The Tea Party has drowned

March 14, 2012

The Tea Party is over. In the way of parties that end, there are still people around. Those who remain search for a return of the old energy and make unconvincing demonstrations of people having a good time. But the central focus, the excitement, the purpose of the thing is dissipating. That is because the bad stuff that its members and boosters put out — lies, slanders, paranoia, ignorance — is losing what grip it had over the minds of people with minds. What’s left, though, is something else, which will not go away: the identification of moral choices blurred and contemporary indifferences ignored.

The core membership of the Tea Party is composed of people of the Christian faith, many of whom are devout Bible readers. The political scientists Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell, who have researched the attitudes of Tea Party members, found that party members were more concerned with putting God into government than with trying to pull government out of people’s lives. They will thus know well the Sermon on the Mount, which is spread across Matthew, chapters 6 and 7, and which contains the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, which art in heaven…”

It also contains a verse (Matthew 7:15), which runs: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” The Tea Party has been rich in false prophets, but it is presently getting something of a comeuppance, in part because of its ravening.

The heat of the Republican primaries, in which the Tea Party’s themes have been well rehearsed, have, paradoxically, tended to melt rather than fire up the group’s stars. First, Rush Limbaugh, whose talk show is aired daily to millions of listeners, insulted a student, Sandra Fluke, calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute.” He did so because she had argued, at a Democratic committee hearing, for health coverage for contraceptives. Limbaugh’s comments went out first on Feb. 29. He repeated the slur in different forms in two more broadcasts — and then made a stilted apology, as advertisers pulled ads from his show. Behind the support for him voiced by his network you could sense the unspoken question: Where is Rush’s tipping point? When does he become more loss than profit?

Glenn Beck, once the major draw on Fox News, found his tipping point last year and left the network in June. Roger Ailes, head of the company, said Beck had been insufficiently focused on his show, since he did so much else — tours, rallies, radio shows, and books — to capitalize on his fame and notoriety (and the advertisers were deserting him after he called President Obama a racist).

Capitalizing (a modern synonym for ravening) is the motive force: Outrageousness, followed or not by an apology, drives traffic to the shows and the rallies, and pushes income higher. On the left, comedian Bill Maher, who has often insulted Sarah Palin (“a moron”; joking that her down-syndrome child was a result of sex with John Edwards, the former Democratic presidential candidate now facing six felony charges; and at a concert in December 2010, many in the audience, presumably his fans, attested that he called Palin a “cunt”), makes enough money from his shows to donate $1 million to President Obama’s re-election campaign.

Partisans behave like partisans everywhere, no matter which side they’re on: They cheer their people, excuse them and at best say the other side is worse. Civility, obviously, suffers: Just as important, the political scene’s diversity, its challenges, its many shades of red and blue are all collapsed into an exchange of libel and defamation — excused, including by the mainstream media, as the necessary cost of free speech and being a public person. It’s a cost, but it’s not necessary.

There’s a new film out, Game Change, about Palin’s run for the vice-presidency. It’s not an outright attack on Palin. The Washington Post reviewer, Maura Judkis, said that “the film’s most scathing indictment is a symbolic one: It attacks our mutual inability to communicate.” But that movie is more chilling, for existential reasons, for Palin. It took Hollywood two decades to do a Margaret Thatcher movie (2011’s Iron Lady with Meryl Streep), but it does a Palin movie with Julianne Moore while the subject is still an active, and relatively young, political figure. Implicitly, the film is saying: Palin’s moment is over.

No mourning for Beck and Limbaugh as they withdraw from visibility; some for Palin, who levered herself up the steep ladder of politics from humble beginnings and a sketchy education and who had her moments of populist clarity — though more of populist rubbish. She and her colleagues, who switched back and forth between commentary, “journalism” (mainly for Fox, a major sponsor of Tea Party boosters), and political engagement, specialized in often mendacious attacks on Obama and the Democrats, constant denigration of the mainstream media, and aggressive victimization. There was also the view that the majority of decent, hardworking Americans had been silenced but would now be heard through the intercession of the Tea Party, who are bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh.

