There was something wrong with Zhang’s dog. The Chinese man had bought the Pomeranian on a business trip, but after he brought it home he found the animal to be wild and difficult to train. The dog would bite his master, make strange noises, and had a tail that mysteriously continued to grow. And the smell. Even after giving the mutt a daily bath Zhang couldn’t bear the strong stink.
When he could take it no longer, Zhang sought help from his local zoo in Tunkou. They informed him that the dog was not a dog at all—it was an Arctic fox, a protected rare species.
The Tea Party movement is like Zhang’s dog. For the past eighteen months, pundits and politicians have been trying to identify this political animal. Everyone thinks they have political movement on their hands, but the Tea Party “movement” is not a movement at all. It’s a new title for something old the Republicans have ignored for a long time. A number of astute observers are beginning to recognize this fact.
“Having looked at the swelling of the Tea Party,” says Paul Gottfried of The American Conservative, “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not a uniform movement. There are at least three different movements trying to give the impression of being one.”
And as Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard has said:
There is no single Tea Party. The name is an umbrella that encompasses many different groups. Under this umbrella, you’ll find everyone from the woolly fringe to Ron Paul supporters, from Americans for Prosperity to religious conservatives, independents, and citizens who never have been active in politics before. The umbrella is gigantic.
Indeed, the main faction of the Tea Party is a subset of the religious right. A recent survey has shown that nearly half (47 percent) consider themselves to be part of the conservative Christian movement. And despite the perception of the movement being comprised of economically-oriented libertarians, the majority held social conservative views. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Tea Partiers say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and only eighteen percent support same-sex marriage.
However, despite being dominated by religious people, the Tea Party organizations don’t focus on social conservative issues. There is, in fact, little agreement on which issues are significant. When the Washington Post contacted 647 Tea Party groups, they found that less than half of the organizations considered spending and limiting the size of government to be a primary concern.
So if the Tea Party is not a movement, what is it? Mostly a marketing tactic, and an attempt at rebranding. The term Tea Party is mainly a label for very conservative Republicans and conservative independents who always vote for the GOP, even when they shun the Republican label. It’s a way to set themselves apart from those they deem insufficiently conservative, like RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and ruling class elites.
During the presidency of George W. Bush the conservative brand became meaningless. Even the so-called conservative media used the label, completely unironically, to refer to politicians who supported increases in government spending (Bush), amnesty for illegal aliens (John McCain), government-sponsored universal health care (Mitt Romney), and abortion and gay marriage (Rudy Giuliani). When “conservatives” could embrace the core of the liberal agenda, what did the term mean?
The original Tea Party events in 2009 provided a way frustrated conservatives could answer that question, however vaguely, by declaring we are this and not that.
Eventually, the GOP establishment realized that tapping into the Tea Party’s energy would help them take back Congress, by doing what they wanted to do anyway (address fiscal issues while ignoring social concerns). The Democrats—who long ago stopped pretending to be for the common man—painted the Tea Partiers as uneducated racists.
For a group already disgruntled by being dismissed by snobbish elites, being told that they didn’t truly care about the bankrupting of the nation but only opposed Obama because they believed he was a secret Muslim from Kenya was the last straw. The election results from last night show what happens when the pent-up frustration boils over.
The media, of course, will credit the victory to the Tea Party “movement,” rather than to traditional Republican voters voting for Republican candidates. The Republican establishment and the Tea Party’s self-appointed “leaders” will agree. The result will be their treating the Tea Party as if it were merely another special interest to be pacified, rather than the a new label for the same conservatives who have always caucused with the GOP.
Indeed, we can expect to see the formation of a “Tea Party Caucus” within Congress as a substitute for what is really needed: every Republican supporting the full-spectrum of the conservative agenda. The last best hope is that Tea Partiers will recognize that they are part of a rebranding of the conservative label and not developing a distinct movement within conservatism.
By convincing the GOP that they are the core of the Republican Party and not a temporary faction, they will ensure that the interest of conservatism is truly represented by our Representatives. The GOP has no idea what it has in the Tea Party. It’s time they find out they have a fox and not a dog.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Paul Gottfried’s “Not One, But Three Tea Parties”
Matthew Continetti’s “The Two Faces of the Tea Party”
Michelle Boorstein’s “Tea party, religious right often overlap, poll shows”
Amy Gardner’s “Gauging the scope of the tea party movement in America”