This fall’s twin traumas—the government shutdown and the debt-limit crisis—pushed our political system to the breaking point. The Tea Party, spoiling for a fight, flexed its muscles and drove Republican Party strategy. Its irresponsible rebellion brought our nation to the brink of default.
In retrospect, the shutdown showdown now seems inevitable. It was a catastrophe years in the making. Five summers ago, the Tea Party erupted on the scene, a movement built around resentment of Barack Obama’s rise and anxiety in an age of economic insecurity. Its rapid ascent and increasing influence on our politics seemed to take the establishment by surprise at every step. Tea Partiers were dismissed as a grassroots movement with little real power…then they helped Republicans take the House in 2010. Their ideological sway within the GOP was a matter of debate…then sequestration cuts that both parties were alleged to have hated went into effect. Their willingness to push their agenda was understood to have limits…then the nation found itself nearly defaulting in the midst of a government shutdown.
If the shutdown and debt-limit crisis can be seen as the pièce de rèsistance of Tea Party governance, then surely we can dream that its baleful influence will soon start to ebb. After all, poll after poll has shown that the shutdown took a toll on the GOP. Other surveys have attested to the Tea Party’s shrinking popularity, as frustration with its style of political combat and governing-by-crisis sets in. So: Is the tide about to turn? Can we really see a post-Tea Party America taking shape?
To investigate these questions, we asked some of the finest writers and thinkers on politics and conservatism to chime in. Leading off is Theda Skocpol, the esteemed Harvard scholar (and member of our editorial committee). Skocpol, along with Vanessa Williamson, wrote one of the definitive books about the Tea Party phenomenon; here, she looks at whether the Tea Party will burn out soon, or whether the body politic will have to deal with this affliction for some time to come. Alan Abramowitz, author of the terrific The Disappearing Center, writes on the tensions between the Tea Party and mainstream Republicans—and why the former will continue to exert influence on the latter.
Sean Wilentz, the distinguished historian from Princeton (and another editorial committee member), traces the genealogical lineage of the contemporary Tea Party. Leslie H. Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations (yet another Democracy committee member) and Michael Kramer, formerly of Time, turn their gaze to foreign policy, where they find that the Tea Party has had a worrisome influence on Republican thinking.
Christopher Parker, who co-authored the other definitive book on the Tea Party (Change They Can’t Believe In, with Matt Barreto), wonders whether the movement is strictly a product of the rise of Barack Hussein Obama. Rounding out the package is the excellent reporter Dave Weigel of Slate, who looks to 2016 and analyzes the prospects of a Tea Party presidential candidate emerging from the pack.
There is something sobering about the fact that in the age of the first black President, the defining political movement is an unabashedly reactionary one. When the first Tea Party protests erupted, few would have dared venture that it would one day bring our political system to its knees. The health and persistence of Tea Partyism may well determine what our nation will look like years—even decades—from now.