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Right-wing Populism Could Hobble America for Decades

The tea party is going down. Dysfunction is not.

Illustration by Oliver Munday

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison promised that a large republic with a representative government would avoid the “instability, injustice and confusion” that had plagued many nations in Europe. In a representative government, he reasoned, disruptive factions would be unable to gain sufficient power to dissolve the social contract. The people’s representatives would not necessarily be paragons of virtue, but they would be less likely to succumb to “local prejudices and schemes of injustice.” In the 225 intervening years, Madison has been proven correct, with two great exceptions. One was the Civil War. The other was the 16-day government shutdown of October 2013.

The shutdown’s precipitating cause—President Barack Obama’s health care reform—was, of course, not as morally consequential as slavery. And yet, the shutdown presented an existential threat to the country—the prospect of a breakdown in the national government, a diminishment in America’s standing in the world, and a global financial disaster.

The prime agitators were a small group of right-wing lawmakers identified with the Tea Party who had no interest in negotiating with President Obama unless he was willing to defund or delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Along with grassroots Tea Party groups and elite conservative organizations in Washington, these politicians formed a political battering ram against any prospect of compromise. Until House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell finally defied this faction, the United States stood poised on the edge of calamity.

The same forces hope to create more crises—this winter, when the budget comes up for another vote and when the debt ceiling needs to be raised, and again and again until the administration or the country buckles. “Unfortunately this time the outcome ended with the Ruling Class in D.C. forcing their will on the American people, but this fight is not over,” the Tea Party Patriots declared soon after the impasse was resolved. “We have vowed and stand by our word to leave no stone unturned until we stop the harms from Obamacare and exempt the American people from this ‘train wreck’ legislation.”

My best guess is that they will be unable to cause such chaos a second time. In fact, the Tea Party’s failure to wring concessions from the Obama administration—and the palpable damage it inflicted on the Republican Party—may even presage the end of this political bloc. By 2016, the Tea Party may have gone the way of the religious right of the 1990s or the anti-immigrant Minutemen of the 2000s. And yet the question remains whether the Tea Party’s demise will produce a kinder, gentler, more cooperative America—or whether its constituents will regroup and again threaten a descent into political and social disorder.

Over the last century, protest groups in the United States have rarely taken the form of new national parties, and the Tea Party is no exception. It is a political movement of local groups and competing national organizations. The Tea Partiers’ political ends are reactionary—they want to undo the liberal reforms of the last 80 years—but their means are radical. They envision a doomed country that can only be saved through convulsion, not compromise. In October, one Texas Tea Partier told me his views of the shutdown. He was speaking for himself, but I have found similar sentiments from other activists.

The left is now the closest it has ever been to the destruction of our Republic. Obama told us that’s what he wants. I and other Tea Party members can see the day of destruction coming just on the horizon. We must stop them now for they are many and they are blind or ignorant or complicit to the threat we face and we are few. ... Let the government shutdowns go on and on until the end of Obama’s term (or the 2014 elections). Let the debt service be paid from current receipts if that is what it takes. If Obama doesn’t follow the law and make the payments or if he continues to hurt the American people then it will be just and proper for the House to impeach him.

The Tea Partiers are a species of what Donald Warren—in his 1976 book, The Radical Center—called “middle American radicals.” They tend to be white, middle class, primarily from the South and Southwest (including Southern California) and parts of the Midwest. Many work in or own small businesses that they perceive to be under siege by regulations or taxes or unions or cheap immigrant labor. Others are professionals who see no use for government. Earlier, they might have belonged to the John Birch Society or voted for George Wallace or Pat Buchanan; they might have joined anti-tax groups, the Minutemen, or religious-right organizations. Many still hold these views—anti-immigrant and conservative Christian sentiments proliferate on Tea Party websites—but the animating cause has changed.

The Tea Partiers gravitated toward the GOP because of its opposition to energetic government, and because it contains politicians like Michele Bachmann and Steve King who championed their cause. But they did not identify with the party leadership, which they saw as just another part of Washington to be opposed and, eventually, overthrown. From Tea Party directories, I would estimate that the people who actively participate in Tea Party groups number no more than 75,000—considerably less than 1 percent of likely Republican voters. And yet over the past three years, these activists have increasingly set the agenda of the Republican Party. That’s partly because, at its height, the Tea Party was viewed favorably by as much as 64 percent of GOP voters, who saw it as leading the fight against the debt, the deficit, the ACA, and everything else they disliked about Obama’s Washington.

But there was another reason that the Tea Party’s influence far exceeded that of its middle-American radical predecessors. The Moral Majority and Christian Coalition also attracted thousands of adherents, but couldn’t have dreamed of bringing Washington to a standstill over, say, an abortion bill. The Tea Party was assisted by elite conservative organizations in Washington—the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and Heritage Action, a branch of the Heritage Foundation—which provided intellectual firepower, Washington experience, and many millions of dollars.

