After the Revolution, the Tea Party Struggles for Purpose

AP Photo/John Bazemore

William Temple holds up a tea kettle during the Atlanta Tea Party tax protest Wednesday, April 15, 2009 in Atlanta.

My favorite story from the last week in politics was a tiny item about the Republican committee in South Carolina's Charleston County voting to censure Sen. Lindsey Graham. This rebuke didn't come because of some grand betrayal or criminal malfeasance; Graham, the party activists felt, just wasn't being conservative enough. And there are things like this happening all over. There's the local group of New Hampshire conservatives running radio ads against Republican state senators, or the Virginia conservatives jeering House Majority Leader Eric Cantor at meetings and taking over their local Republican committee.

These aren't the significant primary challenges of the kind we've seen in recent years. You get the sense that Tea Party folks are sitting around saying, "Well, Obamacare isn't getting repealed. The presidential election isn't for a couple of years. Anybody have any ideas about what we should be doing?" And someone says, "Well, we could have the committee vote censure the senator." Then everyone else says, "All right, may as well." It may not sound as dramatic as storming the barricades of power, but at the moment, it's about all they've got.

In Washington, there's a fight going on between a conservative Republican establishment and an extremely conservative Republican counter-establishment, both well-funded and staffed by experienced operatives. But down at the grass roots, the battles are not so high-profile, if no less sincerely felt.

Tea Partiers are revolutionaries, and I'm sure that for many of them, the first few years of the Obama administration were the most exciting of their political lives. They confronted what they believed was literally a threat to the existence of the nation they loved. They were getting noticed, forcing powerful people to listen to them, shaping the debate and striking fear in the hearts of Democrats and Republicans alike. Their party was being remade in their image, and they were making history. And even as that has all faded, they still think of themselves as revolutionaries. Revolutions are dramatic and inspiring; what comes afterward, not so much. What are they supposed to do now? Organize protests to push for some piece of tax legislation that'll never get passed? How dreadfully boring. Continuing the revolution has much more appeal.

So it goes on, and that means aiming their fire at other Republicans, which when you think about it makes a good deal of sense. If you're a Tea Partier in South Carolina, there aren't that many Democrats around to fight. Barack Obama got reelected, and there isn't any major legislation in the offing. If you want to stay involved in politics and have an impact, someone like Lindsey Graham is a natural target.

Going after Republicans also means you can achieve victories, at least of a sort—tangible victories that allow the revolution to continue. There are always plenty of Republicans to police, and anybody can be deemed a counter-revolutionary, and thus provide someone new to rebel against. Yesterday Marco Rubio was a Tea Party hero; today he's on the outs for advocating comprehensive immigration reform. Today Ted Cruz is worshipped by conservatives, but tomorrow he might well join that contemptuous establishment keeping power out of the people's hands.

One of the greatest challenges for today's conservatives is that their ultimate policy demands are all but impossible to achieve. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist used to say that his objective was to cut government down to the size where you could drown it in the bathtub, and many Tea Partiers would sign on to that mission. It's a vivid image, but it reflects a goal that can never be reached. There will always be government, and Americans demanding that it provide services for them—which means there will always be taxes to fund the services, one moral outrage piled on top of another.

That means that the most doctrinaire conservatives are doomed to remain forever disappointed by what comes of their political action. Not only do they want to cut government, if you ask them exactly how much they'd like to cut, the answer is, "More," just as the tax level they find appropriate is always "Less." When small government is not a means to an end but an end in itself, there will always be more to cut, which means there is no point at which conservatives can be satisfied.

For instance, the deficit, about which Tea Partiers express such enormous concern, has been radically reduced over Barack Obama's tenure. In 2009 it was 9.8 percent of GDP, and the latest projections for this year put it at only 2.8 percent. But you haven't heard conservatives celebrating, and it isn't just because that might sound like giving Obama some credit. Even in a slightly smaller form, government is still doing lots of things they'd rather it not do. It's giving health care to seniors and poor people, and paying for pre-school, and building highways and opening parks and doing a thousand other things. Since many of those things are politically impossible to eliminate or even curtail significantly, conservatives will probably be forever angry about government's size and scope.

Tea Party pressure may succeed at times in gumming up government’s gears (as in the case of governors who refused the Medicaid expansion that would have provided health care to more low-income people in their states), but government’s hardly getting drowned in the bathtub.

Liberals, on the other hand, are not only congenitally more inclined to compromise, they're likely to be more content with the political victories they manage. Because they view government as a means to an end, they can take satisfaction in whatever progress it makes on the ends they seek, even if more can still be done. Many would still like to see a single-payer health-care system and weren't happy about some of the compromises that came with passage of the Affordable Care Act, but nearly all of them are pleased with the things the ACA has accomplished, like the millions of people who now have coverage but didn't before, or the fact that pre-existing conditions no longer matter.

But when you've decided that an aversion to compromise lies at the heart of your political identity, alongside a desire for a government smaller than whatever size it is at the moment, you've resigned yourself to a lifetime of outright defeats, unsatisfying half-victories, and betrayals at the hands of pragmatic politicians. So fighting the members of your party seems like a reasonable way to continue the revolution. Especially if you don't have anything better to do.


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