Is the (Tea) Party Over?

Hand Pouring Tea

Photo: All rights Microsoft Corp.


As the preliminaries for the 2014 elections get started, there is uncertainty in the air. Will the Republicans defeat the Democrats? If the Republicans do win, will it turn around their losing streak for the Presidency in 2016? The Republican party has been undergoing change for decades, and that long chain of changes is redefining the Republican party, possibly splitting the party in half. The 2014 elections will show us if the rise of the Tea Party is the defining moment in the growth the Republicans, or if it is the beginning of the end of the Republican’s as we know them.

Let’s go way back, to the 1960 election. The Republicans were largely the party of the North, and the Democrats were largely the South. Republicans supported the rich, but favored progress and science, and the Democrats were for tradition (especially southern tradition) and church values. John Kennedy won the 1960 election on a platform or reform and progress, a platform that was expanded upon by President Johnson, to become the “Great Society.” The desire of the Democrats for a fair society backed by a large government, vs. the Republican’s desire for a market-driven  society with a small government defined the battle between the parties. There were other differences… the size of the military, involvement in international affairs, etc. But it was pretty easy to know which party a politician belonged to, based on the policies they backed.

Then, the economy softened, the US lost the Vietnam war, and Japan became the rising start of industrial countries. On the heels of the humiliating capture of the US Embassy in Tehran, the Republican’s re-dedicated themselves to their core beliefs in 1980 when Ronald Reagan became president. The Republican party was re-energized by the thought of overturning failed Democratic programs with smaller government, and a market led economy.

However, the Republicans also wanted a bigger military and very big international changes, such as the defeat of the Soviet Union. Small government and international ambitions don’t live together happily. While some parts of government shrank, overall government spending exploded as the military became larger and space defense systems, and high-tech weaponry became a regular part of the military budget.

By the 2000 elections, anti-spend Republican’s became pro-spend. There were still differences between the parties, but the differences became ever smaller. The Republican’s gained voters, but these were the most disaffected and disillusioned Democrats. The 2000 election also completed the move of the religious right into the Republican tent. Now the Republicans had a problem.

They had enough voters to win elections, but their new recruits turned the party into an uneasy mix of traditional wealthy and educated business leaders, and anti-evolution theorists. Under the Tea Party banner, the Republican party has become the anti-science party, denying not just evolution, but climate change, species depletion, stem cell research and just for good measure… statistical evidence that marijuana is not dangerous, and that guns, cigarettes and alcohol are.

Republicans had ignored  the environment in the past. Nothing new there. But Republicans running businesses based on agriculture, or travel, or tourism, or manufacturing, recognized that the weather matters. The Republican agenda used to be very pro-science. You have to be pro-science if you want to be pro-progress, and if you believe in an expanding economy. Science minded Republican’s have been holding their tongues, while their less science inclined brethren looked for a political agenda in environmental science and other academic research.  The splinter group that became the Tea Party brought with it politics that would not easily blend with mainstream Republican thinking.

Then we had the 2008 election. The Tea Party raged at the newly elected President Obama, feeling that he represented all that was wrong with America. When they weren’t challenging Obama status AS an American. Republicans wanted to get back into the White House, but the Tea Party wanted to stop impure politics at any cost.

Believing that most of America believed in what they believe in. That’s why the Tea Party thought that the shutdown of the US government, would propel them into seats of leadership, rather than just undermining the credibility of their party. Previous generation of politicians ranked their success by the deals they made. Tea Party politicians measured their success by the deals they stopped. Disruption, rather than effective deal making, was their goal. Which is why the number of bills that turn into laws has dropped so dramatically in recent years.

The Republicans are an aging party. Not only are their members older than the Democrats, but the leadership is largely Regan Era politicians, who are marginal to the Tea Party’s politics. Old Republican leaders don’t represent today’s key demographics. The Tea Party brings energy into the party, but they don’t bring loyalty to the old leadership or the patience to wait until they hare handed power within the party. Their energy could as easily be turned against the current leadership as it can against their traditional democratic foes.

Republicans need their next big thing, and so far the Tea Party it is. But does the Tea Party need the Republicans? That’s the really big question for the next election. Will the Tea Party prefer to be a smaller party with a tight message, or will these rebel Republicans learn to keep to the Republican party line? Whatever they choose, the Tea Part is over.  They can’t continue to just be a rebellious segment of a larger party. They either need to strike out on their own or truly join the Republican party. And that’s my Niccoll’s worth for today!

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