During the Obama years, these Washington organizations adopted an outsider posture toward the Republican establishment, driven by backers alarmed by what Michael Grunwald has called Obama’s “new New Deal.” One of FreedomWorks’ major funders is Richard Stephenson; in the last election cycle, he contributed more than $12 million, which equals about 60 percent of its PAC budget. Stephenson is founder and chairman of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, which could suffer financially from the ACA. FreedomWorks is fighting against health care reform and supported the shutdown strategy. Americans for Prosperity was founded by the Koch brothers, oil billionaires who have become leading funders of right-wing activism in the Obama era. And the Club for Growth’s board is led by Jackson “Steve” Stephens Jr., who runs a biotech firm and whose uncle founded Stephens, Inc., investment bankers for Walmart.

These backers are far more hard-line than the typical corporate executive. They come from privately owned companies and investor groups and so are invulnerable to shareholder pressure, union retaliation, or public opinion. They want the Republican leadership not merely to block regulations and programs, but to repeal existing ones, an approach that brought their organizations into agreement with the Tea Party.

On the eve of the final shutdown vote this month, the Tea Party and its allies were represented by a formidable bloc in Congress. These groups had played a crucial role in the primary victories of Utah’s Michael Lee, Texas’s Ted Cruz, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, and Florida’s Marco Rubio over establishment-approved candidates for the Senate. During the last two election cycles, these groups also funded scores of far-right Republicans in the House like King and Bachmann. Some 46 House members and six senators had been listed as part of the loosely organized Tea Party caucus in Congress. In addition, there were about 18 other House members like Trey Gowdy, Mark Meadows, and Justin Amash, and several senators, including Jeff Flake and Pat Toomey, who owed their election to support from the Tea Party and its Washington allies. In the Senate, where a solitary senator can filibuster, and in the House, where the speaker needs an absolute majority to retain his job, the Tea Party Republicans could hold the party hostage.

Tea Party groups are fond of invoking Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals as a political guidebook: What worked for Obama, they reason, should work for them. Crucially, however, Alinsky advised organizers to pursue “limited victories, each of which will build confidence.” His logic, borne out of his experience as a radical in the 1930s, was that attempting to bring about the revolution in one fell swoop could doom an organization—a lesson that Tea Partiers ignored at the risk of their own obsolescence.

In Congress, the Tea Party lawmakers expected Obama to eventually capitulate and at least delay implementation of the ACA. When the president held firm, to the surprise of many, the Tea Party and its allies pressed forward: The Club for Growth, the Tea Party Patriots, and FreedomWorks threatened retaliation against any lawmakers who voted for the Reid-McConnell bill, which ultimately ended the shutdown.

But the Tea Party had won popular support for its anger against Washington, not for its radical methods. It was one thing to oppose the ACA; quite another to put the U.S. dollar and next month’s Social Security check in jeopardy. When the Tea Party’s extremism was exposed, its popularity began to crumble. In February 2010, according to a Pew Poll, 33 percent of the public had a favorable view of the Tea Party and 25 percent held an unfavorable view (the rest had no opinion). By this October, the unfavorables outnumbered the favorables by 49 to 30 percent, and 30 percent had a “very unfavorable” opinion of the movement. Among Republicans, the unfavorables rose from 10 percent to 27 percent. These numbers are only likely to grow as the public learns more about what happened during the crisis.

Similarly, the Republican Party has sustained major damage. Seventy-four percent of respondents in an October ABC News/Washington Post poll said they disapproved of the party’s handling of budget negotiations. The shutdown may cost the Republicans the Virginia statehouse: Even though the Republican candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, took no position on the strategy, he went from about 5 points down in mid-September to 10 a month later. In next year’s midterm elections, Democratic challengers will be able to tie Republican incumbents in northern and western swing districts to the debacle. Another dramatic shutdown attempt this winter—combined, perhaps, with an attempt to unseat Boehner—could even cost the Republicans the House in 2014.

Almost overnight, the Tea Party has become toxic. Where Republicans were once afraid of crossing the movement, they are now fearful of being identified with it. This shift could be seen in the Reid-McConnell vote, when several Republicans defied the Tea Party and Washington groups to support the bill. They included Senators Jerry Moran—a member of the Tea Party caucus—and Jeff Flake, who won office last year with generous contributions from the Club for Growth. In the House, seven members of the Tea Party caucus supported the bill, as did a Club for Growth favorite, Tom Cotton from Arkansas. These votes were cracks in what had previously been a united front.

There have also been ripples of disaffection among the Washington groups’ benefactors. The Koch brothers announced that they did not approve of the shutdown strategy, and according to a former congressman who works on K Street, some major contributors to the Club for Growth are “reevaluating.” Several Republican lobbyists told me that business groups plan to throw their weight behind candidates who have been targeted by the Tea Party and its Washington allies. “The business community and the rational Republicans are saying that we have to fight back,” said John Feehery, the president of Quinn Gillespie Communications. “It has been a one-sided fight in which the Tea Party has been punching far well beyond its fighting weight.” Former Representative Steven LaTourette, the president and CEO of the Mainstreet Republican Partnership, said his group is getting a lot of interest in “electing and defending center-right candidates.” And a lobbyist who has given money to Ted Cruz’s leadership PAC told me of a colleague who received an invitation from a candidate backed by the Club for Growth: “He didn’t just say no. He said, ‘I am going to support an opponent when they run against you.’ ”

Against this backdrop, Boehner and McConnell will probably resist any further attempts to shut down the government. And it’s unlikely that anti-establishment primary challengers will fare as well in 2014 as they did in the last two elections. Coming after the humiliating defeat that was the shutdown itself, these setbacks will diminish the Tea Party. Without the tailwind of popular approval, its demands will be ignored. Politicians who once embraced its dogma will prove fickle. Followers will drop out or drift into pro-gun, Christian, or anti-immigrant groups.

