The title takes its name from Willie Nelson's song “(Turn out the Lights) The Party’s Over,” one of his early hits, and an appropriate song to use to identify with the Tea Party movement. It is a country song, by a uniquely American artist who struck out on his own after being "rejected by the establishment completely" (to quote the title track from his 1976 hit album), so the artist fits the Tea Party's motif of bootstrap individualism flying in the face of the elites. But that song talks about "the same old day again," and the Tea Party movement would seek change--not a return to the run-of-the-mill politics we half-heartedly practice today. And thus while the Tea Party might not endorse the song, it actually captures what I believe will happen in due time to the movement (such as it is).
As I write this, the Tea Party has upset a few key races. The Tea Party has has derailed Mike Castle's bid for Senate in Delaware. It has scuttled Rick Lazio's bid for governor in New York. Mike Castle, while not a giant on Capitol Hill, still counts as a reliably winning candidate and securely entrenched incumbent, and the New York governor's race is nothing to shake a stick at. The New York Times editorial page has lambasted the Tea Party for propounding a “toxic message,” and has consistently denigrated it. Parenthetically, I take serious issue with the Times' coverage of the movement. It represents the epitome of the northeastern, elitist view of the rest of the country. The New York Times has told us that 18% of Americans identify themselves as Tea Party members, yet they are no fans of the movement. They effectively dismiss one-fifth of America as angry zealots, ignorant of the proper view of government or issues. And one of its columnists has even compared them to Timothy McVeigh. Speaking about Rand Paul, the Republican nominee in the Kentucky governor's race, the paper has characterized his views ". . . and those of other Tea Party candidates [as] unintentional reminders of the importance of enlightened government."
But while I hardly share the Times' elitism and mockery of such a large swath of the American body politic, I do share one important value: a premium on enlightened government. The Tea Party does not pursue unenlightened goals. But it does not have any intellectual heft or backing. And I contend that because of its lack of intellectual leadership and an elite to focus and refine its message and philosophy, the movement will wither.
This notion pretty clearly runs counter to the Tea Party’s message. This lack of intellectual elites and grassroots-ism, a Tea Partier might contend, is precisely what makes this movement special and what drives it And I would respond that yes, the movement's anti-elitist, don't-tread-on-me vibe certainly drives it, but it does not make it special. Case in point - William Jennings Bryan's Populists, the Progressives (TR's Bull-Moose Party), or the Greenback Party. All these parties thrived on anti-establishment, grassroots support. All carried an anti-elite message. But all of these parties fizzled. Not a single one dramatically changed Congress’ composition. Of those listed, the Greenbacks sent 13 Representatives to the 46th Congress (1879-1881); the Populist Party sent 21 Representatives to the 55th Congress (1897-1899); and the Progressive Party sent 10 Representatives to the 63rd Congress (1913-1915). But all these parties died; not a single one of them is with us now.
But leaving aside the contention on Tea Party leadership and philosophy, suppose that the Tea Party does meet with electoral success. Suppose that the Tea Party (whether we identify it as a party, a wing of the Republican Party, or a “philosophy” or a caucus) captures a surprising number of seats this election cycle, and that it builds on this success in future election cycles. Take the Federalist Party -- by 1815, we had a National Bank, we were an emerging commercial and manufacturing power, and the vision of Hamilton had taken firm hold. But (and this is a sweeping, but accurate generalization) it had done so really since ratification in 1790. Tremendously important questions remained (state sovereignty, slavery, to name two HUGE ones . . . ), but the Federalists had triumphed on the very blueprint of the nation. And after their success in, literally, the greatest philosophical and political question in our nation's history, what happened o them? They dwindled to a remnant and eventually coalesced with other anti-Jacksonian nay-sayers into mere supports of the Whig Party, itself now a defunct footnote appending the history of American politics. I could very easily see the Tea Party following their direction.
