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Amorphous Blob or Well-Disciplined Army, Does the Tea Party Matter?

Want a little whiplash? Start by reading Jonathan Rauch’s fascinating NJ story about the decentralized, leaderless structure of the Tea Party Patriots. And then head over to the NYT expose on the big-shot GOP consultant making a killing off of the Tea Party Express. Is the Tea Party a grassroots, egalitarian social movement, or a GOP astroturf front group? Both? Neither?

You can imagine how difficult it is for anyone to talk about the effects of Tea Partyism, given how difficult it is to define what the Tea Party is in the first place. Given that, I’ve seen two worthwhile things recently. One is Nate Silver’s Big Think piece, which as you can expect from him is particularly good in its race-by-race analysis (his “Dimension 1”). The other I’ve referred to before, but I’ll quote it this time; it’s from Ed Kilgore’s wrap-up of the GOP primary season:

The role of the Tea Party movement in this rightward shift was significant, but it was not ubiquitous. And if, like me, you think the Tea Partiers are simply a mobilized bloc of conservative Republican voters, focusing on their role as if it were some sort of independent force is a chimera. What we have actually witnessed this year is the final victory in a Fifty Year War waged by the conservative movement for control of the Republican Party. 

I think Kilgore is largely correct in this, and I think party network scholars should have something to say about it. The core thesis of the party networks approach is that American political parties (I call them “expanded parties”) are best understood as composed of both formal party organizations and informal party networks, which include activists, campaign and governing professionals, party-aligned interest groups, the partisan mass media, and politicians. From this perspective, it’s easy to see that the Tea Parties are an organizational form within the expanded Republican Party, not an alternative to the party. Moreover, it suggests that it’s a mistake to think of one set of Republicans as an “establishment” and another -- which after all features the most recent Republican Vice Presidential nominee, along with the former Majority Leader of the House, plenty of sitting Members of Congress, and a host of long-time Republican activists and operatives -- as outsiders. That may well be the case in some internal confrontations, but in others the lines may be between local groups and national Republicans, or between moderates and conservatives, or just between two competing candidates. 

What else can we say, if we see Tea Parties this way? One is (as Kilgore urges) to be very careful about attributing causation to Tea Parties. Imagine, for example, that there were no Tea Parties at all. Does that require imagining a world in which Congressional Republicans go along with whatever Barack Obama wants, a world in which Glenn Beck organizes no rallies, or a world in which rank and file Republicans have no interest in midterm elections? We have a good test case for that: 1994. And that’s even before Fox News could play a coordinating role in GOP politics. Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that with any mainstream Democrat in the White House and with Democratic majorities in Congress, Republican reaction (regardless of how it was organized) would have been swift, strong, and intense. Beyond that, another factor, that Sarah Palin is herself an independent force in GOP politics -- to the extent that her endorsements by themselves may have the capacity for significantly helping a favored candidate -- is probably entirely separable from Tea Partyism. Again, it’s easy to imagine no Tea Parties at all but a Palin endorsement still serving as a powerful cue to conservative activists, especially in multicandidate, low information primary elections.

That does not mean, however, that the “how it was organized” that I glossed over just now is necessarily irrelevant. Yes, one could expect vigorous opposition to the Democrats. And it’s hardly surprising that conservative opposition would also (as it did after 1960, 1976, and 1992) would also take the form of criticizing past GOP elected officials for not being sufficiently conservative; that’s what conservatives do. But our expanded parties can take many forms, and to some extent the form they do take may make a huge difference. It could well be the case that the Tea Party Patriots are mobilizing some grass roots activity that wouldn’t have happened otherwise; it could be the case that particular organization forms are providing a local alternative to national Republican Party elites. Without the particular organizational form(s) Republican opposition to Obama has taken, it’s certainly possible that Bob Bennett and Lisa Murkowski would be safely cruising to reelection, and that Mike Castle would be about to deliver a Republican seat in Delaware. On the other hand, it could be the case that Tea Partyism -- that is, Tea Partyism specifically, and not general GOP distaste for Democrats in government (and specific unease about the terrible economy) was responsible for recruiting some strong candidates, who will go on to be important GOP pols for the next decade or more. 

What I do think is that it’s a mistake to think of this as a national battle between Republicans against Tea Partiers, or between an establishment and insurgents, or between conservatives and moderates (Delaware notwithstanding, there just aren’t a lot of Republican moderates left, although of course it’s possible that Tea Party candidates may be even more conservative than their opponents). It’s certainly a mistake to think that Tea Parties in general, or specific Tea Party organizations, are responsible for conservative unhappiness with Barack Obama and the Democrats. One other word of caution: American political parties are not as decentralized and local as they once were, but they are still not (only) national hierarchical organizations; it’s very possible that these events differ, possibly quite a bit, across different states. Maybe in some places there really is an establishment vs. outsiders story, but other places may differ. Indeed, I suspect that some of these battles are between locals and the national party -- but sometimes the national party that matters are national movement conservatives trying to capture a local moderate party, while sometimes its national pragmatic operatives against local purists. And sometimes, both might be happening at the same time. Of course, all of this means that it’s difficult to generalize about “the effects of the Tea Parties.” That’s fine; sometimes the best we can do is to wait for further data, or to just describe as best we can without trying to draw big causal connections.