Remember the early days of the Tea Party? Remember the wave of energy that swept across the conservative movement? Confronted with the combined legislative onslaught of Obamacare, a bloated stimulus (“porkulus”) package that cost more than the Iraq war, and economy-reshaping initiatives like cap and trade, the Tea Party yanked conservatives out of defeatism and depression, reminded Americans of their constitutional heritage, and confronted our fiscal irresponsibility not just in economic terms but with cultural and moral arguments as well.
And the Left was furious. Lies and slander spewed from the mainstream media. Somehow, a collection of middle-aged professionals who left public spaces cleaner than when they arrived suddenly became a “violent” and “dangerous” threat to the republic. Yes, many Tea Partiers were angry at the direction of the country, but that anger was expressed in isolated verbal outbursts at Town Halls and protests. They simply exercised their First Amendment rights, and the intensity of their protest paled in comparison to the recent Wisconsin union battles or the Occupy marches and encampments.
Even in the face of overwhelming media invective, the Tea Party remained popular, at one point exceeding the favorability ratings of both major political parties. In November 2010, the Tea Party triumphed, providing the energy and activism that transformed the political landscape. A new day had arrived.
Or had it? Even as the Tea Party hailed its great victory, signs of trouble were all around. In some jurisdictions (Alaska, Colorado, Nevada, Delaware), a dedication to ideological purity over all else resulted in nominating deeply flawed candidates. And public opinion was beginning to turn. By mid-2011, Tea Party popularity had turned upside-down, with significantly more Americans viewing it unfavorably.
Tea Party defenders blamed the media, and they were right — at least partly. The invective and slander kept spewing from the Left, with labels like “extremist,” “racist,” and “violent” used virtually as talking points. But something else was happening, something far more dangerous to the long-term health of the movement.
For many activists, the focus changed — moving away from making constitutional arguments to the American people against Obama’s excesses and towards a vicious ideological battle within the Republican party. Peruse popular conservative websites, and you’ll see writers calling fellow conservatives “gnomes” and some of the most popular even banning dissent from their comment boards. On talk radio, hosts are attacking other conservative candidates with unrestrained ferocity. In a strange turn of events, a conservative can agree with a fellow conservative on every major substantive plank of conservatism and still be labeled a “RINO” if their tone isn’t angry enough or if they support a different Republican in the primary.
Simply put, this kind of conduct is annoying and infuriating to everyone who is not in the constantly-shifting “in” crowd. And it’s happening in local venues where once-vibrant Tea Party groups are being increasingly dominated by an angry fringe that has long floated around the periphery of conservative circles. I’ve seen Republicans who one year ago loved to talk about the Tea Party now roll their eyes whenever they get one of the incessant, incoherent emails sent by this or that local activist.
If you talk about fiscal responsibility, decreased tax and regulatory burdens, and a culture of life, you tend to unite conservatives and many, many independents. When you tell a fellow lifetime conservative that they’re morally deficient for backing Mitt Romney or a “coward” for not advising public officials to violate the law to implement “conservative” policies (just to take two recent examples from my life), you not only alienate your allies, you look downright strange to independents.
Why bring this up? Because the polls are moving from bad to worse, with the Tea Party now enjoying only 25% agreement in Tea Party districts. These are the very districts most impervious to liberal media influence, the very districts often most gerrymandered to ensure a permanent conservative presence in Congress — and yet the Tea Party is at 25%?
The rise of Newt Gingrich as the “anti-Mitt” represents a serious blow to Tea Party dominance. Conservatives like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have to be shaking their heads. Wasn’t this the year for the “true conservative?” Don’t their lifetime flawless conservative records count for something? Yet in Newt Gingrich you have the very essence of the establishment Republican, a former Speaker of the House who has made millions as a quasi-lobbyist.
Obviously it’s way too early to write the Tea Party’s obituary, but that obituary is inevitable if self-proclaimed “true conservatives” continue to act like the fratricidal ideological scolds they’ve become.