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Tea Party: Old Whine in New Bottles

Memo to Obama: Bill Clinton, LBJ, and FDR know how you feel.

Is this good news or bad? Some of both, I think. Let's start with the worst news: These right-wing fluorescences are, unfortunately, getting more potent over time as they learn from their mistakes. Raw numbers tell part of the story. The Liberty League topped out at about 75,000 members, and even that number may have been exaggerated. They simply weren't good enough at concealing the fact that they were little more than a group founded by rich industrialists who disliked the government interfering with their business. The Birchers did better, attracting support from 5 percent of the population and claiming a core membership of more than 100,000.

The anti-Clinton forces did better still, boasting a following of millions, though there was no formal organization to compare to the Liberty League or the John Birch Society. And the tea party has done even better: An April New York Times poll suggests not only that the movement attracts support from 18 percent of the population, but that as many as 5 million people have attended tea party rallies and perhaps a million core supporters have donated money to a tea party group.

Beyond sheer numbers, though, right-wing extremist groups are also becoming more effective. The Liberty League withered after it failed to make even a dent in FDR's 1936 reelection campaign. The Birchers improved on that record, winning lots of local campaigns and eventually helping Barry Goldwater win the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, before collapsing under the weight of Robert Welch's increasingly bizarre rants. The '90s activists were more successful yet, helping Gingrich take over Congress in 1994, impeaching a president in 1998, and eventually sending George W. Bush to the White House.

And the tea partiers? Their history hasn't been written yet, but they have, for all practical purposes, already trumped every previous generation of activists by successfully taking over the Republican Party almost entirely. And this is, at last, something that really is new: The Liberty League was rejected by the GOP almost from the start, the Birchers were all but spent as a political force after the 1964 election debacle, and even during the '90s there were still moderate factions in the GOP. But today, there's virtually no one left in the party leadership who doesn't at least claim to adhere to tea party principles. Recent polls by both Gallup and the Mellman Group (PDF) find that the views of self-identified tea party supporters are nearly identical to the views of self-identified Republicans across the board. Gallup's analysis may go a little too far in saying that the tea party movement is "more a rebranding of core Republicanism than a new or distinct entity on the American political scene," but not by much.

In 1961, Time condemned the John Birch Society as a "tiresome, comic-opera joke"; in 2009, it called Glenn Beck "tireless, funny, self-deprecating."

How did this happen? Partly it's a reflection of the long-term rightward shift of the Republican Party. Partly it's a product of the modern media environment: The Birchers were limited to mimeograph machines and PTA meetings to get the word out, while the tea partiers can rely on Fox News and Facebook. Beyond that, though, it's also a reflection of the mainstreaming of extremism. In 1961, Time exposed the John Birch Society to a national audience and condemned it as a "tiresome, comic-opera joke"; in 2009, it splashed Glenn Beck on the cover and called him "tireless, funny, self-deprecating...a gifted storyteller." And it's the same story in the political community: The Birchers were eventually drummed out of the conservative movement, but the tea partiers are almost universally welcomed today. "In the '60s," says Rick Perlstein, a historian of the American right, "you had someone like William F. Buckley pushing back against the Birchers. Today, when David Frum tries to play the same role, he's completely ostracized. There are just no countervailing forces in the Republican Party anymore." Unlike the Birchers, or even the Clinton conspiracy theorists, the tea partiers aren't a fringe part of the conservative movement. They are the conservative movement.

So where's the good news? Part of it is that the movement's 15 minutes could be nearly up. The tea partiers may have expanded faster than the Birchers thanks to Fox News and talk radio, but the same media echo chamber that enabled this has also shortened attention spans and provided 500 channels of competition for the Glenn Becks of the world. The speed of the tea partiers' rise may foreshadow an equally fast decline as their act begins to grow stale.

Likewise, the sheer size of the tea party movement may be as much a curse as a blessing. An insurgent movement can retain its vigor if it remains limited to true believers, but once it takes the reins of power, it has no choice but to offer a winning platform if it wants to keep its influence. The tea partiers are thus likely to be victims of their own success: When everyone's a tea partier, then no one's a tea partier. Right-wing extremism may win majorities in Arizona and a few other basket-case states, but it doesn't win national elections, which means the tea partiers will either move to the center or die.

In fact, there's already evidence that this is happening. There are only a handful of genuine tea party candidates running in November—folks like Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Rand Paul in Kentucky—and plenty of evidence that tea party affiliation might not help them much. Tea party favorite Doug Hoffman, for example, accomplished nothing in New York's 23rd congressional district last year except splitting the GOP vote and handing the district to a Democrat for the first time since the Civil War. And tea party darling Scott Brown, who came from behind to win Ted Kennedy's Senate seat earlier this year in Massachusetts, has turned out to be a pretty moderate Republican. The tea partiers, it turns out, love these candidates for taking on the establishment—not necessarily for being able to win, or even (in Brown's case) for toeing the purist anti-tyranny party line.

The tea party movement is likely to provide plenty of drama this November, but if the historical record is anything to go by, it won't last long after that. As with the earlier incarnations, its core identity will slowly fade away and become grist for CNN retrospectives, while its broader identity becomes subsumed by a Republican Party that's been headed down the path of ever less-tolerant conservatism for decades. In that sense, the tea party movement is merely an unusually flamboyant symptom of an illness that's been breeding for a long time.

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