In the midst of the government shutdown and in anticipation of defaulting on U.S. loans next week, there has been a rush by columnists to depict the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives as either as a crackpot splinter from the GOP or a regionally-bound rebel yell of nullification. In both descriptions, the tea party is seen as a small cadre that is taking an otherwise reasonable GOP on a suicide mission. Such accounts misunderstand the breadth of this insurrection, the character of modern conservatism, and the history that got us here.
As the New York Times reported on October 6th, the attempt to use Congressional budget battles as a boulder against which to dash the Affordable Care Act was long-planned, highly orchestrated and well-coordinated by a group that included numerous players old and new from across the conservative spectrum. These include national organizations with organized local chapters across the country, including Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, as well as the Heritage Foundation, Club for Growth, figures like former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese and others. The effort was abundantly financed by the billionaire Koch Brothers among others. Given this coalitional breadth, it is hard to contend that the shutdown was driven by extremists on the margins, particularly given the support, both active and passive of many Republican House members who do not hail from tea party districts.
There is also nothing ideologically out of step with the main tenets of modern conservatism since the late 1950s. One can go back to early issues of National Review or Human Events, read Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater's bestselling manifesto Conscience of a Conservative, or read the triumphalist speeches at the 1964 GOP convention to see the lineage. While it is true that this faction bears neo-confederate traces, the racist rage of the segregationist movement has long shaped national conservative prerogatives, as I argue in the book From the New Deal to the New Right: The Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism. Race-based attacks on public assistance, deregulation, and antitax populism came together as to form the baseline political imperatives of the Republican party with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan.
That there are now fissures between different factions of the GOP and the financial elites that back them is not evidence of a reasonable Republicanism under attack by a lunatic fringe. Rather the growing factional divide is evidence of the full development of the American conservatism, having been nurtured across four decades of neoliberal advance and the concomitant decimation of the welfare state (Chris Matthews' sentimental and idealized Tip and the Gipper notwithstanding). Republican leaders such as Paul Ryan, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and others are trying to rein in the Tea Party before it seriously disrupts financial markets and further discredits the party. But this insurrection isn't a monster that the party can't control. It is, from elites to the electorate, quickly becoming the party itself.