Something similar happened to the religious right in the late ’90s, after it unsuccessfully tried to remove Bill Clinton from office. Disenchantment and disarray set in. In 1997, Fortune ranked the Christian Coalition as the seventh most powerful political organization in the United States. By 2000, it barely existed. Conservative Christians continued to vote for Republicans and some of its leaders still enjoyed national prominence. But they failed to strike fear in Republican politicians, and the movement ceased to be a major force in American politics.

The Tea Party could fade even faster. Unlike the religious right, it doesn’t have widely recognized leaders outside elected office to carry on the fight. In this respect, it is more like the left-wing Occupy movement, which disappeared after police ousted its advocates from their encampments.

If the Tea Party dissolves, Republicans could, counterintuitively, be the main beneficiary in 2016. Those discontented conservative voters will still be there. But they will not be organized into an implacable movement that prevents Republicans from adopting more moderate positions in general elections—as George W. Bush was able to do in 2000 with the decline of the religious right, but Mitt Romney was unable to do in 2012 with the Tea Party in ascendancy. The absence of the Tea Party in 2016 could allow a candidate like New Jersey’s Chris Christie to mount a viable challenge to the Democratic nominee by appealing to the center. And with the disappearance of the Tea Party as a national force, American politics could become more constructive than it has been in a long time.

And yet there is reason to fear that the country has not seen the end of “instability, injustice and confusion.” A host of factors have fed middle-American radicalism in the past century—the threat of communism, the rise of the civil rights and feminist movements. But the most recent incarnation was the product of the economic forces that created the Great Recession. If the economy continues to stumble, something resembling the Tea Party will materialize again.

Looking at the economic history of the United States or Europe over the last century, what stands out is the vital role that public spending has played during recessions. Public spending has also stimulated new sources of growth and investment, and promoted equality by using part of the profits generated by the private economy to fund social programs. Government spending as a percentage of GDP rose from the low single digits in the 1920s to about 20 percent in the decades after World War II. The rise of public spending is an indicator in advanced capitalist countries of the greater responsibility governments feel toward the welfare of their citizens.

Skeptics of the New Deal like to say that World War II ended the Great Depression, but that’s still an acknowledgment that a burst of public spending was essential to reviving the economy. Faced with the Great Recession, Obama took this experience into account by boosting spending. However, while this prevented a recurrence of the Great Depression, he didn’t raise public spending enough to prevent an initial increase in unemployment. That awakened century-old American suspicions—historian Louis Hartz called it Americans’ “Lockian” liberalism—that big government was responsible for the country’s economic ills. Many Americans came to believe that increased spending was the cause of growing unemployment. That conviction, erroneous but deeply felt, fueled the rise of the Tea Party and the Republican landslide in 2010.

Since then, congressional Republicans have fought to reduce government spending, and Obama has reluctantly acceded to their demands. Spending has fallen as a percentage of GDP, which is one reason that the recovery has failed to fully take hold. And the budget deal that concluded the shutdown didn’t reverse this pattern—it continued it. The congressional budget conference committee, which is supposed to come up with a new plan, will probably not agree to any significant increase in spending. Instead, it’s more likely that a new round of sequester cuts will take effect this winter.

Over time, continued austerity could put the United States on a political path similar to that traveled by Japan. After its downturn in the ’90s, Japan’s failure to apply a consistent Keynesian remedy resulted in palsied growth and a continual churn of administrations for more than two decades. In the United States, a slow recovery, along with creeping social inequality, could thrust Republicans into the White House in 2016. But unless they see that public spending is essential to the country’s stability, they too will face a political revolt, and American politics will be thrust into a state of perpetual upheaval.

In the United States, except in times of foreign threats, insecurity breeds dissension, discontent, and social and political fragmentation. If growth and employment are still faltering—or falling—three or four years from now, the middle-American radicals will almost certainly reassemble into a new formation. It may not be called the Tea Party, but it could pose the same kind of disruptive threat.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, business leaders and public officials assumed that the great danger to the American polity would come from the far left—from communist revolutionaries or New Left anarchists. But it never really did, and doesn’t today. The real threat to America’s large republic is from the far right. The middle-American radicals represent the dark intolerant side of American politics. They reject the attempt, beginning in the Progressive Era, to smooth the rough edges of a capitalism that, left to its own devices, leads to monopoly, inequality, and poverty. And they promote the polarization of the parties, making a functioning government impossible and throwing into question the Constitution they claim to revere. 

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic.