Does the Tea Party Want to Win Elections?

Kevin Drum ponders what he calls a “timid” National Review article about the Tea Party by Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru. Drum agrees with L&P’s diagnosis that the Tea Party needs to appreciate the value of winning national elections if it wants to shape national policy, but raises this challenge:

OK, but how will conservatives win more elections? L&P explicitly disavow the notion of the party turning left, suggesting only that they’re skeptical of “the idea that moving in the opposite direction will in itself pay political dividends.” But if they have no concrete suggestions—either in policy or tone or messaging or something—then this is just mush.

Well, maybe. But there is an alternative explanation. L&P are probably more in touch than is Drum (or me) with the pulse of Tea Party at the moment. L&P may have concluded that the alienation, rage and self-indulgence in that corner of the world are such that persuading Tea Partiers that elections matter is indeed a significant task of its own, much as it was with some leftist factions in the 1960s and 1970s. You can’t tell people how to do something that they don’t want to do in the first place. If you feel that the country is lost, that your values have been rejected and the entire system is corrupt, politics can become simply an outlet for rage. That may be the ledge the Tea Party is on, post-government-shut-down humiliation.

This same observation is germane to Andrew Sullivan’s otherwise compelling analysis of Chris Christie’s electability. It assumes that the Tea Party cares about winning elections, and therefore will embrace the big guy from Jersey. It used to be that the rightmost wing of the Republican Party always lined up for the establishment choice in the end, but maybe this time around they will simply be in the mood to express their fury via a Quixotic Cruzade for one of their own.


  1. paul says

    For the conservatives, winning elections seems to lead to losing elections, because they get the idea that their agenda is widely popular and their policy prescriptions will work. So it may be a better strategy to stay in the minority while shifting the terms of debate to the right and letting the majority party take the blame for everything that’s going on.

    In addition, the Long Con wing of the conservative movement makes a lot more money by not achieving its goals. There’s more outrage to gin up contributions, and the better economic conditions lead to more money sloshing around. (Albeit that second one may no longer be true because of rising inequality. How the economy is doing in general isn’t as important to a movement as how the sugar daddies are doing.)

  2. calling all toasters says

    Of course they’re concerned with winning, it’s just that they are immune to facts. Obama wins re-election? That was all ACORN! etc. ad nauseum….

    Let’s face it: they are delusional, paranoid, and highly agitated. The only way Tea Partyism is distinct from a mental illness is that mental illness is not socially transmitted.

    Hoping for them to be focused on pragmatics is like hoping for a raccoon to dance. It’s not in their nature and it’s not bloody likely.

    • says

      I don’t think they are mentally ill. But I do agree that the basic issue isn’t that they don’t care about winning elections (although some of the talk radio hucksters and book sellers might not), but that they are deluded into thinking that they can win elections without compromising with other parts of the political spectrum. And a lot of them seem to be immune to facts in the sense that they take every electoral defeat as merely a sign that they were not conservative enough.

  3. Ed Whitney says

    You know how disappointed many progressives have been in Pres. Obama? Multiply by 100 and you have a measure of how disappointed the Tea Party will be if they did get Pres. Cruz. He will run into the same enduring forces that every president encounters. He would do great damage to the country, but not the kind of change that his supporters desire. Electoral success would doom the movement.

    The Tea Party has used the language of revolution since its inception, complete with talk about Second Amendment solutions and about watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants. They do not want “business as usual” in Washington. But another name for business as usual is “political stability,” which is the feature that helps make the dollar the world’s reserve currency and makes our interest rates manageable. The Teahadis may not understand this, but the powers that be understand it well enough to block any moves toward revolutionary change that the far right wants to see.

    The heart of conservatism is a deep appreciation of the limits of ambitious human agency; all that stuff about small government and free enterprise is only conservative to the extent that it grows out of that understanding. Shrinking government until it is small enough to drown in a bathtub is a colossal ambition for human agency to accomplish. The Tea Party freshmen who came to town in 2011 wanted to transform Washington straight away; they wanted to abandon the tradition of spending their first term with their ears open and their mouths shut until they learned a thing or two. They thought that there were no limits to what they could do in their first terms if they were determined enough to do it. Why they think themselves to be conservative is a bit of a mystery.