The paranoid in U.S. politics has a long history. (This is also true of most countries’ politics: In democracies, it has more or less free expression, while in authoritarian states, it is often co-opted by the regime to both placate and control the masses.) There has been much citing of Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 article for Harper’s, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” with its tremendous opening sentence: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.” Its conclusion is even better: “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” But those who use that, or any such judgment, as an assumption that this sums up all that needs be said on the subject, are wrong.

In a recent column in Time titled “Rick Santorum’s Inconvenient Truths,” Joe Klein wrote that Santorum and his wife, Karen, decided not to abort a child diagnosed in the womb as having Trisomy 18, a condition that so far means certain death soon after birth and for which doctors advise an abortion. Instead, they had the child and for three years cared for her. She died earlier this year. (CORRECTION Mar. 15: Santorum’s daughter was gravely ill in late January, but recovered.)

Klein describes their choice, and continues:

All right, I can hear you saying, the Santorum family’s course may be admirable, but shouldn’t we have the right to make our own choices? Yes, I suppose. But I also worry that we’ve become too averse to personal inconvenience as a society — that we’re less rigorous parents than we should be, that we’ve farmed out our responsibilities, especially for the disabled, to the state — and I’m grateful to Santorum for forcing on me the discomfort of having to think about the moral implications of his daughter’s smile.

What Klein sees is the moral challenge with which Santorum — and the best of the Tea Party-affiliated right — presents us. The routinization of abortion and of contraception; the reliance on the state to take care of the elderly and the physically and mentally disabled; the shifts we make with our children to pursue careers and make a larger income — all of these are, indeed, inconvenient truths, the kind of thing that fills the long minutes of wakefulness in the small hours, when our conscience will not let us sleep. And we in Western Europe are more dependent on the state to take care of these problems than are Americans.

Santorum’s brand of fundamentalist Catholicism is not to most tastes — indeed, it’s not to many Catholics’ tastes, and polls show that Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, got more Catholic votes than Santorum did in some states. Gay marriage in the U.S., after long wrangling over it, is inching toward majority acceptance; the need for women in the working and middle classes to earn money to keep the family going cuts directly against his view that women should stay at home to have and raise the kids. Santorum has a powerful, but minority, message.

But for the heirs of the sixties, when sexual liberations of various kinds were framed as all gain and no pain, his pitch is a jolt — late, perhaps, but necessary nonetheless. The Tea Party’s aftertaste need not be only sour. Matthew’s chapters on the Sermon on the Mount also contain this much quoted line (Matthew 7:20): “By their fruits shall ye know them.” By our fruits we will know ourselves: One fruit worth tending is that which might, for thinking men and women of the right and the left, give a taste of doubt and reflection, which could be used to repair the resentments of America.


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It seems the tide is turning to a certain extent. Fox has played their hand (formula) a bit too long and I think the smarter viewers are realizing that. It’s enjoyable to watch a show that agrees with your point of view, but when it becomes a full time rant without substance, it gets tiring.

Posted by BakoD | Report as abusive

If the Tea Party has drowned, then the Republican party overall is off the cliff in midair right behind it. The GOP has flip-flopped it’s passion for small, efficient government, economic self-sufficiency and effective national defense in a dangerous world to outmoded social issues on behalf of a vocal minority of religious fanatics and found passion sputtering out.

These are not a majority in America, nor are their sociological preferences and excesses particularly welcome or supported by most Americans. Let’s be absolutely sure THEIR torch is completely extinguished before trying to resuscitate the elephant.

America is in grave danger also when there is no voice for the majority that favor small, efficient government, economic self-sufficiency and effective national defense in a dangerous world.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I’ll believe it when I see it. The Tea Party has always been the cloak over something more dreadful that’s always been with us, and likely will never go away. I don’t believe that the reasons people do not want Obama in the White House are policy-driven. Therefore, anyone will do, even if that anyone is eventually Mitt Romney. By then the name Tea Party may have departed, but the existential agita that caused its rise will persist. After all, there are just some words you can’t say out loud in a “polite society.”

