People (including me, I'll admit) have been predicting the demise of the Tea Party for a long time, yet it has managed to stick around, the tail wagging the Republican dog even unto the point of shutting down the government and bringing the country within hours of default. Yet at the same time, if you paid attention to this crisis, you would have seen the words "Tea Party" escaping only the lips of Democrats (and a few reporters). None of the Republicans holding out to destroy the Affordable Care Act started their sentences with "We in the Tea Party…" It has become a name—or an epithet—more than a movement, even as its perspective and its style have woven themselves deeply within the GOP. Not that there aren't still Tea Party organizations in existence, but how many Republican politicians in the coming months are going to be eager to show up at a rally where everyone's wearing tricorner hats?
What this moment may mark is the not so much the death of the Tea Party as the final stages of a transition. The silly costumes will get put away, and the angry rallies may draw no more than a handful of fist-shakers. But we should finally understand that the Tea Party has metastasized itself within its host, even if fewer people use its name. It would probably help to come up with a new name for it, since the word "party" misdirects us into thinking that if it isn't doing practical things like endorsing candidates or putting forward a policy agenda, then it's fading. But it isn't, and defeats like this one don't necessarily make it weaker.
The time has come to finally stop looking at the Tea Party as a political movement and understand it as a psychological, sociological, and religious phenomenon.