    • Betsy says

      Lincoln Allison said it best:

      - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - –

      I begin to enter Crocodile Dundee mode when I come across American “conservatives”:

      “You ain’t a conservative: I’m a conservative. If you are a patriotic American your identity is defined by a constitution which embraces precisely the kind of universal principles which conservatism opposes by definition and essence. So if you really want to be a conservative you should write to Her Majesty apologising and asking to be taken back. Or you could simply move to Canada, a country which muddles along very well indeed with a set of institutions and compromises which nobody could have devised on principle. They even have a proper Conservative Party, which is very rare.”

      The whole point about conservatives is that they believe in reality: what we have works because it has had some practice in working and you shouldn’t try to change it too much or too quickly because you’ll only mess it up.

      American “conservatives” believe in one or both of two unrealities. Economically, there is the “free market”; of course, I’m in favour of this too, but in real free markets created by strong, if restrained, states. They believe in the Lockean nonsense that you will have a free market if you have a weak state and they find it difficult when what they get is shysterism and gangsterism.

      And then there is “social” conservatism, which seeks to conserve a world in which there are no homosexuals, in which people stay with the same partner for life and voluntarily take responsibility for their actions. Etc. A place of complete fantasy, not reality. I don’t know which society ever got closest to this unattractive vision, but it certainly wasn’t the Good Ole flipping USA.

      The good thing about America is that they believe in freedom. And the bad thing about America is that they don’t believe in freedom: they have even more repressive laws than other states and a substantial minority of the population would be more at home in Iran if they could surmount their prejudice against Islam.

      In short, American “conservatives” are dangerous idealists and progressives who give real conservatives a bad name.

  4. MobiusKlein says

    From the California playbook, all they need to do is have a veto power in at least one place.

    SCOTUS, House, Senate, POTUS. In the Senate, they just need to win 41%. House, they can Gerrymander in the states. POTUS, they just might get lucky? SCOTUS, see POTUS minus 8 to 20 years.

    • Barbara says

      Yes, this. This is exactly the case. Right now, they can accomplish many of their goals by maintaining resistance while wielding at least one of these powerful levers. Right now, the wield two: House and SCOTUS.

      • Warren Terra says

        Three: House, Scotus, and enough of the Senate to threaten to filibuster everything, with a party unity (usually) enforced even upon the supposedly moderate Republicans by an utter terror of a primary challenge from the Right.

        Thus, you get insanity like Lindsay Graham deciding unilaterally that Obama doesn’t get to make any appointments (and if it were possible to get any replacement through the Senate, would Sibelius still have her job?), or you get this latest conservative effort to shred the Constitution: a half-dozen Republican attorneys general and the Republican House are complaining that it’s illegitimate for the sitting President to appoint judicial nominees and instead the vacant judgeships should simply be abolished – and doing so with the assistance of Lindsay Graham, among others.

        • Cranky Observer says

          Somewhat contrary to my own post below, IMHO if a legislator is so afraid of a “primary challenge” that he won’t take reasonable actions regardless of what the election consequences _might_ be he doesn’t deserve the job. I’m in dangerof losing my job every single day, as are most USians, and I don’t let it stop me from making good decisions or speaking plainly when necessary. Legislators (esp Senators) are too fearful to do the same? Yeah, no.


  5. Mike says

    If the Tea Party is on a ledge, please give them a push…

    I think people are looking at this the wrong way. I doubt the Tea Party has any intention of winning elections. The big money that started the Tea Party simply wanted a way to push the Republican Party further to the right for their own purposes and knew there was a large group of disaffected cultural conservatives available to mobilize for this purpose.

