Even as the movement’s grip tightens on the GOP, its influence is melting away across vast swaths of America, thanks to centuries-old regional traditions that few of us understand.
Photo: Sean Wilkinson, Sean Wilkinson Design
When 2011 began, the Tea Party movement had reason to think it had seized control of Maine. Their candidate, Paul LePage, the manager of a chain of scrappy surplus-and-salvage stores, had won the governor’s mansion on a promise to slash taxes, regulations, spending, and social services. Republicans had captured both houses of the state legislature for the first time in decades, to the surprise of the party’s leaders themselves. Tea Party sympathizers had taken over the GOP state convention, rewriting the party’s platform to demand the closure of the borders, the elimination of the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Department of Education, a prohibition on stimulus spending, a “return to the principles of Austrian Economics,” and a prohibition on “any participation in efforts to create a one world government.” A land developer had been put in charge of environmental protection, a Tea Party activist was made economic development chief, and corporate lobbyists served as the governor’s key advisers. A northern New England state’s rather liberal Democrats and notoriously moderate Republican establishment had been vanquished.
Or so they thought.
Less than a year later, it’s Maine’s Tea Party that’s on the wane. Prone to temper tantrums and the airing of groundless accusations, Governor LePage—who won office by less than two points in a five-way race, with just 38 percent of the vote—quickly alienated the state party chair and GOP legislative leadership. His populist credentials were damaged when it was revealed that much of his legislative agenda— including a widely condemned proposal to roll all state environmental laws back to weak federal baselines—had been literally cut and pasted from memos sent to his office by favored companies, industrial interests, or their lobbyists. His economic development commissioner was forced to step down after allegedly insulting several (previously friendly) audiences, while a court ruled that his environmental protection nominee violated conflict-of-interest provisions. He triggered international media coverage, a lawsuit, and large protests after removing a mural depicting the history of Maine’s labor movement from the Department of Labor because an anonymous constituent compared it to North Korean “brainwashing.” Eight of twenty GOP state senators blasted the governor’s bellicose behavior in an op-ed carried in the state’s newspapers, the largest of which declared in April that “the LePage era is over.” Power in the state’s diminutive capital, Augusta, now resides with the senate president, a Republican moderate who was Senator Olympia Snowe’s longtime chief of staff.
The Tea Party itself has been all but destroyed in Maine by its association with the debt ceiling hostage takers in Washington, according to Andrew Ian Dodge, founder of the organization Maine Tea Party Patriots and the state movement’s most high-profile activist. “There were people saying, ‘Yes, I think we should default,’ and there were the rest of us saying, ‘You’re insane,’ ” says Dodge, a dark-horse challenger to Snowe. “Now I’m emphasizing my Tea Party links even less because a lot of people think they are the crazy people who almost drove us off a cliff.”
Indeed, in much of the northern tier of the country, the Tea Party has seen a similar reversal of fortune. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—who won by just 6 percent— has faced powerful resistance to his deregulatory, antiunion, antigovernment agenda, including the recall of two of his senatorial allies; his political future is uncertain. In Massachusetts, Tea Party-backed Senator Scott Brown has emerged as a moderate Yankee Republican along the lines of Snowe. In New Hampshire, Tea Party organizer Jack Kimball stepped down as state party chair this September after losing the confidence of the state’s leading Republicans. “This is the establishment Republicans versus the Tea Party that helped get them into office,’’ one angry Tea Party activist said of Kimball’s departure. “They rode us in, now they’re bringing us back to the barn.’’
When the Tea Party burst onto the national scene in the summer of 2010, it looked like a national movement. From Wasilla, Alaska, to Augusta, Maine, it dominated GOP rhetoric and produced candidates in virtually every level of government and section of the country. But over the past year, even as its grip on the national GOP has strengthened, its influence has melted away in large swaths of the northern half of the continent, its activists forced to confront the fact that their agenda and credo are anathema to the centuries- old social, political, and cultural traditions of these regions. The Tea Party agenda may hold sway over large parts of the South and interior West, and with the economy and the president in such a weakened state a Tea Party favorite like Rick Perry could conceivably win the White House. But the movement has no hope of truly dominating the country. Our underlying and deeply fractured political geography guarantees that it will never marshal congressional majorities; indeed, it almost guarantees that the movement will be marginalized, its power and influence on the wane and, over large swaths of the nation, all but extinguished.
We’re accustomed to thinking of American regionalism along Mason-Dixon lines: North against South, Yankee blue against Dixie gray or, these days, red. Of course, we all know it’s more complicated than that, and not just because the paradigm excludes the western half of the country. Even in the East, there are massive, obvious, and long-standing cultural fissures within states like Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and Ohio. Nor are cultural boundaries reflected in the boundaries of more westerly states. Northern and downstate Illinois might as well be different planets. The coastal regions of Oregon and Washington seem to have more in common with each other and with the coasts of British Columbia and northern California than they do with the interiors of their own states. Austin may be the capital of Texas, but Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are the hubs of three distinct Texases, while citizens of the two Missouris can’t even agree on how to pronounce their state’s name. The conventional, state-based regions we talk about—North, South, Midwest, Southwest, West—are inadequate, unhelpful, and ahistorical.
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