Posted by DwDunphy | Report as abusive

I agree with most of what you said, but I have to take exception to the implication that Bill Maher’s comments about Palin are in some way equivalent to what Limbaugh has said about Ms. Fluke. This line of reasoning has enjoyed a great deal of air time on Fox News, but it really does not stand up to close scrutiny. The thinking seems to be that since they are both ‘entertainers’ there is a certain tit for tat quality that negates each other’s more uncivil comments. The problem with this is that Limbaugh is not an entertainer. He received a tribute on July 17, 2001 in the U. S. House of Representatives for advancing the conservative cause. This means he is a political operative of the highest order to whom millions look for guidance. Bill Maher, though he may be a well connected liberal comic and HBO interviewer, is not in the same league with Limbaugh. His schtick is satire (which sometimes falls a bit flat). but no one that I know takes their marching orders from him.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive

The article states that Hollywood “does a Palin movie with Julianne Moore while the subject is still an active, and relatively young, political figure. Implicitly, the film is saying: Palin’s moment is over.”

Palin has not been “still an active, and relatively young, political figure” for several years. Her political career ended when she resigned as Governor of Alaska in the midst of an ethics investigation (compounded by ethics questions about how she was raising funds to pay lawyers to represent her in the ethics investigation).

Palin is a media figure, albeit one with a background in politics. She is not a political one. She should be mentioned along with Mike Huckabee. She certainly does not deserve to be in the same paragraph as Margaret Thatcher.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

When will American’s learn that a partisan stance is almost always wrong. Everyone in this country should be an Independent. Candidates should have to fight for your vote, not simply expect it because you and the candidate share the same party affiliation. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen more candidates running on religion. Hello! This country was founded on separation of church and state. And speaking of the state, not Obama nor any of the Republican’s are showing you how they are going to fix the state that this country is in. Pandering to the rich (more tax cuts) and spending more on the military isn’t a solution. That’s what’s been going on for the past 12 years. We clearly need none of the above as an option on the ballet. And America…it ain’t the presidents that are the core problem in this country. It’s Congress…we some serious house keeping done in both the House and the Senate. Enough is enough!

Posted by xyz2055 | Report as abusive

Tea Party movement exposed what most Americans knew was alive and well just beneath the surface of the water. A type of American that is not happy being in the social minority. A type of American who perceives his way of life and his religion as being under attack. The Tea Party movement is full of angry mean, spirited people. Tea Party members become indigant when challenged on their positions. The Tea Party movement has lost credibility. And now the Americans that help elect some Tea Party members to public office are now having to live with the reality of what they’ve done. I wouldn’t say the Tea Party movement has drown, rather they are fading way as the party they hijacked marches towards irrelevancy. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Posted by MJMann | Report as abusive

Just to clarify…Didn’t Mr. Maher donate his million to a superPAC. It was not a direct campaign contribution.

Posted by clscurnutt | Report as abusive

The Tea Party was doomed to failure from the beginning. Since when does any political party come to power in Congress with the determination NOT to negotiate or compromise on any issues? What happened in 2010 is a one-off event that’s going to crumble in 2012. After the Democrats keep the White House, regain the majority in the House of Representatives, and maintain a majority in the Senate, you’ll see the rest of the Republican Party jettison the Tea Party once and for all along with Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachman, Sara Palin, and the rest of the lunatic fringe. In government, there’s one adage that must be maintained always – lunatics must not be allowed to run the asylum. Between 2010 and 2012, that’s exactly what happened and that’s why the Tea Party is crumbling. They had no real agenda except disruption of the normal political process. Let’s see if the Tea Party doesn’t take the GOP down along with it.

Posted by USDemocrat | Report as abusive

The logic is as wacky as, well, a tea-partier. Right now, I have the option to make the moral choice (however I define it) regarding reproduction. If Santorum has his way, the state will make the choice for me, in which case it can hardly be called a moral decision on my part. There’s a reason that we call ourselves pro-CHOICE.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

hatred, bigotry, and prejudice will always be with us, presumably at a slowly decaying level. what has always bothered me about the tea party that never really was a party was how close to the surface these emotions ran. now i know how the populace living through the salem witch trials and spanish inquisition felt.

