The demise of the Tea Party and a cautionary tale for the Left

When the Republicans stormed the US House of Representatives in 2010, the Tea Party's popularity was at its peak. Exit polls showed voters in that election favoring the Tea Party by a 41% to 31% margin. It seemed like a win for extremism, for (right wing) ideological purity 'grassroots,' and against compromise in governing. Republicans had stood against everything the President and the Democrats accomplished in the first two years of Barack Obama's term: economic stimulus, health care reform, Wall Street reform, credit card reform, student loan reform, and even equal pay for women. As Republicans in government were doing everything they could to stop these reforms, wingnut activists and media figures filled up the national landscape with racist slurs, gun-touting, and violence.

And their base - as well as voters - rewarded them for it. In 2010, they ushered in in a red tide of over 60 switches in House seats, and a massive wave of blood-red governors and state legislators. Voters, we were told, agreed with the Tea Party that austerity is the only way to go. Voters did agree, to a degree. Especially to the degree that the 2010 electorate was smaller, older and far more conservative than the electorate that elected President Obama and big Democratic majorities in 2008.

This is when the Tea Party's mirror opposite on the Left side of the political spectrum - ideological sticklers of our very own - beat their chests, stomped their feet, gleefully pointed to the defeat of the Democrats and told us, "See, if Obama had only listened to us, compromised on nothing [thus getting nothing done], bully pulpitted more, demanded the nationalization of the banks and pushed the public option harder, this disaster wouldn't have happened." They contended that the President's party lost not because of a still-severely distressed economy or because of loads of Democratic voters not showing up, but because President Obama was too timid, too weak, too compromising.

But then, the Tea Party Republicans started... governing. In the states, Republican governors and legislators started to go after working people who had jobs by attacking the right of workers to organize, and by slashing state budgets to lay off teachers, firefighters and police officers. They went after women, LGBT people, brown people, poor people, and as I mentioned before, working people. On the national level, their "jobs, jobs, jobs" rhetoric turned into votes in the House to ... repeal health care reform, kill Medicare, and restrict abortion. Then, the national Republican party moved to push the United States into default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, and causing a crisis that shook confidence in the US economy.

Their zealotry for a pre-modern, 12th century civilization turned people against the GOP and the Tea Party, as ordinary people organized to protest and repeal these extreme laws and recall some of these extreme legislators.

Many are quick to credit another 'movement' with the demise of the Tea Party. It's something that started in Zuccotti Park in New York on September 17, 2011, called Occupy Wall Street, or simply Occupy. The Occupy protests spread, and had some effect on turning the national conversation from austerity to support for the "the 99%." While people in the Occupy movement itself gave President Obama fairly low marks, the far Right termed it a conspiracy orchestrated by the White House.

But one major national event in 2011 preceded Occupy and - more than anything else - spelled the doom for the Tea Party. It was also an event that brought our country to he brink of disaster and default. During the debt ceiling fight in the summer of last year, the Tea Party and the GOP stood ready to let the United States default on its debt and halt social security checks and military pensions just to hurt this economy in order to hurt President Obama. The conclusion of that drama - the deal the President made - was roundly denounced by the ideological purists on the Left at the time as, you guessed it, too compromised.

The same people who sat on the sidelines of the Left throwing stones at the president during the big fights of 2009 and 2010, the same people who did all they could to depress Democratic turnout in November of 2010 - those people now once again portrayed the president as a weak-kneed capitulator in chief. As usual, their loud complaints bore no connection to the reality that the President had massively outmaneuvered John Boehner.

In fact, Occupy took shape as almost a response to that debt ceiling fight, and in nearly equal part, to that debt ceiling deal. Many of the Occupy movement's featured protesters seemed vastly unaware of the very reforms President Obama achieved that were affecting their lives at the moment they were writing protest signs. While it was billed as a voice for the economic non-elite, Occupy was built as a movement that protested the Republicans' periling the economy as much as the president's perceived capitulations and weaknesses in the face of withering right wing opposition.

But interestingly, it was during and after that debt ceiling fight that support for the Tea Party tanked. Going from a high to a low within less than eight months, the Tea Party as an influential force for public opinion at large was pretty much over. The Tea Party's popularity fell through the floor, and its negatives shot through the ceiling. Their influence within the Republican party? That's another matter.

Which brings us to the cautionary tale I set out to tell here. Despite the great demise of the Tea Party in the aftermath of the debt limit fight, and its repudiation in the polls in 2011 in Wisconsin, Ohio, Mississippi and elsewhere, it seems that they have increased their influence within the GOP. The war on women is worse than ever, and the Republican presidential candidates are all kowtowing to the extreme positions, tactics and rhetoric of the Tea Party. And that is making them fall in the polls like stone in water.

I have long noticed an attempt to do something similar to the Tea Party influence on the Left. I have seen the Tea Party of the Left, the only difference being that they do not have the same amount of influence on the Democratic party as the Tea Party has on the Republicans. Am I equating the viciousness and violent tendencies of the Tea Party with the ideological slogs on the Left? No. There is no need to, because that is not the point. For all the viciousness and the rhetoric and physical violence, the principal reason the Tea Party has fallen from grace is not any of those things. There were, after all, no deficit of viciousness, racism, and violence from the Right during 2009 and 2010, capping off in a major Tea Party victory in the 2010 elections. So what is that principal factor that caused the Tea Party to be diminished, and now seems to be showing the same fate to the GOP itself?

Without comparing the scales of the incendiary, there is really one reason for the demise of the Tea Party: their unqualified preference for ideological warfare over governing and solving problems. This is the extremism not of positions but of checklist demands. This very quality is present among many claimants of the Left's mantle: from those Left's own "kill the bill" crowd on health care (on occasion of the public option), to the people who argued against Wall Street reform (on account of an unsatisfactory number of perpwalks in the financial sector) and the people who roundly beat up on the president for providing the first tax break to the working poor (the very odd support from the Left of a flat tax) in recent memory and for the debt ceiling deal.

All of these arguments, from people ostensibly coming from the Left, centered around one theme: the idea that the president should have waged greater ideological warfare rather than pass far reaching (but "imperfect") reforms. The central tenet of their argument is that ideological warfare is not being waged fast enough, hard enough, and successfully enough by the President. The president should have "fought" harder. He should have "bully pulpitted." It's better to have nothing than to pass reform that doesn't have everything we want the way we want it.

This is not only the mindset that is causing the GOP and the Tea Party to self destruct. This is a dangerous mindset for our country and any movement that wants to term itself 'progressive.' Progress is a process. By the very definition, progressives should be for making progress - however imperfect - and continuing to seek greater progress in the future. As the GOP is finding out, it is not possible to govern without compromising. It is not possible to solve problems by sticking to verbal warfare and ideological battles.

As I said before, the saving grace on our side of the isle is that in contrast to the Republicans, the Democratic party is relatively free from the corrosive influence of the the ideological-warfare-over-problem-solving crowd. Ultimately, everyone needs to remember that in America, our fates are bound to each other: black, white and brown, gay and straight, men and women, rich and poor, and yes, conservative and liberal. We must solve our national problems together - yes, through electoral fights, but also through legislative compromise to move our country forward. Whenever there are forces that deny this essential truth of governing, whenever there are those that prefer a "good fight" over a good result, they must be rejected. No matter which side of the political spectrum they tell you they are from, and no matter if you are a conservative or a liberal, the people who dig ideological warfare and care less about problem solving are not your friends.