What will the legacy of the Tea Party be? A few Senate wins and government shutdowns? Or a whole new trajectory for our politics? We don’t know yet, but we do know this: If Tea Party activists can refashion their movement to appeal to a wider fraction of the American electorate, they might have a chance of expanding the Tea Party’s influence beyond its current limits. The alternative is for the Tea Party to remain a conservative faction subordinate to the Republican party establishment.

The current tension between the Republican establishment and the Tea Partiers resembles the debate between movement conservatives and the moderate Republican establishment during the 1960s. Then, as now, the Republican establishment argued that while the party’s activist base might prefer movement conservatives, the party’s right-wing could not win elections in competitive constituencies. The party’s activist base was faced with a choice: They could go with their heads and win with the establishment or go with their hearts and lose with the movement conservatives.

In retrospect, we can see that this was a false choice. It turned out that the movement conservatives (the allegedly extreme Ronald Reagan most of all) were better at expanding the Republican electorate. They were able to make gains among urban working-class whites, win over white Southerners, and appeal to suburbanites who had lost whatever ancestral ties they may have had to any of the parties. The movement conservatives were so successful at expanding the party that many Republican moderates (who had previously been unable to shut up about how they wanted the GOP to be a big tent) started feeling uncomfortable with some of the people the party was bringing in.

This history is not always properly understood. You hear on talk radio that the events of the 1960-1980s prove that RINOs lose and real conservatives win. But that’s not always true in our own time: Sharron Angle and Joe Miller were nothing if not real conservatives running in a favorable political environment, but they ended up losing—one to Harry Reid and the other to the very definition of a RINO.

But the triumphalist story of real conservatives winning and RINOs losing is wrong even when applied to the past. The story started with the understanding that conservatives were not some secret, silent majority in the country, but rather a minority that might someday become the core of a majority. As Rick Perlstein quotes Brent Bozell:

“A conservative majority has to be created,” Bozell countered in an article published after the election in National Review, “out of that vast uncommitted middle—the great majority of the American public who, though today they vote Democratic or Modern [moderate] Republican candidates, are not ideologically wedded to their programs, or for that matter, any program.

It is easy to imagine that the white Southerners and urban working-class whites were somehow natural conservatives who could comfortably fit into a GOP where the RINOs no longer ruled, but that is not the case. Northern, Democratic-voting, and urban working-class whites overwhelmingly supported the New Deal. To the extent they had a political hero, it was FDR. Even white Southerners had long voted for members of Congress who were well to the left of Northern conservative Republicans.

The process by which movement conservatives won over urban working-class whites, white Southerners, and suburbanites (partly overlapping categories) was extremely complicated and involved both finding the common ground and glossing over some differences. Reagan liked Calvin Coolidge a lot more than many urban working-class whites. Reagan knew to deemphasize his concerns about Medicare. It didn’t get in the way of cooperating on the most pressing issues of the day. And if Reagan met his audience part of the way, he was also able to nudge them in his direction. By 1980, many voters who had approved of Nixon’s across-the-board wage and price controls voted for Reagan and his proposal to deregulate the price of oil.

If the Tea Partiers really want to reshape politics in the same way as the movement conservatives of the 1960s–1980s, they are going to have to take on the perception that the appeal of Tea Party politics is limited to a segment of the Republican base. They will have to find allies who are not currently part of the Republican electorate and bringing them along. While the Republican establishment is terrified of bringing up the abortion issue, a significant part of the African American and Latino vote favors incremental abortion restrictions. While Romney only got a tiny fraction of the African American vote, 32–33 percent of African Americans believe that cutting taxes is the best way to stimulate the economy and that the government spends too much on social services.

That doesn’t mean that those voters are “natural” conservatives anymore than the Northern, urban, working-class whites of the last century were natural conservatives. While some African American and Latino voters might be open to a socially conservative appeal (especially against the extremism of the contemporary Democratic party), they aren’t social conservatives in the same way that Rick Santorum is a social conservative. While many African Americans have some concerns about the scope of government, most of them won’t be economic conservatives in the way that members of the Club for Growth are economic conservatives. For a successful future, Tea Partiers will have to find common ground with nonwhites voters (and disaffected working-class whites) that have been failed by the current Republican establishment.

One can see the difference in how two conservative politicians presented themselves to the voters. Sharron Angle presented herself as a “real conservative” who was “one of us.” It goes without saying that this “us” divides more than it unites—it includes those people already bought into the movement conservative narrative of the last fifty years, and leaves out all those who don’t have warm personal or ancestral ties to the persona of Ronald Reagan.

By contrast, Reagan was a conservative politician who knew he had to win over people who had no particular ties to his party or the conservative label. In fact, Reagan had to win over people who had personal or ancestral reasons to view conservative Republicans as a natural enemy. Reagan too presented his message as one of us, but he presented himself as one of the FDR-loving working-class union members who were looking for another option. Reagan tried to let them know that he knew where they were coming from. After all, one of Reagan’s slogans was “Elect a Union President President.” 

Pete Spiliakos writes for First Thoughts. His previous columns can be found here.

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Articles by Pete Spiliakos

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