John W. Dean

Why The Tea Party Elections On November 2, 2010 Will Ultimately Make No Difference

By JOHN W. DEAN
Friday, October 15, 2010

With just over two weeks to go until Election Day, the biggest issue to emerge this election cycle is the potential impact that the rowdy and radical-right national movement that calls itself "The Tea Party" will have on the November 2, 2010 mid-term elections: win, lose or draw. That will be the big story this Election Day.

In truth, it is remarkable that this grassroots populist uprising is viewed as a new phenomenon, when these types of movements occur regularly in our system, on both the left and the right. It is equally noteworthy that anyone should either worry or believe -- depending on whether they agree or disagree with the Tea Party movement's agenda -- that this populist insurgency will, in the long run, make any real difference in Washington. It will not.

While I have no skills for prognostication, I can read history. And I understand how Washington works. Regardless of whether it is good or bad, the fact is that modern populist outrages follow a pattern, and all suffer similar fates. It will be the same for the Tea Party Movement -- just wait a few years.

The Tea Party Movement

The Tea Party Movement emerged from the mood-catching rant delivered on February 19, 2009 by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli, who held forth on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, with the camera getting it all. Santelli was unhappy with the bank bailout: "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?" he shouted, before calling for a " Chicago tea party." The Drudge Report, along with other bloggers and cable television, and then talk radio, picked up the Santelli rant and drew attention to it. Soon "tea party" websites began popping up on the Internet, and a movement was underway.

The Tea Party movement is and always has been leaderless and largely unorganized, although politicians like Sarah Palin and former Republican House leader Dick Armey have sought to exploit it, and guide it, for their own purposes. Fox News Channel has profited by becoming its principal broadcast outlet, if not its voice. Glenn Beck is its leading "intellectual" light. During the healthcare debate, Tea Party supporters and promoters distinguished themselves by disruptive and dishonest tactics. The movement has defined itself by what it opposes: the bailout of Wall Street, healthcare reform, taxes, big government, the Democratic Party's agenda, and President Obama. The ranks of the movement are dominated by far-right political activists, "birthers," libertarians, and authoritarian and religious conservatives. Almost all are card-carrying Republicans.

According to Gallup's polling data, about 28 percent of Americans support the Tea Party Movement; Almost half of these are Republicans and 43 percent are Independents, but 70 percent call themselves conservatives. Dressing up in Eighteenth Century Sons of Liberty costumes, carrying loaded weapons to political rallies, interrupting speeches with shouting, taking outrageous positions on issues, and possessing wacky backgrounds (no longer practicing witchcraft, running for office while refusing to talk to the news media, scorning science, and so on) have all given this movement far more media attention than it deserves. And this attention, in turn, has given the movement the appearance of enjoying a degree of clout that it may, in fact, not really wield -- which is not to say that conservative activists acting badly cannot influence political primaries, or state and local conventions, where the turnout is predictably small and highly partisan.

Writing for the New York Times, historian Alan Brinkley noted that describing the Tea Party movement is " a bit like a blind man trying to describe the elephant." Accordingly, there has been little agreement among the analysts -- inside and outside the movement -- as to the precise nature of this creature. Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement that this movement is a populist undertaking, so commentators use terms like "populist uprising," "populist backlash," " populist movement," " populist sentiment," and "populist revolt" -- to offer a few examples. Progressives, however, find the Tea Party's populism to be faux: "Tea Party populism is driven by anger at our government and at our country. Real populism fights for all Americans, while Tea Party populism divides us," Senator Sherrod Brown told USA Today. As a populist movement -- the full consequences of which I will examine in a moment -- the Tea Party has already had an impact.

The Tea Party's Accomplishments -- and Failures

The Tea Party's effort to kill healthcare reform failed, although they certainly contributed to watering down the Obama Administration's efforts on this score to a bare minimum. Indeed, they continue to fight the mandate provisions of the law that passed, which require everyone have heath insurance with a private carrier -- a proposal that ironically originated with the conservative Heritage Foundation. But in Massachusetts, they elected Sen. Scott Brown, which gave them a key vote in the Senate to filibuster Obama's agenda.

In addition to failing to defeat healthcare reform, the Tea Party movement failed to stop the efforts to prevent the American economy from collapsing by blocking the rescue of Wall Street. Nor has the movement forced President Obama to produce another copy of his birth certificate. Yet the movement has been surprisingly successful in the state primary contests, one after another, where candidates have sought and received the support of this decentralized movement. In addition, Tea Party candidates knocked off two sitting U.S. Senators along the way -- Senators Robert Bennett of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska -- as well as Republican-Party-endorsed candidates for the Senate in Kentucky, Nevada, and Delaware.

