Right-wing billionaires have been trying to create a group like the Tea Party for more than a generation. The goal was a movement that combined the fervor of evangelicals with anti-government populism — contagious beyond the pews.
In 2009, the inauguration of the first African-American president in the midst of the worst financial crisis in 50 years provided the opportunity for a “non-partisan” movement to rise up. The myth that the Tea Party wasn’t of, by and for the Republican Party was promoted by Fox News, which was also promoting Tea Party rallies.
The Republicans who quickly became the face of the movement — like the party’s most recent vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin — encouraged Tea Partiers to run in Republican primaries, defeating incumbents and moderates. While in 2010 the GOP won more elections than they had at any time since before the Great Depression, Tea Party candidates cost them the Senate.
In the run-up to the 2012 election, the Tea Party failed to unite behind any one presidential candidate, but they succeeded in dominating the debate, driving all the candidates to the right and convincing Mitt Romney to select as his running mate a congressman famous only for his plan to shrink Medicare. At that point, the Tea Party takeover was nearly complete, though the movement’s stars (like Palin) only played minor roles in Romney’s campaign.
After President Obama’s re-election, the GOP establishment told itself that it needed outreach, and the Tea Party disagreed.
Guess who won?
The establishment wanted immigration reform and didn’t want a shutdown. Immigration reform is barely alive and the government isn’t open. The organizing prowess of self-proclaimed Tea Partiers has given them control of the party, so much so that the Tea Party’s agenda is now the GOP’s agenda.
With the help of new research from Democracy Corps, here are five reasons why the Tea Party took over the GOP — and one reason why it will eventually tear the Republican Party apart.
Moderates Are The Minority
More than half of the GOP is now made up of self-identified evangelicals and Tea Partiers.
Americans have gerrymandered themselves into blue urban areas and red rural areas so it would be nearly impossible to draw completely fair electoral maps.The New Republic‘s Nate Cohn argues that gerrymandering actually reduces the number of very Republican districts. But it’s clear that without their custom-made districts, Republicans would not have gotten 1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats in 2012 yet still maintained a comfortable majority in the House. These safe districts mean that Republican congressmembers feel obligated to cater to the hardliners who make up the majority of the primary voting population.
There are moderates left in the party who disdain the Tea Party and don’t take Fox News seriously. But the problem is that there just aren’t enough for party leaders to be concerned about them.
Only a quarter of those who identify as Republicans label themselves as moderates, according to Democracy Corps. This could explain why the percentage of Americans who identify with the GOP has been shrinking steadily since the 2012 election.
In Democracy Corps’ recent round of focus groups with Republican voters, moderates were surprised and relieved to find that actual Republicans with similar, more-middle-of-the-road beliefs still existed. They still believe in fiscal conservatism, but they know they cannot sell their kids on the party as it is today.
Photo: Civil Rights via Flickr
Republicans Are Terrified Of How The Country Is Changing
Republicans describe themselves as “worried,” “discouraged,” “scared,” and “concerned.”
This anxiety is based in reality. Their party is out of power. They don’t identify with many of their elected officials. And they know that demographics and time are against them. Evangelicals, who are 90 percent white, especially feel that they are losing control of their country.
Nearly all Republican members of the House come from districts that are predominantly white and those are the voters they’re catering to when they shut down the government.
“They have an acute sense that they are white in a country that is becoming increasingly ‘minority,’ and their party is getting whooped by a Democratic Party that uses big government programs that benefit mostly minorities, create dependency and a new electoral majority,” Democracy Corps reports.
Conservatives have debated whether they can win the next election by courting “missing white voters,” knowing that even if that strategy works in 2016 it will likely be the last time it ever does. Despite this, Tea Partiers and evangelicals have no interest in making the sort of compromises that would broaden the base of their party. The majority of the GOP is much more interested in hunkering down and preparing for battle now.
Photo: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr
Obama Is The Beast And Obamacare Is The End-Times Battle
This may shock you, but Tea Partiers and evangelicals don’t like President Obama. And they think Obamacare is pure evil.
