Whither the Tea Party?

In the aftermath of the election, we find the Republican Party wringing its hands over what went wrong. There are two camps crawling out from underneath the rubble. One holds that conservatives weren’t “conservative” enough. They steadfastly maintain that Republicans are only Republican when they cling to the values that have always defined the party. Unfortunately, that includes resisting immigration, holding out against gay marriage, and pretending other religions don’t exist.

The other camp realizes that Republicans have been out in the weeds looking for a hopelessly lost ball and need to get back on the playing field. They think that while parting brush looking for the past, the present sneaked up and kicked Old Guard Republicans right in the posterior. This camp has the virtue of introspection. May they soon come to dominate.

When the Tea Party originated, Republican George W. Bush was in office. He had just seen fit to bail out big banks in order to “save capitalism.” A few months later, I began speaking to Tea Party gatherings in and around Central Illinois. Uniformly, the groups to which I spoke never brought up immigration, abortion, or any of the other contentious issues that did in the Republicans. They were universally passionate about three things: lower taxes, decreased spending, and constitutionally limited government.

About the time the Old Guard Republicans saw that this was catching on, they decided tea was the new drink of choice and the Tea Party has never been the same since. In the beginning, it was a refreshing breeze of libertarian thinking: government is the problem. Not all of it, but most of it. And the solution is to restrain government. Not eliminate it, but restrain it.

By the time the hard right political hacks were done with it, the Tea Party became the poster child for misbegotten ideas. Michele Bachmann and a host of other dufuses (or is it “dufi?”) grabbed the moniker and made hay with it. The libertarian Tea Party had the lifespan of a June frost. In its place arose the co-opted Tea Party–a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together out of a faux deference to limited government and a generous helping of hatefulness through government.

At the precise point when the Republicans could have learned something from the Tea Party, they did the only thing guaranteed to goof it up. They adopted it as their own. Now we see the very name conjuring up images of Todd Akin and other (insert more insulting word than “dufuses” here). So much for winning over sane people who think government may just be a bit too large.

And so the Tea Party started as an appeal to the perfectly sensible sensibilities of mainstream Americans. I think most people recognize that something has gone wrong with our government, and being too small isn’t it. I think most people also realize that “live and let live” is a pretty good rule to live by. In other words, their self-assurance does not extend to having government impose their preferences on others.

What now for the Tea Party? Maybe given a few months to let their heads clear, the Republicans will realize that those odd-looking people parading around in the summer of ’08 in powdered wigs and patriot clothing really were onto something. Maybe when enough good people turn their backs on the religious fanatics* and hate-mongers** in the Republican ranks, they will realize that their thinly-veiled hostility toward those who are different is killing them.

Or not.

It is also possible that they will cling even more fervently to social conservatism with all its nastiness. If so, perhaps the original Tea Party hosts will find a new home under a different political tent. The Libertarian Party shows promise, though Gary Johnson or someone like him must lead the charge to make it more credible and better understood. It may even require a new political party altogether.

Either way, one thing is clear. America is home to an abundance of different races, different creeds, different preferences, and different origins. We each have the individual right to work out our lives as we see fit, as long as we grant that same right to others. Our country’s road to health, prosperity, and happiness will not be paved by those who fail to acknowledge–and live by–that simple human truth.

*Not all religious people, just the crazy ones.

**Not restricted to religious nuts.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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7 Responses to Whither the Tea Party?

  1. web staff says:

    Tea Party has always meant limited government,fiscal responsibility, and free markets. Not sure where the low taxes came from, but they are a natural result of the 3 core principles. We will not be drifting to the Libertarian Party, if anything, the GOP will dissolve under it’s own ineptness and a new conservative party will emerge..


  2. David says:

    Terry, the Tea Party never changed its core ideals. They were under continuous attack by both the Left and by moderate Republicans, your enlightened Republicans of your second paragraph. But conservatism is far from dead. About 40 % of Americans self-label themselves as conservative and only 19% claim to be liberal. These numbers have not significantly changed over the past 30 years. The majority of conservatives are not focused on the social issues and religious issues that are more the focus of the far right. Republicans most certainly must stand for fiscal conservatism and stand for the founding principles of liberty and small government. On these things, they can win. When Republicans leave it to the Democrats to define them, they lose. as they did In this election. Democrats have a highly effective attack machine with the same talking points spread far and wide through the mainstream media, social media, and schools.


  3. Dick Richards says:

    Let’s just let the liberals have there way for a few years. Their big government, Keynesian policies will either work or irrevocably prove to be a failure; that ought to bring the whole nation into the libertarian camp.


  4. Dustin says:

    Until the Republican party stops backing liberty killing laws such as the NDAA and the Patriot Act, they won’t fool me into thinking they are for small government. Until they decide to cut spending EVEN ON THE MILITARY BUDGET, I refuse to believe they are the party of fiscal responsibility.

    The Tea Party does nothing but pay lip service to small government and fiscal responsibility now that the Republican Party has co-opted it.

    I’m changing my party to Libertarian, where at least a few good men stick to their principles and fight for my liberties.


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