Now we can begin to see the full arc of the political phenomenon called the tea party, from its rapid rise less than a decade ago, to its current decline. An array of national polls over the last week – all, of course, dismissed by the tea party – show both growing hostility toward the movement and trouble for Republicans as a whole.
A CBS poll shows support for the tea party down to just 14 percent of the population, with 40 percent of Republicans holding a negative view of the organization. Meanwhile, a Post/ABC poll found negative views of the Republican Party at an all-time high of 63 percent.
The tea party initially coalesced around legitimate concerns over the national debt, but quickly morphed into a radical right-wing movement attached to the Republican Party and funded by far-right billionaires like the Koch brothers. In 2008, it found fertile ground for new supporters from an economic collapse and the election of a black president. It was, by then, powerful enough to cause John McCain, an otherwise sensible Republican presidential candidate, to select an obscure tea party favorite from Alaska as his running mate.
Historians with no attachment to current politics will almost certainly view Sarah Palin as among the most ill-qualified and potentially dangerous candidates for vice president the country has produced.
By 2010, the tea party propelled Republicans to a takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives, riding a wave of continuing apprehension about the economy, anger at government giveaways to Wall Street and opposition to a national health care plan.
Since then, the movement has suffered a string of debilitating defeats, including losses in U.S. Senate races in 2012 that ensured Democratic control of the Senate, the re-election of President Obama and an inability to derail Obamacare. In the shutdown debacle, the tea party’s obsession with the new health care law caused it to link the funding of health care with funding for government as a whole. Most observers saw that as a no-win strategy. It turned out to be a disaster.
The response of tea party leaders has been a jaw-dropping display of denial: Polls don’t matter. The press is biased. It is all the fault of the incompetent-yet-mastermind Obama.
They’ve even gone as far as to create a circular firing squad for fellow Republicans. “The single most damaging thing that has happened to Republicans for 2014 is all of the Senate Republicans coming out attacking the House Republicans,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, as though the only problem with the tea party shutdown strategy was other Republicans.
Now, more traditional leaders of the Republican Party, including stalwarts like McCain, Mitch McConnell and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are promising to oppose tea party candidates next year. Those divisions reflect a heightened fear among Republican leaders that the party is going to be increasingly viewed as little more than a gathering place for Southern and Western hotheads.
The problems for the tea party go beyond weak candidates or frustration-driven strategies. The movement seems incapable of hearing anything or learning from its mistakes. Those weaknesses can be traced to the makeup of the movement. While it includes many people who are motivated by a sincere concern about the country and its future, its membership is generally older and more set in its ways than the rest of the population, and it is driven by people who are perpetually angry and frustrated.
These are folks who are familiar to most of us, either in our families or our communities. They seem to love nothing better than one-way conversations in which they talk and you listen. They have everything figured out and endlessly repeat the same slogans and snarky talking points to prove it.
One-way communicators don’t allow any of their wisdom to become infected by contrary facts, which is why they cluster around reassuring allies and get information exclusively through like-minded media outlets. Safely locked inside their echo chamber, they’ve become tone deaf to what is really happening around them.
Democrats who are tempted to break out the champagne should delay the celebration. Having your opponents stumble doesn’t guarantee your own long-term success. The public has only slightly more affection for Democrats today than Republicans, and a majority, in some polls, would support sending both sides packing.
But this is clearly a moment of opportunity for Democrats. If they can refocus on the issues that matter most to common-sense voters – growing the economy and streamlining government – they could see significant gains in upcoming elections.
Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization that promotes Maine’s entrepreneurial economy, and a partner at the Caron & Egan Consulting Group. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org