The Tea Party participants in Democracy Corps’ focus groups described the president as a “spin doctor,” “misleading,” “slick,” “slimy,” “untrustworthy,” “condescending,” and “an SOB.”
They don’t just think Obama believes in bigger government, they think he’s hiding a “darker, secret, socialist agenda.” This extreme rhetoric first arose in 2009 via Glenn Beck and other Tea Party media figures, but it’s become mainstream Republican thinking along with persistent claims that he isn’t American or Christian.
Obamacare to them represents the vehicle that will permanently institutionalize Obama’s un-American worldview, creating dependence that Democrats can feed and grow through immigration reform. This is why Senator Ted Cruz’s Defund Obamacare campaign went from the fringe of the party to being embraced by the party’s leaders in just months.
The fear of Obamacare that evangelicals share is like the fear of a Biblical plague, which is why Cruz is seen as a prophet daring to go into the lion’s den.
AFP Photo/Saul Loeb
Evangelicals Love The Tea Party Because They Fight
Evangelicals feel besieged and abandoned by their party’s leadership. The fact that the GOP nominated the man who pioneered Obamacare in Massachusetts as their last nominee makes them suspicious and angry.
The only people standing up for them? Fox News, which they describe as the only network “in the middle,” and the Tea Party.
“The greatest source of hope is the Tea Party because they are standing up and pushing back,” Democracy Corps reports. “They may not agree with the Tea Party on some issues, but they share a special solidarity given how isolated they are.”
This is where the RINO (Republican In Name Only) phenomenon comes from. Anyone who isn’t either Tea Party or evangelical enough is seen as not a true Republican.
In focus groups with like-minded right-wingers, evangelicals and Tea Partiers formed instant bonds and vowed to stay in touch so they can continue “the fight.”
When Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) told The Washington Examiner, “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is,” he was giving as clear a summation as possible of what the majority of the Republican Party now stands for.
Photo: Mark Taylor via Flickr
Compromise Is Caving
Have you seen this man?
His name is Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Republicans used to be so proud of him that they picked him to respond to President Obama’s first State of the Union address after being re-elected. The junior senator from Florida then made a mistake. He listened to voices in his party’s establishment who know the GOP needs immigration reform to prevent Latinos, the fastest group of new voters in America, from turning away from the party the way African-Americans have since 1964.
Rubio helped pass comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate and sent it to the House, where it is slowly shriveling up and dying, along with Rubio’s hopes of ever becoming president.
Compromise isn’t just a dirty word for the far right, it’s the enemy. Matt Bevin, a Tea Partier who is opposing Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in a primary next year, is sending around this story that blames him for singlehandedly causing the government shutdown. This is the kind of credential that the new majority of the GOP loves.
Tea Partiers are unapologetically pro-Wall Street, pro-trickle-down economics, pro-guns. Evangelicals hate political correctness and are opposed to adapting the good, homogenous society they grew up in.
Anyone who doesn’t agree with the orthodoxy isn’t just treated with suspicion, they’re excommunicated from the movement.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr
LGBT Rights Will Eventually Tear The GOP Apart
Right now, Tea Partiers and evangelicals recognize that they have the same enemy, and that’s good enough.
However, eventually — maybe after President Obama and the Clintons have faded from the scene — there is a chasm that will emerge between these two wings when it comes to LGBT rights, specifically same-sex marriage. Tea Partiers, by and large, have a laissez-faire stance on opening the institution to LGBT couples. They believe that shrinking government means getting it out of the bedroom.
Evangelicals see same-sex marriage as a conspiracy to push “the gay agenda” that will destroy the culture.
This hints at a larger issue that could easily tear the GOP apart if Republicans ever get executive power again. Evangelicals’ suspicion of the government is largely tied to Obama. The chances of them remaining concerned about the NSA or military intervention with a Republican they trust in the White House are slight.
But this fissure will be completely neglected until the 2016 primaries at least. Today’s GOP is defined by what they oppose and that means they are united in trying to destroy President Obama, at any cost.