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 stop looking at the Tea Party as a political movement and understand it as a psychological, sociological, and religious phenomenon. That isn't to say it's unalterable, and I do think it's going to be politically wounded in 2014. What is likely to happen is a geographical winnowing, with its politicians losing where they were weakest to begin with. In 2010, many Tea Partiers got elected even in places where they weren't thick on the ground, since that's what wave elections can produce. But in the next election we'll probably see the defeat of people like Maine governor Paul LePage—in other words, those who come from anywhere other than the South and certain corners of the Midwest and interior West. Tea Partiers will still win in Alabama, but not in New England.
The ones who remain will not be chastened by what just happened, nor when their numbers decrease. As there is after every Republican defeat, there's talk now amongst the base about the need for more "true conservatives." But if you look at the people who decided to end the crisis, they aren't that different in their policy beliefs from the Tea Partiers. Mitch McConnell would genuinely like to repeal the ACA, and outlaw abortion, and slash food stamps. This isn't even a dispute about tactics, because that would mean the Tea Partiers have some kind of coherent set of tactics in mind, beyond "Fight, fight, fight!" It's about the apocalyptic worldview that animates the Tea Partiers. Establishment Republicans like McConnell have the same policy agenda as the Tea Partiers, but they also know that if they lose this round, there will be another round, and another after that. They don't think that America could literally come to an end if they don't prevail in the next election.
But the Tea Partiers do. In one recent poll, 20 percent of Republicans said they believe Barack Obama is the Antichrist. It's easy to laugh, but try for a moment to imagine that you believed that. What kind of tactics would you favor? Would you be amenable to compromise? How would you look at even a small political defeat? As Andrew Sullivan argues, even for those who are a step back from imagining a literal apocalypse coming some time in the next few months, the root of the problem is modernity itself, and the stakes are impossibly high:
What the understandably beleaguered citizens of this new modern order want is a pristine variety of America that feels like the one they grew up in. They want truths that ring without any timbre of doubt. They want root-and-branch reform – to the days of the American Revolution. And they want all of this as a pre-packaged ideology, preferably aligned with re-written American history, and reiterated as a theater of comfort and nostalgia. They want their presidents white and their budget balanced now. That balancing it now would tip the whole world into a second depression sounds like elite cant to them; that America is, as a matter of fact, a coffee-colored country – and stronger for it – does not remove their desire for it not to be so; indeed it intensifies their futile effort to stop immigration reform. And given the apocalyptic nature of their view of what is going on, it is only natural that they would seek a totalist, radical, revolutionary halt to all of it, even if it creates economic chaos, even if it destroys millions of jobs, even though it keeps millions in immigration limbo, even if it means an unprecedented default on the debt.
It isn't just that they sincerely believe that the most uncompromising tactics are the path to victory, it's also that they believe that adopting anything short of the most uncompromising stance is itself a surrender, before the battle has even begun. You can't let the devil just sit in the parlor for a while and hope you'll be able to convince him to leave. You have to bar the door. And as Ed Kilgore notes, this isn't just about very religious people bringing a religious worldview to their politics; it's a circular process:
It's not just that these culturally threatened folk embrace their politics like it's a religion. The actual religious outlook many of them espouse—whether they are conservative fundamentalist Protestants or neo-ultramontane Catholics—has imported secular political perspectives into their faith. They've managed to identify obedience to God with the restoration of pre-mid-twentieth-century culture and economics, and consequently, tend to look at themselves as the contemporary equivalents of the Old Testament prophets calling a wicked society to account before all hell literally breaks loose. So their politics reinforces their religion and vice-versa, and yes, the Republican Party, like the squishy mainline Protestant Churches and lenient do-gooder Catholic priests, are generally within crisis-distance of being viewed as objectively belonging to enemy ranks.
It's true that this phenomenon is the latest iteration of a pattern we've seen before, whether it was the Birchers during the Johnson years or the militia movement under Clinton. Some portion of American conservatives comes to believe that the country has been infected with the most diabolical of viruses, and the normal democratic means are no longer sufficient to confront the evil within our borders. But by now we have to conclude that it's been worse this time, and not only because the Tea Party's forebears never got a fraction of the influence within the GOP that it now has. The threat of modernity that Sullivan points to is, for these people, all too real. The world is leaving them behind. And that cosmopolitan, multiracial man in the White House became the embodiment of everything they fear. Every one of his policies, whether born in The Communist Manifesto or at the Heritage Foundation, they see clearly as a rapier thrust at their very hearts. There is no telling them to wait for a more opportune moment to strike, or that the battle of the moment is one they cannot win. To lose is to lose everything.
So when does the Tea Party end? In the simplest terms, it ends whenever the next Republican president takes office. When that happens, there will be no more government shutdowns, no more cries of Washington tyranny, no more debt ceiling standoffs, no more Republican obsession with deficits. The tricorner hats will be put away. But the fears and resentments that created and sustained the Tea Party will fester, waiting until the next Democratic presidency to burst out. And it will begin all over again.