Let's get right to the point today: So what ever happened to that whole Tea Party thing? Anyone notice how it just sort of, you know, disappeared?
In 2009 they were highly visible, achieving commendable turnout at a number of rallies thanks in part to promotion on conservative websites, talk radio, and TV. In 2010 they were organized enough to defeat numerous high profile or incumbent Republicans in congressional primaries. Their anti-incumbent and pro-Republican leanings no doubt influenced the outcome of last year's general election as well. As a social movement, if it can be so called accurately, it was stunningly successful, accomplishing almost all of its fundamental goals. They moved Obama and the Republican establishment to the right. They elected a coalition of amateurs, ideologues, and zealots to Congress. They brought the "liberal" Obama agenda of 2009 to an effective halt.
Perhaps that's why we no longer see them holding rallies, or why we hear about them constantly in the media but only as an abstraction or represented by a small number of high profile career activists. Tea Partytm exists as a brand name, but where has the Tea Party itself gone? Protests at the Capitol during the debt ceiling debate turned out embarrassingly small crowds, basically a couple dozen nutbars in tri-cornered hats and ill fitting Halloween costumes.
What happened? Did they decide that they Won last year and return home satisfied? That's hard to believe; the problems they claimed to care about remain or have worsened, and they don't appear happy with the Congress they helped elect. Did they get jaded, realizing that the new Congress isn't producing different outcomes than the old one? Hmm. That would imply that their motivations were issue-based, which I find dubious. Did they simply get tired? Maybe. They were pretty goddamn old.
The Awl has a great piece from a woman who spent two years involved in local Tea Party politics in Wisconsin. While sympathetic, she is also realistic about what she sees.
I concluded that trying to figure out what they wanted was a dead end because what they wanted was simply to complain—that the Tea Party "is not a group of listen and respond; this is a group of respond and respond."
The Tea Party is no longer about economics, not that it ever solely was. At the larger rallies and for the cameras (CNN or laptop), they hold forth about founding fathers, liberty, spending, deficits, TARP, kicking cans down roads, taxes, living within means and fiscal responsibility. But when the lights are off, it's all about Jesus, with "God" thrown in, on occasion for Israel.
In the end though, the biggest enemy of the organized grassroots faction of the Tea Party is that it's a lot of work for a hobby.
In the last year or so, in addition to going to meetings and rallies, I've spent an unhealthy amount of time on the websites, Facebook pages and social networks of Tea Party organizations and those sympathetic to them. While many are still active, many others have not been updated for months and months. Many appear to have fallen off in activity in December, just after the elections. Event calendars are barren. "Latest updates" are months old and unanswered. Those that are active are often just ugly RSS feeds, just a string of links to news items on Breitbart sites or Newsmax.
The most active presences now are the Tea Party leaders who've gone whole hog with the movement and have nothing to lose in doubling down (such as Kim Simac) and the professional Tea Party organizers such as Freedomworks, American Majority, Tea Party Express and 9/12, who are, at the end of the day, simply community organizers for corporate advocacy.
Freedomworks head Dick Armey? Well, that's just the Contract with America all over again. American Majority head Ned Ryun? A speechwriter for George W. Bush, now out on his own.
The claim that the Tea Party was a grassroots movement has been treated with extreme skepticism from the outset, and the facts undermine such claims. Despite being backed by corporate money, interest groups, and consummate Beltway insider leadership, however, the Tea Party did rely on the participation of non-professionals. Those 1,000-100,000 people who showed up to various rallies were not all on Dick Armey's payroll. These are real people. They circulated emails, talked to friends and family, and went where they were told to go. And less than a year later, they lack the energy or enthusiasm to even maintain or update a website.
So where did they all go? The Tea Party has become the Mary Celeste of political movements, a rudderless hulk that continues to scare the shit out of Republicans even though no one appears to be on board. Did the anger dissipate? Did the election of a GOP House satisfy them? Did their minimal interest in politics run out? Was their movement, to the extent that it was a genuine one, co-opted by the Armeys and Reeds of the professional right? I don't have a good answer, but their silence is deafening after two unbroken years of hearing the phrase "Tea Party" every 30 seconds.