    On the other hand, the often inchoate grassroots Tea Partier sees it as a cause that is as much about cleansing the Republicans of compromisers (RINOs) as it is an attack on Obama (but since Obama is African-American/mixed race, he tends to attract the most passion from this group that would be wearing hoods if this was the 1920s instead of the 2010s.)

    The fact that anyone won a race based on Tea Party credentials was almost besides the point. So long as they get a fawning media following their every move and Republican candidates prostrating themselves in search of a TP endorsement (really, TP is such a Great! acronym :) ), they’re golden. They see themselves as insurgents who have little interest in governing, just in preventing others from governing.

    Kind of sad that the Democrats can’t come up with much of anything better than “We’re not those crazy people…” to exploit this opening. Because unless they actually create a wave to the left, instead of treading water, the TP is liable to continue to benefit from the disgruntled survivors of Corporate Labor Discipline that is the primary product of our economy now. With no stomach for a similar left lodestar, conditions are ripe for some of the more grim possibilities in neo-facist and outright racist ideologies to fester within the Republicans and grow. Sure, they’ll be a minority, but that doesn’t seem to keep them from winning elections against often witless Dems, who take the luck of the draw in candidates and depending more on charisma for success — see Obama, Clinton(s?) — or just lame — Dukakis, etc, etc — with no clear message about what an America in which everyone has a decent job or income and which didn’t spned half the nation’s wealth on occupying the world.

    Against that bumbling, the TP actually, sadly, ironically, pathetically, astoundingly, sickeningly has a pretty good chance of remaining relevant, because the Dems offer no alternative vision capable of articulating the grievances of the disaffected and dispossessed whites who are very unhappy to find themselves treated just the same as those they’ve always looked down upon by the corporations who rule our country. The TP is all about combustible politics. Whether it’s a paper tiger or something more ominous remains to be seen, but it’s more likely to get uglier before it gets better.

    • Mike says

      I’m not sure what centrists you’re talking about. There is a shrinking group of politically involved Americans and then the teeming masses, who sometimes vote, but mostly for good reason view the system as stacked against them. The Republicans have a reliable formula in blaming the government, even though they often are the government, to simultaneously distract and direct that animus towards the Democrats. The Democrats have…nothing except Mr. Nice Guy.

      That rarely works with rabid dogs and only a little more than that with the TP.

      Surveys reliably report American have liberal views on a wide range of subjects, but the Democrats only rarely come up with an angle to mobilize those sentiments into political numbers. They’re afraid of their own shadows…

      Speaking of which…

      Someone needs to telegraph Cass…”Oh, you say they telegraph is no more, just like the USSR and the spectre of Communism haunting or political system? Gee, I seem to have pulled a Rip Van Winkle.”

      Let him know that blaming much of anything these days on Communism is about as believable as Obama being a socialist. You’re going to need a fresh dead horse here, I’m afraid.

      And who are the people dumb enough to believe swill like Sunstein’s?

      Oh, right, we were talking about the TP, weren’t we?

  6. max says

    You can’t tell people how to do something that they don’t want to do in the first place. If you feel that the country is lost, that your values have been rejected and the entire system is corrupt, politics can become simply an outlet for rage.

    I think it would be more accurate to say that they want to win RIGHT NOW, elections be damned. (And if that means shooting people, so be it.)

    ['They want to liberate the American people from the oppression of corporate health care.']

  7. Bostonian in Brooklyn says

    I have some problems with the “both sides do it” implied by “that elections matter is indeed a significant task of its own, much as it was with some leftist factions in the 1960s and 1970s.” The people I knew who had lost faith in elections did so after electing someone and then someone shoots them and its all gone. It seemed better to work on projects that were less dependent on one mortal human.

  8. Brett Bellmore says

    The Tea party, quite literally, doesn’t want to win elections. They want to prevail on policy. Winning elections only has instrumental value towards that. If the only way to win an election is by losing on policy, winning elections is utterly worthless.

    That is the big conflict between the Tea party and the Republican establishment, for whom policy has only instrumental value towards winning elections. That is why the party establishment hates the Tea party, and wants to coopt it. They don’t want candidates who have higher values than winning elections.