ABC News has catalogued the candidates for the House, Senate and Governor claiming Tea Party credentials. With 11 candidates running for the U.S. Senate, six candidates running for governorships, and 18 candidates running for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Tea Party is certainly in play, big-time. More specifically, the Tea Party candidates include the following:

U.S. Senate candidates: Sharron Angle (Nevada), Ken Buck (Colorado), Sen. Jim DeMint (South Carolina], Ron Johnson (Wisconsin), Mike Lee (Utah), Joe Miller (Alaska), Christine O'Donnell (Delaware), Rand Paul (Kentucky), Dino Rossi (Washington), Marco Rubio (Florida), and Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania).

Gubernatorial candidates: Tom Emmer ( Minnesota), Nikki Haley ( South Carolina), Paul LePage ( Maine), Dan Maes ( Colorado), Carl Paladino ( New York), and Gov. Rick Perry ( Texas).

U.S. House candidates: Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minnesota), Rep. Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee), Renee Ellmers (North Carolina), Michael Grimm (New York), Vicky Hartzler (Missouri), Jesse Kelly (Arizona), Adam Kinzinger (Illinois), Charles Lollar (Maryland), Rep. Tom McClintock (California), Rep. Walt Minnick (Idaho), Star Parker (California), Rep. Mike Pence (Indiana), Rep. Tom Price (Georgia), Tim Scott (South Carolina), Scott Tipton (Colorado), Glen Urquhart (Delaware), Jackie Walorski (Indiana), Allen West (Florida) and Rep. Joe Wilson (South Carolina).

That is rather impressive for a political brand, or party, or movement that did not exist during the last election cycle. Many of these candidates are sure winners, particularly the incumbents who have added the Tea Party label to their standing. But if past is prologue, this populist insurgency will not make much long-term difference in the way Washington operates. Rather, it will eventually look like those similar movements that have preceded it, even if every Tea Party candidates were to win on November 2, 2010. So regardless of the outcome on the first Tuesday in November, in the greater scheme of things, this is not a seismic political event.

Modern Populist Movements Consistently Fizzle Out

Notwithstanding the often confused and mixed messages, and the disorganization, these Tea Party candidates, each in his or her own way, are carrying populist messages. If this movement is the sum of its parts, it is surely a populist undertaking.

Georgetown University historian and biographer of the great populist Williams Jennings Bryant, Michael Kazin, described populism for Newsweek as follows: " At its core, populism in the United States remains what it has always been: a protest by ordinary people who want the system to live up to its stated ideals—fair and honest treatment in the marketplace and a government tilted in favor of the unwealthy masses." Not without good reason, overwhelmingly Tea Party supporters believe that government is taking better care of corporations, and itself, than it is of the unwealthy masses.

Jay Shafritz's Dictionary of American Government & Politics explains populism as a recurring theme in American politics that stresses the role of government in defending small voices against the powerful and wealthy. History shows that these recurring themes come from both sides of the political spectrum. As Shafritz notes, "any political movement that has mass popular backing and is generally perceived to be acting in the interests of the people can be called populist." While progressives do not much care for the conservative Tea Party's approach, that fact does not make it any less populist. In fact, many economic conservatives shudder at Sarah Palin's populism, and her endorsements of Tea Party candidates have, more often than not, made them viable in their races: Just ask Sharon Angle, or Christine O'Donnell, or Nikki Haley.

My point in noting, and emphasizing, the populist underpinnings and foundation of the Tea Party movement is that modern populist movements have consistently fizzled out, and often quickly. This column is too short to examine the modern history of populism, but in my cursory look at late-Twentieth-Century and Twenty-First-Century populists, while I can find short-lived impacts of populist movements, I can find but a few populist undertakings of continuing significance, other than the New Deal and the Great Society -- both of which conservatives are devoted to undoing.

If the Tea Party proves to be stronger than I suspect it will on November 2, 2010, I will return to the subject, and explain why the Party's impact, based on history, will surely be short-lived. If that does not happen, and the Party falls short of expectations at the polls, as I expect will be the case, then there will be no need for further comment, for the Party's efforts at a conservative-based populism will have already run their course, as most populism quickly does. In fact, the fate of most populism is regrettable, for the elites are very good at taking care of themselves, and everyone else needs far more attention than, in fact, they are given.

Only one request: Do vote.


John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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