A tectonic shift is taking place in American politics: the extreme Right is on the rise and it is transforming the Republican Party. From Delaware to New York to Alaska, Tea Party candidates are sweeping Republican primaries. Part denial; part naiveté; part attack: it was only a year ago that most (in both parties) dismissed the Tea Party as too crazy, too irrational, and too fringe to be politically viable. It is now clear that crazy has marched to the steps of the Capitol. The Tea Party is Right America's new political reality and it is, contrary to Mayor Bloomberg's wishful thinking, no passing fad. Few have understood this phenomenon correctly: what exactly is the nature of this right wing rebellion?
The Tea Party has little formal organizational structure. It has no official representative or official platform. It is small and decentralized. An aggregate of prominent political figures, media pundits, and grass-roots organizations supported and directed by corporate sponsors (Freedom Works, the Tea Party Express, and the Tea Party Patriots, for example). All are vying to speak in its name. And what more: many establishment conservatives have embraced the language and style of the movement, blurring the lines between old and new. There is even sometimes dissent over who to endorse. Christine O'Donnell of Delaware, for example, was perceived as too risky by Freedom Works; but this is rare. While central organization is lacking, all of these groups and people share the same ideology -- an ideology that is hardly new on the American political scene.
The Tea Party's ideas are traditional conservative wine served in angrier extremist bottles. They believe the same things that have dominated the American Right since (at least) the Reagan Revolution: a loathing of strong federal government and the desire to curtail -- if not eradicate -- the social benefits provided by the welfare state; a nativist hostility toward minorities; a strong belief in American exceptionalism; distrust and cultural hostility toward academic "elites" and the promotion of anti-intellectualism and pseudo-science (climate change denial, intelligent design); an embrace of Evangelism as a framework for social and intellectual values; nostalgia for the (whitewashed) post-World War II Greatest Generation; and a lionizing of demagogic leaders (for the Tea Party, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin) who mask their own wealth and corporate sponsors with ersatz populism.
Most pundits have failed to explain the Tea Party, confusing explanation with description. On the Left, pundits point to the racist, nativist, and Islamophobic language that characterize parts of the movement and infer that the movement reflects the anxiety of aging White conservatives who feel alienated by the changing demographics and culture of the United States. The movement is, after all, predominantly made up of Whites over fifty.
Other pundits focus on the Tea Party's vilification of the Obama agenda--especially Health Care reform, the TARP bailouts, and economic stimulus--and, as a result, incorrectly attribute the movement's origins to the broader popular discontent (across political parties) with Obama policy, Washington, and Wall Street (the "establishment"). Some Tea Partiers even claim to oppose both parties in Congress; commentators therefore infer (incorrectly) that the Tea Party is somehow apart from the traditional Right.
But most miss the actual political significance of the movement itself.
When trying to locate the place of the Tea Party in American politics, focusing on its rhetoric can be misleading. When some Tea Partiers say that they oppose the Republican Party in addition to the Democrats, they mean a particular kind of Republican Party. And when Tea Partiers claim to be anti-incumbent, they mean a particular kind of incumbent (after all, there is wide support for Sarah Palin, who is not a political amateur).
In fact, the Tea Party is made up entirely of conservatives. Its real political significance lies not in its opposition to Democratic politics, but in what it is doing to the Republican Party. It is waging an internal revolt against the Republican establishment, which is perceived as having betrayed conservative ideology.
The origins of the movement precede the rise of Obama and his hated agenda. During the Bush years, American media was largely focused on the widespread domestic and international hatred of George W. Bush among the political Left (and eventually moderates as well), but largely ignored the internal frustration of conservatives within the Republican Party. Rush Limbaugh voiced widespread conservative anger when he railed against big government "RHINOS"--an acronym he coined for "Republicans In Name Only."
Limbaugh and conservatives were furious over what they perceived as the RHINO betrayal of "true" Republican values (i.e. conservative values), especially the gospel of limited government. RHINOS had presided over the biggest expansion of government in US History while controlling the presidency and both houses of Congress during the Bush years (Barack Obama and the Democrats relished to point this out during the 2008 election as well).
For many on the Left it is hard to believe that conservatives see the Republican establishment--culminating in the Bush presidency--as a sellout of conservative values. Conservative columnist and tea-party supporter Peggy Noonan summarizes this sentiment: "If you look at the past half century or so you have to think: How come even when Republicans are in charge, even when they're dominant, government has always gotten larger and more expensive?"
Today's Tea Party is an outgrowth of that frustration. The Republican establishment is "the reason we even have the Tea Party movement," writes Andrea Tantaros in the New York Daily News. It was the Bush administration that "ran up deficits" and gave us "open borders" and "Medicare Part D and busted budgets." As a movement the Tea Party is engaged in an internal party purging of these RHINOS. It did not break (and will not break) with the Republican Party to provide a third political alternative. Instead, it is implementing an ideological purification of the Republican Party.
As Peter Beinart has argued, the Tea Party is the American Right's version of the 1960s American New Left, which overthrew the Democratic Party establishment through the leadership of George McGovern. The role of George McGovern, of course, is being played by Sarah Palin.
Thanks to the efforts of the Tea Party, the conservative wing of the Republican Party is now increasingly taking over the party as a whole (with a very small number of exceptions whose future is dark). Tea Party candidates challenging Republican incumbents in primaries across the country are forcing moderates into political exile--either directly, as in the recent Republican Senate primaries in Alaska, Delaware, Kentucky, Utah, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and Pennsylvania and the primary for the governorship of New York; or indirectly, by forcing long-time moderates to move to the far Right, to conform to the Tea Party's ideological purity (John McCain of Arizona is but one example); and to adopt its extreme political rhetoric (Newt Gingrich).
The movement is, therefore, not interchangeable with the broader American frustrations with Obama and the Democrats, though it may draw on this wider frustration as a political strategy. It is rather a purely conservative phenomenon. The Tea Party is not, as many of its adherents claim, a reflection of "what the American people want," but merely what conservative Americans wish to impose on us all.