    The irony of this is that, the moment people realize that the only thing you value is holding office, your chances of holding it shrink dramatically, so the Republican establishment have to pretend they care about policy, even while trying to sabotoge the prospects of any candidate who actually does.

    • navarro says

      that’s very interesting. whether intended or not you just put the tea party into the same category of political actors as the immediatist abolitionists of the tappanite variety. i’ll have to sit back and reflect on that a while.

    • MobiusKlein says

      Policy is not just a binary win / lose thing.
      You can prevail by shifting the status quo inch by inch, rather than some all out victory.

      • Cranky Observer says

        Over the last 10 years there have probably been ~3 points that I have agreed with Mr. Bellmore on; this is one of them. The problem with the “pick your battles; inch-by-inch; sit down and shut up when your parental figures have the floor” advice [you being the Tea Party in Mr. Bellmore's case, 'lefties' in mine] is that it is very likely the “centrist” candidate will inch _away_ from your preferred position as toward it, and that that process will continue *forever*. As we are seeing with Mr. Obama on torture, domestic spying, Wall Street malfeasance, and women’s reproductive rights. Sometimes you have to take a few cycles to punish to make the point clear. I don’t think anyone will be nominating Joe Lieberman for major office again.


        On a related issue, I also agree with BB that the manipulation of the election process by incumbents to effectively exclude third parties is unconstitutional & generally illegal. But of course the in incumbents control the AG offices as well…

        • Warren Terra says

          In many places, ballot access isn’t all that difficult, certainly not for a candidate with enough grassroots support to be remotely viable. And the places with the most open ballot access laws are often the bluer parts of the country. None of them have important third parties; even the rare successful Independent candidates are (1) sui generis and (2) typically in open alliance with one party or the other (Bernie Sanders, Angus King, sometime-Independent Michael Bloomberg; the only recent prominent counter-example was Jesse Ventura)

          Our country doesn’t have meaningful third parties because it was designed not to: first-past-the-post is the death of third parties. Even in countries that have first-past-the-post and have more than two meaningful parties the parties are usually regional, whether this is the two national parties in multiple regionally identified forms (Canada, sometimes, though for the most part not at the moment), or regional variation in which of the three parties are competitive (the UK for the last thirty years, more or less – though in Northern Ireland there are also regionally identified parties with national alliances). Even when this sort-of works (the Lib Dems getting the casting vote in the UK last time, for example) it often doesn’t work well (ask anyone how well the Lib Dems have fulfilled their purported vision in office). If we want third parties, we need some sort of proportional representation or run-off elections – and neither seems likely here.

          There are separately some issues with media access, especially the debates, but those are not legislative – at the least, not legislative so long as you ignore the US’s nearly complete lack of Public Campaign Financing and of free-to-the-candidate Party Political broadcasts.

    • politicalfootball says

      I was about to make Brett’s point. People who critique Tea Party strategy fail to take into account that Tea Partiers have genuine, deeply held convictions that are different from those of the Republican elite. A win for Republicans isn’t necessarily a win for the Tea Party.

      (I think Brett, in turn, is unduly dismissive of the Republican Establishment, which does have distinct values that go beyond winning elections.)

      The Tea Partiers understand that they don’t need to win every election – they just needs to scare incumbents into doing their bidding. At that, they have been remarkably successful.

      • Brett Bellmore says

        I agree that they value some things more than maximizing the number of Republican officeholders; Otherwise they’d not sabotage the campaigns of Tea Party members who succeed in winning primaries. The problem is that they value things which are different from the things valued by their own party’s base.

        • politicalfootball says

          It was widely speculated that there was no way the Republican Establishment would permit a default, and I think this view was confirmed by events. So they weren’t on the same page as the Tea Party.

          On the other hand, the Tea Party lined up loyally behind Mitt, who clearly wasn’t their guy, but who beat ‘em fair and square, and was radically better (in their eyes) than the Democratic opposition.

