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After the election, whither the Tea Party?

Action Speaks
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 14, 2012

TJI_Tea_Party_sign_main
Action Speaks, the panel discussion series at AS220, concludes its fall season November 21 with a look at movement conservatism.

Moderator Marc Levitt, as usual, will use an underappreciated day in American history as a launching pad for the discussion. This time it's 1971: lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell writes a memo to a friend at the US Chamber of Commerce, titled "Attack on the Free Enterprise System," warning that the New Left is anti-business and encouraging corporate America to become more politically engaged.

The memo is often credited with inspiring Chamber activism and a series of right-wing think tanks that undergirded the Reagan Revolution.

Among the scheduled panelists is Vanessa Williamson, a fourth-year PhD student in government and social policy at Harvard University who co-authored the widely acclaimed The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism with political scientist Theda Skocpol.

The Phoenix caught up with Williamson for a Q&A via email in advance of her appearance. The talk, free and open to the public, is scheduled for 5:30 pm at AS220, 115 Empire St, Providence.

YOU APPEARED WITH SKOCPOL AT BROWN UNIVERSITY THIS SPRING. SHE ARGUED THAT THE MEDIA WAS FAILING TO RECOGNIZE THE ENDURING POWER OF THE TEA PARTY. THE MOVEMENT, SHE SAID, HAD SHIFTED THE REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY — EVEN THE OSTENSIBLY MODERATE MITT ROMNEY — TO THE RIGHT. SURELY THAT'S CORRECT. BUT DOESN'T THE TEA PARTY'S FAILURE TO NOMINATE A TRUE CONSERVATIVE WITHIN THE FRIENDLY CONFINES OF THE REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY — OR TO RE-ELECT STANDARD-BEARERS LIKE CONGRESSMAN ALLEN WEST IN THE GENERAL ELECTION — SUGGEST THE MOVEMENT IS, IN FACT, IN DECLINE? It's important to not treat the "Tea Party" as a monolithic force. It never was. As we point out in the book, there were three forces (the conservative media, a collection of pro-big business Republican elites, and grassroots conservatives) that leveraged one another in 2010, and that is what made the Tea Party so effective. All three of those groups still exist and are still very powerful in their own right. But their goals did not align as well in 2012. Conservatives faced a dilemma — at the national level, it would be difficult to have a candidate both be electable and hold the increasingly far-right opinions that are a mandatory part of being a Republican these days. Mitt Romney did his best to appease the Tea Party base — and that left him (and others like Akin and Mourdock) unelectable.

Obviously the label "Tea Party" has become less and less popular over time. But the power of the Tea Party forces in the Republican Party remained very strong all the way through the general election. Tea Party supporters are a small minority of the electorate. In national races, and moderate states and districts, the Tea Party was a detriment to the Republican Party. The interesting question is how the party will respond in the future.

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