If you wait long enough without any expectation of regular victories in politics, it's not surprising that you eventually go searching for them in narrative. Which makes it understandable that "liberals" on TV have used the 2012 election results to claim that the Tea Party is over. The lights have come on; some abstinence pledges have to be torn up, and everyone needs to go home.
If there's one thing that the last two 2013 predictions have emphasized, however, it's that people rarely go broke predicting doom. Doom is reliable. If there's one group that has the market cornered on doom, it's the Tea Party. Those guys can sell an apocalypse of anything. And they aren't going away, at least in part because they've always been here.
If you spend enough time traipsing through American history, people who sound like the Tea Party crop up everywhere. Richard Hofstadter wrote an excellent essay called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" in which he diagnosed behavior that anyone watching reactions to Obama's first term would recognize:
The paranoid spokesman, sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization.... He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated...
That essay was written in 1964, to address the Goldwater movement, which is essentially the Tea Party's grandparent. Speaking of which, you can pick up Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, choose a random page, and you will see someone familiar. There are the ancestors of the Koch brothers, funding newsletters defending civilization from workers with union rights, workers with living wages, workers in general. Or pick up his Nixonland and choose a page at random and see someone else you know. It's fun! I chose page 73:
Other activists went to war on a textbook—Negro historian John Hope Franklin's Land of the Free, which, their pamphlets insisted, "destroys pride in America's past, develops a guilt complex, mocks American justice, indoctrinates toward Communism, is hostile to religious concepts, overemphasizes Negro participation in American history, projects negative thought models, criticizes business and free enterprise, plays politics, foments class hatred, slants and distorts facts," and "promotes propaganda and poppycock."
Right there you have an echoes of everything awful about Free Republic and the Romney campaign. That book sounds like an apology tour for the United States! That pointy-headed black academic thinks he knows better about America's past! (AND HOW COME THERE'S NOT A WHITE HISTORY MONTH???) Then there's the familiar contempt for history's inability to conform to the lies we like to tell about ourselves. It's no different than the Texas Board of Education's absurd need to efface the Enlightenment, divorce the founding fathers from stuff like "science," and somehow make Thomas Aquinas a philosopher who foresaw America.
This is a depressing game, but it's remarkably easy to play. Just for the hell of it, I skipped nine pages ahead:
In Champaign, Illinois, leaders of peace demonstrations got stickers in their mailboxes reading, "You are in the sights of a Minuteman." In Queens, the DA seized an arsenal, to be used by the right-wing vigilante group the Minutemen in assaults on "left-wing camps in a three-state area," including mortars, bazookas, grenades, trench knives, over 150 rifles, a "half dozen garroting devices," and over a million rounds of ammunition.
Flip ahead to pages 276-7, and there's Max Rafferty, sounding like Glenn Beck or Richard Mourdock:
[activists] seem to spend every waking moment agitating against ROTC, booing authorized congressional committees, and parading in support of Fidel Castro.... This sizable minority of spineless, luxury-loving, spiritless characters came right out of our classrooms. They played in our kindergartens, went on field trips to the bakery and studied things called "social living" and "language arts" in our junior high schools. They were "adjusted to their peer groups." They were taught that competition was bad. They were told little about modern democratic capitalism.... The results are plain for all to see: the worst of our youngsters growing up to become booted, sideburned, duck-tailed, unwashed, leather-jacketed slobs, whose favorite sport is ravaging little girls and stomping polio victims to death.
In case quotes like that lack the incoherence you expect from the Tea Party ("liberals are Communists and Nazis—the political group whose animating purpose was killing Communists"), Rafferty himself recognized how dated his violent Wild One descriptions of the youth sounded, and so updated his stereotype to fit hippies, who now were cowards, despite being created by the same set of conditions. It's magic! Luckily, on top of all his other bilge about secular education and proper socialization, he could play the instantly clichéd Berkeley card, where he claimed students were given a "four-year course in sex, drugs and treason." Rafferty knew what would correct all this: returning prayer to schools and teaching creationism alongside evolution. He was a two-term Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of California. How do people like this get these jobs?
Watching politics for the last four years was bummer enough, but reading a book like Nixonland makes all of it profoundly depressing. Apparently it's not enough that people argue in bad faith, make things up, demonize their opponents via hysteria and butcher history—they can't even be bothered to try being original about it. The Tea Party isn't just running off a playbook, they're running off one that's already into its third generation. Hell, take the same xenophobia, hatred of immigrants and a purported American apocalypse at the hands of a global conspiracy of religious fundamentalists, and they're basically the Know-Nothing Party. It folded in 1860.
Given the above, it's tough not to hear commentators' predictions that the Tea Party is a spent force as anything other than wishful thinking. It's certainly possible that its ideological rigidity and purity tests for primary candidates will lead the GOP into fundamental dysfunction and collapse, but that's the same prediction people made after Goldwater, and that led to the last 50 years of essentially setting the terms of political debate in this country.
Image by Jim Cooke