The Tea Party and the GOP
Theda Skocpol thinks the Tea Party’s influence on the GOP is bigger than election results suggest on Talking Points Memo.
An obsession with toting up wins and losses in primaries completely misreads how Tea Party forces work, how they have moved the governing agendas of the Republican Party ever further right and maintained a stranglehold on federal government action. As Vanessa Williamson and I first laid out in our 2012 book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, there is no unified center of control in charge of the Tea Party. Rather, it amounts to conjoined pressures from, on the one hand, hundreds of remarkably autonomous local groups run by volunteer activists and, on the other hand, top-down, professionally run policy advocacy groups and funders. Tea Party clout in and upon Republican officials, officeholders, and candidates is actually maximized by the dynamic interplay of top-down and bottom-up forces, both pushing for absolute opposition to President Barack Obama and obstruction of Congressional action involving compromises with Democrats. Tea Party forces are neither inside nor outside, neither for nor against the Republican Party in any simple sense, because they are sets of organizations and activists seeking leverage over the choices and actions of Republican leaders and candidates.
After 2007, in short, top-down and bottom-up Tea Party forces formed an uncontrolled pincers movement to push already very conservative Republicans into obstructionist and non-compromising styles of governance. Primary election challenges matter in this effort, but (like shocks to experimental rats in mazes) outright wins need happen only very sporadically to keep the attention of Republican candidates and officeholders – whose ranks in any event by now include many quite sincere extreme ideologues. The hard truth the Beltway media tries to avoid facing is that the U.S. Republican Party has moved, and remains, far from where mainstream American voters stand on virtually all of the major public policy issues of the day. That matters hugely for what the U.S. federal and many state governments can and will do about major public policy challenges, because the Republican Party is one of just two major players in U.S. government. Popularity in national polls and a majority of election wins do not matter as long as Tea Party pincers keep a stranglehold on GOP leaders and legislative agendas. As of the summer of 2014, they are doing just fine at that – and almost certainly will continue to do so for some time to come.
Cross-posted from The Sensible Center