The tea party legacy

This is a useful way to think about Tea Party activism as well. The movement was always essentially right-wing, which is why it was embraced (and, at times, exploited) by the right’s pre-existing network of professionals and pressure groups. But it changed Republican politics precisely because it mobilized Americans who were new to political activism and agitation, and who behaved like people awakened from a slumber to a situation they no longer recognized. Wait, we bailed out Wall Street … ? Our deficits are … how big? And this Barack Hussein Obama, where did he come from?

This mix of passion and paranoia, commitment and confusion, explains why the Tea Party’s precise ideological lineaments were so hard for many observers to discern, why its leaders were so varied — libertarians and evangelicals, entitlement reformers and ex-witches — and why all the attempts to essentialize the movement (as libertarian or authoritarian, anti-Wall Street or pro-Wall Street, pro-military or pro-defense cuts, pro-Medicare or anti-New Deal) didn’t capture its complexity.

Thus Paul Ryan’s green-eyeshaded Medicare blueprints and Herman Cain’s fanciful 9-9-9 plan were both “Tea Party” phenomena. Likewise Glenn Beck’s conspiracy-scrawled blackboards and his teary, apolitical Washington Mall consciousness-raising. Likewise Ron Paul’s and Rick Santorum’s presidential campaigns, in which two ideologically dissimilar Republican politicians both claimed a “Tea Party” mantle.