When a new political movement emerges, it can follow a number of different courses after its moment of passionate intensity. It can lose its focus or relevance and fade into nothingness, like an anti-war movement when the war ends. It can become institutionalized, with professional organizations leading a cause that started from the grass roots, like the environmental movement has. Or it can be co-opted and absorbed by something larger.
Now that the 2010 primaries are all but over, we can say with near certainty that the last -- co-optation -- will be the the Tea Party's fate. Indeed, it has already begun. But what effect will that absorption have on the larger conservative movement?
Tea Partiers themselves would no doubt protest that they are here to stay as a unique and independent force. But think ahead, say 10 or 12 years from now. There's a Republican in the White House, and control of Congress is divided. The economy is doing reasonably well, neither fantastic nor awful. Can anyone seriously believe that if that were the case, there would still be people stomping about the National Mall wearing tricornered hats?
It's the "Republican in the White House" part that makes it unimaginable, of course. The Tea Parties are the latest iteration of what has become a repeating pattern in American politics. As Kevin Drum recently wrote in Mother Jones, "Something very much like the tea party movement has fluoresced every time a Democrat wins the presidency, and the nature of the fluorescence always follows many of the same broad contours: a reverence for the Constitution, a supposedly spontaneous uprising of formerly non-political middle-class activists, a preoccupation with socialism and the expanding tyranny of big government, a bitterness toward an underclass viewed as unwilling to work, and a weakness for outlandish conspiracy theories."
What sets the Tea Party apart from its earlier incarnations is the way Republicans are groveling before it. Barry Goldwater may have tried to keep the John Birch Society at arm's length, but with just a few exceptions, the entire Republican establishment is outfitting themselves in Revolutionary gear. You can bet your musket that every 2012 GOP contender will be rushing to claim the Tea Party mantle.
And it won't be too hard, since there isn't a Republican anywhere who can't make at least some claim to Tea Partieshness. Which Republicans have been targeted by the Tea Party for primary challenges? Not those who have been wobbly on deficits or individual liberty, but those who were insufficiently partisan. Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah was ousted for the crime of writing a pre-Obama health-care reform bill with a Democratic colleague. Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida was hounded out of the GOP in no small part because he once gave Obama a hug. In Alaska, where sucking taxpayers from the Lower 48 dry is the state pastime (the state garners nearly $2 in federal spending for every $1 it sends to Washington), Sen. Lisa Murkowski lost her primary for reasons that had nothing to do with government spending -- like being somewhat moderate on social issues and getting on Sarah Palin's bad side. Meanwhile, incumbents like John McCain survived Tea Party challenges not by touting their deficit-hawk credentials but by running to the right on every issue they could think of.
We should rid ourselves of the fiction that the Tea Party is something ideologically distinct from conservatism as it has been practiced for the last 30 years in America. It isn't. It's a far-right version of conservatism, but it's conservatism all the same. The fact that Tea Partiers are emphasizing something different from, say, what Republicans were advocating in 2004, isn't because these are different people with different views. It's because the political moment has shifted, and the most politically potent message right now is one that concerns economics and government, not social issues like abortion and gay marriage. It's not as though John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are desperate to go on an anti-gay crusade, but they're being held back by the Tea Party. The issues that establishment Republicans want to highlight and those Tea Partiers want to highlight are precisely the same. As Ed Kilgore recently wrote, "What we have actually witnessed this year is the final victory in a Fifty Year War waged by the conservative movement for control of the Republican Party."
So it's easy for those whose Founding Father fetishism is recently acquired to carry the Tea Party banner. Look at Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, a woman who brings new meaning to "professional politician." O'Donnell went from a career as a culture warrior (starting an anti-lust organization called Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth, being the spokesperson for the anti-feminist Concerned Women for America where she advocated for causes like keeping women out of the military) to a series of runs for political office, with donor contributions paying her rent. Since the Tea Party is the movement of the moment, she'll put aside all the talk of masturbation and the gay menace and claim that her real priority is cutting federal spending and honoring the Constitution. And Tea Party activists happily carried her aloft -- when she opposed a moderate who failed an ideological purity test.
Running candidates in Republican primaries was the best (and maybe only) path to political power for the Tea Party, but it has a downside. Now that these primaries have finished, no one has any doubt that the Tea Party is something that exists within the GOP. Which makes it impossible for Tea Partiers to say to independents and Democrats that it has much to offer them.
All the talk of shaking up the establishment notwithstanding, once they take office, the Tea Partiers will fit comfortably within the GOP. The GOP's relative ideological homogeneity is what enables it to be so unified in Congress, and this election will only make it more so. Some of the Tea Party candidates may be a bit nuts, but they won't be voting against their party's leadership on anything important, or much of anything at all. This is in stark contrast to the Democratic centrists who constantly make life miserable for Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.
And we'll also see whether the Tea Partiers can put the taxpayers' money where the newly elected officeholders' mouths are. Once you're in Congress, you can't just talk about "spending" in the abstract -- you have to decide where you stand on specific kinds of spending. Will they be voting against projects for their own districts? Will they be railing against things like the billions we spend on farm subsidies? Will they be rooting out waste in the Defense Department? Or will they adopt the typical Republican version of "fiscal conservatism," which is to oppose spending money only on programs you don't like anyway?
In other words, will elected Tea Partiers be something distinct, or will they just be a bunch of very conservative Republicans? In a party where the ideological spectrum increasingly runs from far right to very far right, they won't look different for long.