Posted by jcfl | Report as abusive

I have to take issue as well with the Bill Maher/Rush Limbaugh equivalence. Ms Fluke is almostly certainly not a prostitute, while Mrs Palin is most certainly a c**t of the highest order. Someone who blatantly expose and exploit their children to national politcs is a c**t; someone who abdicates their elected responsibilities to go get paid on TV is a c**t; to be married to and supportive of a secessionist is to be a c**t; to be the figurehead leader of a grassroots movement then cash out after you decide not to run for president is a c**t. I hope my point is made, but many MANY other reasons to label Mrs Palin this way can be given while none can be given for labelling Ms Fluke a prostitute.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

While it certainly true that both the Republican Party as a whole and what has been labelled the “Tea Party” today are made up of the same people, it is also true that those people do not give the energy and impetus to original teap party movement.

The “traditionists” are Christian church going, fundamentalist conservatives with a sense of entitlement to the cultural life of the country. In particular, they feel entitled to identify and demonize people different from themselves in lifestyle or religion. They jumped on the tea party bandwagon, just as they jump on others that might increase their power. They care nothing for “liberty” or “freedom” or “tolerance” and very little for balanced budgets or taxes on the prosperous.

The tea party has faded because it let religious social conservatives in. They already had the Republican Party entirely in their control and now they have snuffed out their own dissidents. Fiscal conservatives cannot tolerate social conservatives and survive. Just look around.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Mr. Lloyd, over here in FLYOVER Country, the Party is ALIVE and WELL. I am a registered Democrat who usually votes conservative no matter the Party. I voted for Obama the first time around, but not this time. I wont be dupped again. Your probably familiar with that phrase Blank me once, shame on you, Blank me twice shame on me.

Thanks from a Tea Party Drinker

Posted by sunchaz5 | Report as abusive

I believe Santorum’s daughter was ill, but do not see anywhere that she died….

Posted by ssalex | Report as abusive

I think people may be mistaking the media not paying attention to the Tea Party with the Tea Party not being a factor. I suspect that the principles of the TP will be a force in the upcoming election, just not as visible. The principles espoused by the TP are inherently American and not particularly new; they will endure.

As to presidential politics, I think that just about anyone could do a better job than the incumbent. Reality does not wait for any imagined concept – and the President does not understand or support capitalism. People basically were desperate in 2008, but will be smarter in 2012. The policies have been nothing but a disaster, even when the Democrats controlled both houses of congress and the White House for two years. That was plenty of time to change things, but the changes implemented did not help the economy.

I consider this article to be wishful thinking by someone of the Western European background, who does not understand the American tradition.

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

Great to pop in now and again to the Reuters echo chamber – really just another Obama PAC.

Problem is everyone here is singing from the same song book: authors, journalists and posters. We know the GOP, they declare smugly, oh yes, it is finished. Tea Party, why it is toast. Oh yes, they declare sighting one or other abstruse reason, Obama will get in again.

Blinded by political correctness, however, they cannot see what all rational people across the country see only to well. Obama is a poor president more focused on his agenda and wealth distribution than on wealth creation or concern for Mr Average (despiet what he says).

And so everywhere far away from the heated halls of liberals and lefties Mr and Mrs America (and even some Ms) are waiting, itching to cast their vote to get rid of the incompetent and vote in someone, anyone who stands against Obama.

Mormon, evangelical, womanizer, fruitcake. They don’t care. This is not a GOP choice. This is an ‘anybody, but Obama election’.

And the results will show it.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

It’s so cute to see all the desperate liberals trying again to marginalize a voice in America that will not go away – the voice is not racist, it is the voice of decent, reasonable people who pay their taxes, give to their churches and other causes, part of the backbone of America. They are not just white, not just rich, they are at every level of our society.

Try as you might, you cannot dissuade good people from their beliefs, but in fact, your mischaracterizations, your ridiculous studies, all work to make the resolve that much stronger.

