Tea Party: Repubs in Disarray or Dems in Denial?

The Tea Party now has 18 primary and special election victories under its belt. The media mostly views all this tea partying as a polarizing and destructive force, but what exactly is happening?

In the Christian Science Monitor, Patrik Jonsson cites a poll indicating that 44% of Americans now see the Tea Party in a favorable light. That's slightly more than the number who see it unfavorably. Most admirers are small-government types who wouldn't be caught at a Tea Party rally -- think of them as "closet" fans. But their attitudes matter, and it might be that their numbers suggest broader support of this "fringe" movement than has been generally admitted. Jonsson quotes pollster Raghavan Mayur, who warns that "the overarching message here is that Democrats have been in denial about the tea party [phenomenon]...and I think it's coming back to haunt them."

So does the movement help or hurt the Republicans in the midterm elections? In Delaware yesterday, Tea Party-supported candidate Christine O'Donnell pulled off a surprise victory over longtime moderate Mike Castle in the GOP primary. One view says that O'Donnell's victory will help Chris Coons, her Democratic rival, in the general election. Prognosticators in this camp say that Dems could point to such a victory as evidence that the Republican party is becoming more extreme. By linking the GOP and the Tea Party, they can point to xenophobic and racist elements that are distasteful to most Americans. But Dems would also be confronting an active group of citizens who channel anger and a sense of betrayal at a stagnant economy that many American share. The Tea Party's signature hatred of big government represents an attitude ignited by Ronald Reagan's famous mantra, "government is the problem, not the solution" that has been stoked for thirty years, and its hold on the American psyche is remarkably stubborn. It also makes a certain kind of sense. The Democrats' tepid response to unemployment is the latest evidence to many that government is not working effectively to ease the burdens of its citizens.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, along with his colleague Jie Chen, released a study of the Massachusetts election back in April that analyzed the significance of the Tea Party to the Scott Brown victory and also to future elections. Yesterday's "surprises" were not so unexpected if you read their predictions:

"If, as many expect, the U.S. is facing years of slow job growth coupled with a prolonged housing crisis, then the tea party in Massachusetts may look like a tempest in a teapot compared to what's coming in at least some elections in other states. Many have higher unemployment rates and far worse housing numbers than Massachusetts. In Nevada, for example, more than half the state's voters own homes worth less than the value of their mortgages. The recent, unexpected strength of the dollar, brought about by the Greek crisis in Europe, is another blow to the economy, at exactly the wrong moment for Democrats. Because interest rates are already so low, there is little the administration can do with monetary policy to offset this. The obvious alternative, running a bigger fiscal stimulus, is plainly unacceptable to deficit hawks in the administration and on Wall Street.

Add to all this the likely effects on campaign spending of the recent Supreme Court decision lifting restrictions on election spending by corporations and it is hard not to imagine that voters will soon be installing a lot of swivel chairs in the offices of their representatives."

The Tea Party's focus on getting control over the government is understandable during a time when people feel that their own lives are out of control. They or someone in their family cannot find a job. The value of their houses is declining. Their retirements are uncertain. Banks and credit card companies are gouging them. The Tea Party is plenty angry with bankers, but its best known public spokespersons, the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks, focus on government as the source of the problem. For them, the Tea Party is a statement of disapproval of government dysfunction. As the Roosevelt Institute's Robert Johnson reminded me today, recent polls indicate that Americans believe that government cannot be trusted to spend money in ways that help normal people or people in need. Instead, they believe that the government spends money for corporate welfare.

Perhaps the Tea Party will help Republicans to self-immolate. But the Dems will have to be careful of turning populist outrage against themselves. As my colleague Marshall Auerback put it in an email this morning, "Senator Dodd's latest petulant outburst against Elizabeth Warren is symptomatic of the hold that Wall Street still has on the Democrats. They are being hoisted by their own petard and still fail to understand it. The president continues to say that he 'gets' the anger and 'understands' why many Americans continue to perceive government as being rife with crony capitalists and special interest pleading. But if he truly did "get it", he would genuinely try to change the system, rather than eagerly accommodate himself to it."

Thomas Ferguson commented this morning that "both major parties seem to be in a race to see which can disintegrate first, with the Republicans now in the lead, but perhaps not for long." "If you look at politics in the Great Depression," Ferguson continued, "you can see a broad pattern of in -- out, out -- in. But when recovery fails to arrive, sharp turns to the right or left follow."

America, fasten your seat belt.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.