Just how close is the Tea Party to its demise? Last week, Fox News didn’t even bother airing the group’s official response to Barack Obama’s speech, in which the president forcefully called for an end to tactics that prevent the government “from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy.” Even Speaker of the House John Boehner, who seemed so downtrodden last year, now has an extra spring in his step, and is daring to push for immigration reform over the vocal objections of the far right. All but the most extreme Republicans have abandoned their shutdown tactics, and though the GOP still vows to repeal Obama’s signature health law given the chance, the changing power dynamics on Capitol Hill are palpable.
Indeed, it’s been a rough few months for the Tea Party. Fewer Americans than at any time since 2010 now call themselves members or supporters of the group. The tactic of running far-right candidates in Republican primaries clearly cost the GOP control of the Senate in 2010 and again in 2012. Their intransigence also helped to prevent Mitt Romney from defeating the president they have so vilified. All this has sparked counter-mobilization by the GOP Old Guard too: Since last fall’s ill-conceived Tea Party-led gambit to shut down the government, defund the Affordable Care Act and potentially default on the national debt, establishment Republicans have boldly lashed out at conservative outside groups that once had them cowering in fear, while pouring millions of dollars into races across the country to bolster moderates against right-wing insurgents.
At the same time, some of the leading Tea Party figures on the national stage are now departing from elective office, including Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who won’t seek reelection this year, and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who left the Senate last year to become president of the Heritage Foundation. Others have consolidated their positions as national laughingstocks—most notably former veep wannabe Sarah Palin, but also the filibustering, Dr. Seuss-reading Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who seems to be following the same trajectory, only faster. Others have been busy distancing themselves from the Tea Party, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) taking a more moderate stance on immigration and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) choosing to emphasize civil liberties over more radical tactics..
There may still be plot twists, turns and even reversals ahead for the Tea Party, but the main question now is not if the group is in decline but what its endgame will be. Tea Party proponents have been quick to claim a long and victorious lineage in U.S. history, ranging from their namesake tax revolt in Boston in 1773 to the 1978 anti-tax Proposition 13 rebellion in California. It’s no surprise that the Tea Party is eager to stress such antecedents, since both led to huge victories: the American Revolution and the rise of Reaganism. Both historic episodes also share a heroic story of grassroots anti-government struggle followed by a supposed triumph of liberty.
So how does the Tea Party’s story end? Consider a wider lens, one that includes comparable movements in other democracies. The Tea Party is but one example of a common form of political insurgency—one that almost always loses in the long run. This kind of counter-establishment movement is common enough that comparative politics has a term for it: the “anti-system party”—a group that seeks to obstruct and delegitimize the entire political system in which the government functions. As explained by Giovanni Sartori, the Italian political scientist who coined the term in 1976, an anti-system is driven not by “an opposition on issues” but “an opposition of principle.”
“An anti-system party would not change—if it could—the government but the very system of government,” Sartori wrote. “[A]n anti-system opposition abides by a belief system that does not share the values of the political order within which it operates.”
Sartori had foremost in mind the various communist parties active in Western Europe during the Cold War, but the concept has been applied to movements as varied as right-wing nationalists, radical libertarians and ethnic separatists all across the world.
Without adopting the phrase itself, the Tea Party in both words and deeds has positioned itself as America’s newest anti-system party. Claiming the mantle of patriotism, Tea Partiers say they love the United States while hating the U.S. government—its practices, its rules and especially its procedures for achieving compromise and consensus. The litany of anti-government Tea Party efforts is by now familiar. In Congress: shutting down the government, abusing the filibuster, threatening a default on the debt. During elections: suppressing the minority vote under the guise of fraud prevention, undermining the Voting Rights Act, aggressively gerrymandering for partisan advantage, challenging the citizenship of the president. In political rhetoric: vilifying the “47 percent” who are “bribed” by the welfare state, denouncing Republican-inspired and market-based health care reforms as socialism, lamenting the passing of the white Christian conservative hegemony of “real America.”
The Tea Party’s rhetoric and actions may be bold, but they are not sustainable. While anti-system parties’ ideal outcome would be to take over and re-make the political system entirely, this rarely happens—it requires a full-blown revolution, not mere incremental change. To the chagrin of most Tea Partiers, the world’s preeminent anti-system party was undoubtedly the Bolsheviks during the late tsarist era in Russia.
More typically, anti-system parties are seduced into becoming a part of existing structures of power, such as when the French Communist Party joined Socialist-led governments when they came to power the 1980s and 1990s. More often, however, anti-system parties bring political ruin upon themselves through their own excesses and then dissolve into political irrelevance, which is increasingly the trajectory of The Tea Party.
This process is well underway not only in the United States but also in several other Western democracies in which anti-system parties emerged after the global financial meltdown of 2008-2009. One telling example is Britain, where in 2010 the Eurosceptic, right-wing populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) launched a challenge to the Conservative-Liberal coalition government. The party has been rallying behind a leader, Nigel Farage, who has been dubbed “the British Ted Cruz.” But under Britain’s winner-take-all electoral system, the UKIP now seems likely to swing the next general election back to Labour by siphoning votes off in regions that would otherwise be Tory strongholds, thus ensuring the UKIP’s own political irrelevance.
In Italy, the anti-system Five Star Movement had a robust third-place showing in the 2013 national elections, winning one in four votes. But the group then refused to join a new government, instead maintaining what they deemed a principled unwillingness to compromise. Similarly, in Greece, the radical-left Syriza Party placed a strong second in 2012 elections but decided not to join a broad coalition, instead becoming the country’s main opposition party. In both Italy and Greece, the political system has already begun to move on and forge fresh political alliances and new majority configurations—all without the participation of the anti-system parties, whose members preferred to remain obstructionists rather than part of the solutions to their countries’ crises.
Although such self-defeating behavior usually seals the fate of anti-system parties, a more hopeful endgame suggested by Sartori is that of “reciprocal relegitimization.” In this scenario, both sides of the conflict accept the basic legitimacy of the other, and the perspectives of the anti-system parties become integrated into a new consensus. Think of nascent democracies such as post-apartheid South Africa and post-Pinochet Chile. Some bitterly divided former communist countries in Europe, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, have also been able to reconcile forces of both right and left and to refashion themselves as model European states. Those unable to do so, notably Ukraine today, face ongoing strife.
Although the United States is generally not as polarized as these societies, the U.S. government has been bitterly divided in recent years. Fortunately, the basis for reciprocal relegitimization in the United States has, in fact, already begun to come into focus, coinciding with the Tea Party’s weakening. The eleventh–hour vote last fall to reopen the federal government and avert a catastrophic default offered the faint outlines of a centrist governing coalition. The measure passed the Senate 81–18 and the House 285–144, with support from the leadership of both parties in both houses and from the president. The subsequent budget deal, struck between Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and passed into law in December despite Tea Party laments, rolled back the mindless cuts of the 2013 sequester and promises to avert future crises. In the House, as throughout much of the nation, Republicans have begun to move beyond the Tea Party’s thrall.
So what happens next? Asked about oppositional “third party” movements in American history, the historian Richard Hofstadter famously said they are like bees—“once they have stung, they die.” The Occupy Movement, the Tea Party’s ostensible left-wing anti-system counterpart, already had its day, made its mark and has expired as a political force. The Tea Party has most definitely stung. Now there can be but one last stage ahead.