Obama is a failure. Liberalism is a failure. We must reign in government control, profligate spending and the corruption that is attracted by the centralization of money and power. The existing system is being attacked on all sides, and it will fall. What is left hopefully are people willing to do what we have always done, and that is to take care of ourselves and our neighbors.

Posted by Paulii | Report as abusive


Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

What a bombastic bigot this author is, from his fantasy perspective interpretation of the Tea Party as his distorted paranoia imagines it to be. He sadly is not alone but well joined in the woods by his “educated” pals in the “media”.

Back to reality now sir, “mendacious attacks” not on sir, but BY Obama and the Democrats sir.

“constant denigration BY the mainstream media” for example you of the Tea Party sir.

“aggressive victimization” by you sir with the pull the punches fantasy you write.

It appears the Tea Party was put on earth to flush out bigots such this author.

Posted by JP007 | Report as abusive

The above comment is either a perfect example of Mr. Lloyd’s thesis, or it is a brilliant parody of one.

Posted by Alljack | Report as abusive

eleno, pauliii, jp007 – thanks for proving him right.

Posted by jcfl | Report as abusive

Like the author said, some teabagging dead-enders still won’t go home :-)Whatever happened to the birthers btw?

One thing you notice about the tea baggers is that they never quite point to anything specific of the so-called “failures” of Obama. They just throw out vague swaths of nonsense like “Obama hates capitalism” or “Obama is the worst president in history” or “Obama is a failure” or “Obama increased the deficits” (like they actually know/care what deficit means). If the damage is so colossal, we should all see the evidence. Where is it? What is it exactly that this guy has done that makes him such a failure? Amorphous declarations like “Obama increased the deficits” ignores the fact that ANY American president would do precisely what he’s done to prevent more severe hemorrhaging in our economy. Economists only disagree on whether the increased government spending was enough or too little. He (and I’m sure any other president) did the right thing. And I’m sure even the conservatives know that too…because, that is exactly what Bush did when push came to shove. The tea baggers just never seem to provide any basis for the fevered ranting. Obama is clearly working hard to manage the country through a particularly challenging time. Anecdotally, if he was so bad, I think SNL and the late night show hosts should have some meat to cut into. But they have nothing…nothing to ridicule our president about. Does that sound like a disasterous failure or someone simply working hard at his job?

Its easy to blame Obama for the slow economic recovery, high gas prices, excessive snow in the northeast and particularly the drought in Texas. But reasonable people can look at what he has actually DONE and make an assessment of whether his actions/plans were the right ones of not, under the circumstances, and articulate alternatives.

I agree with an earlier comment that the tea baggers problem with Obama is NOT one of policy differences. In fact it’s not clear to me that a Romney presidency will be materially different (policy wise) from an Obama presidency. The only difference would be that Congress will again chuck their “conservatism” and be more than happy to sign checks for the same level of government spending :-)

Posted by nonchalanto | Report as abusive

@nonchalanto: You asked for evidence of the damage done by this kind of governing? You need look no further than California, the state with 12% of the US population but 1/3 of all welfare recipients. Personally, I don’t hold Pres. Obama personally responsible for all the ills we currently face. I blame ‘progressivism’ – an ill-conceived notion that sounds noble, but ultimately proves itself a tyrant. It’s destroying California, the state that’s added billions in deficits every year for 9 of the last 10 years. What we are seeing right now in CA is the result of when progressivism runs out of other people’s money to spend.

Posted by Citizen1052 | Report as abusive

“the reliance on the state to take care of the elderly and the physically and mentally disabled; the shifts we make with our children to pursue careers and make a larger income — all of these are, indeed, inconvenient truths, …And we in Western Europe are more dependent on the state to take care of these problems than are Americans.”

The inconvenient truth (for the right wing) is that we no longer live in a society in which elderly and the disabled CAN be taken care of by the family. For, in those earlier societies, children and grandparents and disabled (if the disabled were not killed outright) were taken care of by the extended family and/or the community (sometimes there was little difference).

But that is no longer possible since (as you also note) “the shifts we make with our children to pursue careers and make a larger income” leave a family dispersed over a nation or even a globe. Additionally, many families have only one or two children which makes it even more difficult for familial care.

