Regular readers know that I regularly mock the periodic announcements of the demise of radical conservatism, whether it’s old-school “movement conservatism” or the Christian Right or the Tea Party or that most dangerous hybrid, “constitutional conservatism.” The MSM is forever burying one or all of these phenomena, and many progressives understandably cheer when they hear it.
But that doesn’t make it accurate. And one of our most learned progressive analysts of the Tea Party, Theda Skocpol (co-author with Vanessa Williamson of the 2011 book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism), offers a new warning that the latest burial of the Tea Folk after the government shutdown debacle is as premature as before:
In the latest such maneuver during the summer of 2013, radical-right Texas Senator Ted Cruz put himself forward as a bold Tea Party strategist calling for a renewed all-out crusade to kill Obamacare long after it was assured survival by the Supreme Court and the 2012 presidential election. With his strong ties to far-right funders and ideologues, plus a self-assured, even arrogant, pugnaciousness that thrills much of the GOP electorate, Cruz could direct a chunk of House Republicans to pressure a weak Boehner into proceeding with the government shutdown and debt brinkmanship. Apologists say Boehner was “reluctant,” but what difference does that make? He went along.
After the immediate effort flopped and caused most Americans to further sour on Republicans, Cruz remained unbowed. And why not? After all, Cruz gained near-total name recognition and sky-high popularity among Tea Party voters. He now appears regularly on television, and his antics have allowed elite Tea Party forces to lock in draconian reductions in federal spending for coming rounds of budget struggles. Americans may resent the Tea Party, but they are also losing ever more faith in the federal government—a big win for anti-government saboteurs. Popularity and “responsible governance” are not the goals of Tea Party forces, and such standards should not be used to judge the accomplishments of those who aim to undercut, block, and delay—even as Tea Party funders remain hopeful about holding their own or making further gains in another low-turnout midterm election in November 2014.
The mini-victory of congressional approval of a mini-budget agreement disliked by conservative activists didn’t change the basic dynamics, and indeed, will likely soon illustrate the durability of conservative radicalism.
Skocpol is bold to predict how long it might take to accomplish what the president has called “breaking the fever:”
[A]t least three successive national election defeats will be necessary to even begin to break the determination and leverage of Tea Party adherents. Grassroots Tea Partiers see themselves in a last-ditch effort to save “their country,” and big-money ideologues are determined to undercut Democrats and sabotage active government. They are in this fight for the long haul. Neither set of actors will stand down easily or very soon.
Also worth remembering is that “moderate Republicans” barely exist right now. Close to two-thirds of House Republicans voted against bipartisan efforts to reopen the federal government and prevent U.S. default on loan obligations, and Boehner has never repudiated such extortionist tactics. Tea Partiers may not call for another shutdown right away, but they will continue to be able to draw most GOP legislators and leaders into aggressive efforts to obstruct and delay. In the electorate, moreover, more than half of GOP voters sympathize with the Tea Party and cheer on obstructionist tactics, and the remaining Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are disorganized and divided in their views of the likes of Ted Cruz.
Skocpol’s reference to “consecutive” defeats being required to stop the rightward drift of the GOP is both acute and important: Conservative media are adept at writing off periodic defeats—especially in high-turnout presidential elections—as accidents, or as the product of poor Republican candidates, or as the fruits of Democratic vote-buying or “fraud.” Yet so long as the Republican electorate is almost perfectly aligned with demographic groups that disproportionately show up in midterm elections, beating their coalition in consecutive national elections will be difficult.
Worst of all, the kind of dysfunction a radical minority like the Tea Party can produce almost on its own is perfectly designed to increase the anti-government sentiment on which it feeds:
[T]he events of October 2013 helped millions of middle-of-the-road voters—and even quite a few complacent political reporters—grasp the dangers of the sabotage-oriented radicalism in today’s Republican Party. But it will take a long and dogged struggle to root out radical obstructionism on the right, and the years ahead could yet see Tea Partiers succeed by default. Unless non-Tea Party Republicans, independents, and Democrats learn both to defeat and to work around anti-government extremism—finding ways to do positive things for the majority of ordinary citizens along the way—Tea Party forces will still win in the end. They will triumph just by hanging on long enough to cause most Americans to give up in disgust on our blatantly manipulated democracy and our permanently hobbled government.
So it’s no time for anti-conservative-radical triumphalism within or beyond the GOP.
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