of 2013, there were 48 members of the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives. Given that there were 234 Republicans elected to the House during the last election and 435 total representatives, their influence may still sound inconsequential—however, the key to the surge of the Tea Party is their role in the larger Republican Party.
In 2012, the Republicans won 234 seats to the Democrats’ 201. Simple math shows that the total number of Republicans minus the number of members of the Tea Party Caucus means that there are 186 establishment Republicans in the House, less than there are Democrats. This is the secret to the Tea Party’s seemingly monolithic influence. While the raw numbers show that relatively few of them were elected in 2012, the establishment Republicans cannot win congressional votes without the support of at least 16 of the 48 Tea Party Caucus members; and so, the Republican Party was forced to lurch itself to the right to appeal to that caucus, lest the Tea Party caucus abstain from congressional votes, allowing the Democrats to ram through their desired legislation.
In other words, the Tea Party really isn’t all that popular with the American people. Only 25 to 30 percent of Americans consider themselves supporters of the movement, which shows in the makeup of Congress. The only reason that their ideas have begun to penetrate the Republican establishment is that Republicans simply can’t afford to ignore them. Their voices matter more than those of the establishment Republicans, more than those of the more moderate candidates that vast majorities of Americans truly do support.
With such little support statistically, it’s obvious that the Tea Party needs to broaden its support and increase the number of candidates that associate themselves with the movement. The hope among Tea Party congressmen was that they could use the 2014 primary elections to unseat establishment candidates, allowing them to gain an even firmer grip on the future of the party. Unfortunately for them, that plan hasn’t exactly worked out. While they’ve held on to all of their candidates, they’ve only managed to unseat two sitting Republicans, Eric Cantor of Virginia and Ralph Hall of Texas. There wasn’t a lack of opportunity, either; Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, and Thad Cochran were all high-profile establishment candidates that were supposedly at risk of being unseated, but they all eventually won their primaries, McConnell and Graham without any truly threatening opposition.
Naturally, the question must be raised; why, exactly, is the Tea Party failing to grow? Why does the movement seem so unpopular now after surging just four years ago? The answer could be given through complex arguments about demographics, shifting voter attitudes, and the tendency of voters to reelect their incumbents even when Congress’s approval ratings hit record lows, but the answer is truly much simpler than that; Tea Party Republicans are failing to establish themselves because their entire existence relies on anti-establishment rhetoric. When Tea Party leaders say things like “There is no such thing as a national Tea Party,” the reality behind the apparent loss of interest in the movement becomes clear.
Voters want national change. They want to feel as if their votes matter. But if Tea Party leaders in Oklahoma tell their voters that nothing in the Oklahoma Tea Party will ever affect the national political climate, voters become disillusioned and frustrated. After all, gridlock is already a major issue to most voters, and a political idea that prides itself on not organizing and not coordinating major policy initiatives, which is exactly the message that the Tea Party movement is sending in the lead up to the 2014 elections, just doesn’t have the same kind of appeal that it did when Washington was actually running smoothly (if such a time can ever have been said to exist). Unless the Tea Party learns this lesson and begins to show the voters that it is capable of taking itself seriously on the national stage, it seems likely that the movement will cease to exist within a few election cycles.