And so, to answer these issues, we extend the term “community” to cover the extended community – i.e. the state. We have us all chip in – in advance when possible – to cover these issues and avoid the burden of impossible care on the few. This to me seems not only a more rational way of doing things, but a more christian way as well.

Posted by jmmx | Report as abusive

On the Bill Maher/Rush Limbaugh equivalence – If Maher really did call Palin a c**t I would have to take issue with it. Entertainer or not, that language is shameful!

There is one point, however, where there is a huge difference. Ms. Palin entered the political processes, and while this still does not excuse the language, in so doing these days, one puts oneself in the line of attack. I assume that one needs to develop a thick skin and pass such slurs off as crude and reflecting on the person using them more than on the object.

Ms. Fluke, however, was not in that position. She was not running for a national office on an extremist and derogatory campaign. No, she was merely a young woman speaking up at a congressional hearing o a topic on which she had some expertise and experience. The unleashing of such violent invective by Limbaugh is not only crude, but is inherently intimidating. As such it is profoundly undemocratic.

Posted by jmmx | Report as abusive

@Citizen1052 – you do realize that, up until the last election, it was a Republican that was running California, right? And California’s problems stem from it’s difficult budgetary laws and the fact that the overwhelming majority of budgetary spending is mandated by law (which was passed by voter-backed propositions – not state government)- something that the legislature cannot change.

California has massive problems, but boiling them down to “Progressivism”is an oversimplification that does not do anything to solve the problem.

@Nonchalanto: I almost completely agree with you, except for the statement that a President Romney wouldn’t be much different. While I’m disappointed with Obama for many reasons (Gitmo, Afghanistan, his extension of Executive power, etc.), I find Romney to be the worst type of political opportunist – even worse than Palin. He will say anything to get elected, as evidenced by the amount of times he has changed positions and gone back on his accomplishments as Massachusetts Governor

Posted by Californiaexpat | Report as abusive

this is one of – if not – the most well written articles i’ve come across in recent times. it strikes such a healthy balance of genuine civility and reason it almost makes me envious.

and maybe, as usual, the readers would blatantly ignore this outstanding fact while trying to gore one another in parochial political bumfights as they try to determine who holds the smartest, most righteous, most moral and most politically correct position in these tenacious regions of our generation’s moral, physical, mental and spiritual wastelands…

the scary regions of governing ourselves…

Posted by Ifeanyi | Report as abusive

this is one of the most well written articles – if not the best – i’ve read in recent times. it strikes such a healthy balance of genuine civility and reason it almost makes me so envious.

and the readers, as usual, may try to ignore this outstanding fact as they engage and try to gore one another in one of those endless parochial political bumfights where they attempt to assert who holds the smartest, most righteous, most moral and most politically correct of positions in that most chaotic and most dubious region of our lives – the trepid region of human self governance.

Posted by Ifeanyi | Report as abusive

this is one of the most well written articles – if not the best – i’ve read in recent times. it strikes such a healthy balance of genuine civility and reason it almost makes me so envious.

and the readers, as usual, may try to ignore this outstanding fact as they engage and try to gore one another in one of those endless parochial political bumfights where they attempt to assert who holds the smartest, most righteous, most moral and most politically correct of positions in that most chaotic and most dubious region of our lives – the trepid region of human self governance.

Posted by Ifeanyi | Report as abusive

@ Citizen 1052: I realize I’m a day late on this but c’est la vie. It seems to me that the billions in deficits that the state of California has added in 9 of the last 10 years happens to be under the rule and “guidance” of the republican party.

Posted by TheGame2 | Report as abusive

Yeah, lets get a few unbiased things straight:

1) Rush was an idiot an out of line saying that about that girl who was just giving voice to a legitimate argument on a cause.

2) Bill Maher was out of line for spewing that type of language at any point in time. If you get a laugh out of what he said, then your part of the problem also.

3) Barack Obama, the person, has been proven to be a genuine person.

Questions for Mr Lloyd:
If the Tea Party and hence the GOP is dead, where did it go? What do you think the outcome in November will be?

Posted by Caricommsteve | Report as abusive