          I think the left could learn a lot from the Tea Party.

    • Mike says

      Let me rephrase what Brett wrote into hope of the nation getting past this ridiculous costume Tea Party as quickly as we get past Halloween:

      “The irony of this is that, the moment people realize that the only thing you value is holding _government hostage_, your chances of holding it shrink dramatically…”

      • Brett Bellmore says

        Mike, let me clue you in on the fine art of rephrasing: The end result should mean the same thing as the starting point. Otherwise you’re simply indulging in the not so fine art of constructing straw men.

      • Mike says

        I believe the meaning is the same, it’s just that a realistic appraisal of the situation is more likely than not to see the shoe on the other foot here.

        I do hope that’s not confusing, although I realize it’s asking you to think outside your comfort zone.

        • Brett Bellmore says

          Again, presenting Democrats with the choice of either causing a shutdown, or allowing Obamacare to be defunded or delayed, has only instrumental value. It is not what the Tea Party wants. What the Tea party wants, is for the government to be in their face less.

          But its pleasant, isn’t it, imagining your political foes are evil/insane… It frees you to do pretty much anything you want, and still imagine yourself to be the good/sane side. Much more liberating than admitting your political foes just want to make their own choices, instead of having to comply with your choices for them.

          • navarro says

            i prefer rational polical opponents. irrational foes offer too many opportunities for mischief on both sides.

            reading your comment again i have to wonder if you’re grounded enough to look back on some of your own setting up of straw folk over the years and apply the content of that comment to yourself?

          • Mike says

            Brett wrote:
            “What the Tea party wants, is for the government to be in their face less.”

            Since nature abhors a vacuum, this could simply mean that the TP, explicitly or implicitly, supports the corollary, that it wants corporations in our faces more. And it seems that’s what they got, paradoxically enough.


            So since the TP is OK with unaccountable corporate funds extending elite control of the political process further, shouldn’t the TP really be more worried about those pulling the strings behind the scenes of a government totally enthrall to the very folks they want to grant further freedom to? Will the TP denounce corporate control of a Republican admin the same as they will one under Obama? Will the TP actually stand up for the 99%, instead of the “freedom” only a few seem to profit from? Is an equitable society just as valuable to the TP as government not “being in your face”?

            The good thing for you, Brett, is that the Democratic Party is no more interested in the answers to those questions than you are.

          • politicalfootball says

            Again, presenting Democrats with the choice of either causing a shutdown, or allowing Obamacare to be defunded or delayed, has only instrumental value. It is not what the Tea Party wants. What the Tea party wants, is for the government to be in their face less.

            It surprises me to disagree with you on this, since I think you’ve got a good grip on the Tea Party phenomenon.

            Obama has policy preferences, too. But you’ll never see him threaten to veto a debt ceiling increase or a continuing resolution in order to get what he wants. If he issued such a threat, his political opponents would just laugh, because they know he is interested in the well-being of the US economy and, thus, the well-being of the US government.

            The Tea Party, on the other hand, is able to issue credible threats because they hate the hostage. We know they aren’t bluffing when they say they are ready to tank the economy or shut down the government indefinitely.

          • politicalfootball says

            You mean, like continued funding for Obamacare?

            Not quite. He already had that. If the House and Senate had voted to defund Obamcare, there is zero chance he would have threatened to veto the CR.

            But I take your point: In response to a hostage threat, he refused to knuckle under, in effect saying, “Okay, shoot the hostage.” He had to, or the House Republican caucus would keep taking hostages. Paradoxical though it may seem, Obama was acting out of concern for the hostage when he refused to pay ransom.

            So while I accept your amendment, my point remains the same: Obama was opposed to hostage-shooting, and did what he could to prevent it, and succeeded, not just in the short term, but likely in the long-term, too.

            Obama would never initiate a hostage situation like this. The Tea Party, meanwhile, was fine with shooting the hostage, even absent the possibility of some other policy gain.