How Should We Think About—and Report On—the Tea Party Now?

It's safe to say these are times of decline for the Tea Party. They can't muster any more government shutdowns. The public's view of them is decidedly negative. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, far from being cowed by the ultra right-winger running against him, said of the conservative interest groups promoting primary challenges to incumbent Republicans, "I think we're going to crush them everywhere."

So if they're not steering the GOP ship in the same way they were not long ago, should the media stop covering them so much? This question is relevant in the aftermath of another Conservative Political Action Conference that got oodles of press coverage, as it always does. Josh Marshall referred accurately to that coverage as "a tacit conspiracy of derp between the event organizers and the people who cover it. You be outrageous; we'll be outraged. And everyone will be happy."

This gets back to the eternal question of what matters in political coverage, and there's a school of thought that says that the things that deserve attention are those that affect the outcome of elections and policy debates. Journalists have long resented the political scientists who tell them that campaigns are nothing more than a lot of hemming and hawing over nothing, and in the end all that matters is the state of the economy and a couple of lesser factors like whether we're at war. I've long held that the problem isn't that reporters cover things that don't matter to an election's outcome, but they they cover those things as though they do matter to the election's outcome, instead of covering them as things that matter for our understanding of the world.

For instance, I write a lot about political rhetoric, not because the next speech a president gives will determine whether a piece of legislation gets passed or whether the American people love or hate him (it won't), but because political rhetoric is a major part of how all of us experience politics year in and year out. If I told you, "There's no point in reading Moby Dick—I'll just tell you, in the end Ahab dies and the whale gets away," I'd be wrong. It's important that Ahab dies and the whale gets away, but everything leading up to that is also important.

Anyhow, as we get closer to the 2016 presidential election, we should all make sure we're clear about what we're talking about when we talk about the Tea Party. Even in a weakened state, they'll still have an effect on the way the campaign plays out, regardless of the ultimate result. They were undoubtedly stronger in 2012 than they'll be in 2016, and even then they didn't get the nominee they wanted. What was interesting, though, was their role in the process: how they extracted concessions from the candidates, forced Mitt Romney to run even farther to the right than he might have otherwise, and shaped the policy agenda of the primaries. That helped determine the contours of the race, even if it didn't determine the outcome. Something similar is likely to happen in 2016.

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