But, a Tea Partier might further contend, electoral success does not necessarily capture the overall “success” of a party. A party, as any high school civics teacher could tell you, seeks to implement its legislative platform by electing its candidates to political office (It is distinct from an interest group, which advocates for particular legislation, but which does not focus on vaulting its members into elected office, but instead on changing public opinion). But a college political science or government/politics professor would tell you that a party's “success,” judged, in the long run by academics, often is based on other factors. While a party may not capture many seats in an election, it still colors America's political canvas. Often, third parties serve as a vehicle, a harbinger or capsule, of public sentiment. They are frequently issue-focused (Free Soil, National Women's Party, Anti-Masonic, Free Silver, etc.), and they frequently vocally inject a perspective or a new voice into a race or campaign. As a third-party candidate brings issues into a presidential race, a third party may energize a new base, inject new issues into a debate, or even sweep an incumbent party from office.
Hence, we come back to issues. We come back to a party’s philosophy. The Tea Party is, as I have said, influencing key races (at least at the gubernatorial/state level). But, to be honest, the Tea Partiers will probably not enough seats close enough to spit at a congressional majority. But suppose the Tea Party's contribution, instead of (or to humor the Tea Party faithful, "in addition to") flexing its muscles in the ballot box, is tapping into and bearing the standard for a potent strain of American political thought (dare I say philosophy?). Suppose that, instead of becoming a powerful third party that eventually becomes one of the two major parties of a two-party system, it leaves its stamp on a party’s platform (i.e. – the way that the Republicans absorbed the Whigs). That's certainly a vision: the movement does not meet with electoral success, but it leaves its philosophical imprint on our political discourse by re-hewing planks in the platforms of our two major parties.
This naturally raises the question what the Tea Party's platform or philosophy is. What are their planks, what are the issues they may inject into this election cycle? I don't know. A lot of commentators have tried to answer that. But, at this point, I think their big issue is anger. I think they're angry about Obama. And they're angry about the bailout of GM and big investment banks (ahem . . . Goldman . . .). They're angry about a health plan they consider disgusting in its waste and expanse. To be honest, I am checking quite a few mental boxes myself. But “anger,” even if attached to valid issues, is not visionary or activist: it is merely reactionary. And parties do not survive based on mere reactionism. Liberals often (and unfairly) brand conservatives as reactionaries -- kneejerk naysayers nixing any novel initiatives. But the Republicans DO at least have a vision. They have a platform. And they've been around for 150 years. And they
Prior to, say, 1950, conservatism did not have much intellectual backing in America. Our tradition was liberalism – initially that of the Enlightenment, and then that of the New Deal. “Conservatives” smacked of elitism and privilege. That changed with William F. Buckley. The 1950 graduate of Yale gave intellectual legs to a faltering, nascent movement when he founded National Review. The Republican Party, the party of “NO” to FDR's New Deal, had begun to gain political ground in post-War American first with Ike as president, and then during, for right of for wrong, the Red Scare under McCarthy. Republicans grew more popular, and they began to contest ground with Democrats again. But with Buckley’s backing, the movement enlarged and entrenched itself. Because Buckley, along with his intellectual predecessor Whitaker Chambers, had lent the movement intellectual credibility. The Neoconservatives replicated this phenomenon for Bush in 2000 and 2004 (much to Burkean convservatives’ chagrin). Buckley was able to attract like-minded intellectuals to conservatism’s cause, and they were able to trumpet its virtues and thus burnish and popularize its message. One of conservatism’s early stars, Barry Goldwater, wrote a book—The Conscience of a Conservative—that is still widely regarded in intellectual circles. If not an intellectual himself, Goldwater at least thoroughly understood the intellectual, philosophical underpinnings of his own politics. He learned from an elite, and, in time, became part of that elite.
Let us think for a minute—can we imagine Sarah Palin writing a book that is still read in fifty years? Sarah Palin is an accomplished woman, but Going Rogue, in my mind, does not quite have the staying power that God and Man at Yale has. Perhaps such a comparison is unfair. But parties gain staying power through development of ideas. And the Tea Party, because it downplays that notion in favor of mere angry reactionism, will have about as much staying power as Going Rogue.
Turn out the lights – the Party’s over.