The 2014 midterm congressional elections were widely considered a referendum on the policies of six years of Obama. Indeed, the strong gains by Republicans in both the House and Senate seemed to be a bounce-back from their failure to put through the awkward-but-prudent Mitt Romney. With this strong conservative movement came a renewed interest in 2009’s Tea Party Republican phenomenon. The Tea Party was loosely defined as a Constitutional, populist, American Exceptionalist, economically-right group of conservatives whose political beliefs were forged from patriotic defense of the Constitution and against The Obama Administration. Libertarians and classical liberals like myself were indeed excited to see the fruits of the alliance of Conservatism and Libertarianism that was Fusionism. Indeed, with federalism and rule-of-law strong tides in this group, Libertarians felt comfortable sacrificing some extremes of social liberalism and non interventionism, while Conservatives likewise sacrificed things like the surveillance state or censorship.
However, the Tea Party failed to rally around the most obvious Tea-Partier of the GOP–Ted Cruz–with conservative favorite Marco Rubio and libertarian sweetheart Rand Paul not doing much better. It is my opinion that the autopsy of the 2016 Election must deal with the Tea Party; further, I contend that the failure of the Tea Party was directly related to the events between November 2014 and August 2015 (the first Republican debate). This essay will attempt to show that the Tea Party failed because it was never built to succeed; instead, it was merely a part of a larger angry narrative against the Left, with principle added only as gold epaulettes of virtue signaling.
The first real mention of any sort of “Tea Party” arose with the anti-Obama anti-Wall-Street protests of Occupy Wall Street. The Occupy movement was largely a left-populist one, but in general its targets (crony capitalists, big banks, and Washington bureaucrats who supported the bailouts) were derided by Libertarians and many Republicans. It is the opposition to Obama—a progressive neoliberal interventionist—that gave the Tea Party its initial flavor. For as leftist Occupy protests died down with the slow (but positive) economic recovery under Obama, the right-wing portion of them continued to reject the political changes of the time. At this point in time, Wall Street had been shaken up, and Republicans were not yet a congressional majority; as such, the only target left was Obama and his bureaucracy. There were marches on Washington and protests that were exclusively Tea-Party led as early as March of 2009, and the movement grew in size and scope in opposition to big spending, the administrative state, and Obama’s political agenda.
By 2010, the Tea Party’s grass-roots conservatism brought forth a Republican victory in midterm elections for the House. With the Senate still having a Democrat majority, however, anger still brewed. The 2012 election took place with two things clear: 1), that Obama was fantastic at garnering votes, and 2), that Mitt Romney’s moderate conservatism didn’t satisfy either the Tea Party or centrists. It is in the fallout of 2012 that a certain dichotomy was created: the Tea Party became more insular, rejecting all pretense of bipartisanship and continuing to focus on Obama. Certain right-wing media circulated stories on how Obamacare was enacted because Obama’s father was an Ibo tribesman; other agencies supported the Birther claim that he was born in Kenya; plenty of stories were done calling Obama un-American in spirit. Yet, at the same time, there arose a more educated class of Tea Partiers who rose as pundits and politicians to channel the populist mentality of the protests into institutional advocacy. People like Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, Ron Johnson, Rand Paul, and especially Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz utilized the patriotic, pro-market, constitutional rhetoric of the Tea Party to get themselves elected. They presided over several cuts in spending at the state level, a halt to The Obama Administration’s congressional legislation, and worked to create Bipartisan support for their programs. Marco Rubio was even a member of the Gang of Eight who attempted to pass a bill in 2013 to secure the border while allowing more immigration from Mexico.
It is this dichotomy that doomed the Tea Party in the 2016 elections. The populist, Internet-based, former-Occupy Tea Party had become separated from their political and ideological leaders. I often say that the problem with the GOP is that their candidates are always forced to prove the extremity of their conservatism and then run to the middle by Election Day; Democrats have not had this problem, except with Bernie Sanders, because their party simply seems to be more ok with moderates. This sort of phenomenon is what divided the Tea Party: the politicians within congress fighting for constitutional conservatism were simply unable to stop many of Obama’s policies, in large part due to failure to compromise on both sides. When compromise did occur, it was seen as treason against the movement. When the congress stagnated, Tea Party voters saw it as impotence. The unhealthy relationship grew worse in 2015, due to the fact that Presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz failed to establish themselves as renegades. A year of stagnation washed away all pretenses of “Ted Cruz, radical right-winger from Texas” and created an image of two over-polished Clintonian moderates attempting to screw over their former allies.
Now, coming into the election cycle in Spring 2015, one thing became clear: the Tea Party had not been about constitutional principle. The base was never one of genuine conservative ideology, but instead, one of anger toward Obama. Further, it is clear that they were never truly oriented against the state, but against the left. Though both Rubio and Cruz proposed drastic cuts in Washington, they were unsuccessful because they failed to assert themselves as enemies of their Democrat colleagues. With leaders hoping that a reasonable, traditional approach would rally those who disliked the years of unprecedented, centralized, and harshly progressive rule under Obama, the movement grew dissatisfied with its representatives. Indeed, it seems that frequent appeals to the constitution and conservative values were moreso attempts to delegitimize the Obama administration than they were selfless calls for a restoration of American values. After all, a movement that called Obama a socialist and compared him to Adolf Hitler was, in retrospect, perhaps not the most obvious home for Ted Cruz.
From there, Trump saw his opportunity and pushed for a total annihilation of empirical or political data, in favor of populist anti-establishmentarianism. Yet Trump exhibits many of the problems of Obama, and indeed, he did in 2015 and 16 as well: he was inexperienced, excitable, rash, and a demagogue. His policy proposals were not a repeal of the protections and regulations of government, but simply a reformulation of these functions so that they would protect his base. Indeed, he was always far less conservative than Cruz or Rubio, but he was clearly more anti-left and anti-Obama. He did not abolish identity politics, but instead, he used identity politics that appealed to the indentity of white Americans. In short, he was everything the mob wanted and nothing that the Founders wanted: a single man claiming to have the key to universal prosperity and success.
Now, this story is one largely based in the past. The reason to tell it now isn’t to shame Trump voters or to shame Tea Partiers: I do that enough on my own blog. Instead, I hope to warn generalities of both groups against the key mistakes between 2009 and 2016 that hurt the Tea Party’s ideological goals. First, for those who protest, I would urge you to think critically of anyone saying that they have a way to fix everything: there is nothing more dangerous than a person who believes he or she can achieve a unity of goodness. Second, I advise you to remain skeptical of both Trump and the left: the nice thing about skepticism is that it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to act on it. Third, I hope that you stay wary of crowds. The Founders didn’t win through mob justice, and there is something very troubling about delegating important decisions or thoughts to others. To the conservatives, libertarians, and Tea-Partiers who didn’t like Trump (and especially for future politicians), I’ll start by saying that I feel for you. I think that part of the failure of 2016 was a failure to take Trump seriously. By attacking him on policy grounds early on, making appeals to his base along the lines of “I’m the one who can actually do this!”, respecting his base more, and mobilizing votes by taking a decisive stand on immigration, Cruz or Rubio could’ve done better. Second, I believe that the importance of populism should be stressed. While I’m not a populist and I don’t like populism, the fact of the matter is that Americans believe America to be a Democracy. As such, old Federalist “disinterestedness” was not exactly the best strategy to take down Trump.