The Tea Party is the latest wave of new energy and activism and voters into the Republican Party.
The Tea Party movement is the fifth major wave of immigration into the modern Republican Party since World War II. It has brought Americans who had never been politically active to the forefront of the political fight against the Obama administration’s agenda and into Republican primaries as voters, and in some cases, as candidates. The Tea Party movement became the party of opposition and then grafted itself to the backbone of the modern Republican Party as it approached the 2010 elections.
The first major wave of individuals and energy to join the modern Republican Party flowed from the Goldwater campaigns to defeat Nelson Rockefeller for the GOP presidential nomination of 1964. The second wave was the Religious Right movement of Southern Evangelicals and conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews that coalesced in 1978-1980, joining the movement that helped elect Ronald Reagan. The third wave flowed from the activists who became politicized through the presidential campaign of Pat Robertson in 1988 and then entered state and local GOP politics. The fourth wave was the legions of Ron Paul activists flooding the 2008 presidential campaign with youth, energy, and an ability to put the Internet to work for liberty.
Each wave has strengthened the modern Republican Party. Each brought new voters and talent, and increased the numbers of those not content with voting once every two or four years, but willing to commit themselves to building the Republican Party and its allied structures day in and day out.
And yet each wave has been met by skeptics within the Republican Party worried that the newcomers were problematic — regarding them as “not quite our sort” or even too “radical” or “extreme.” The helpful establishment left chimed in each time, warning that the visibly growing Republican Party was, in fact, weakened, because the new activists would push the party too far to the right to win elections.
One understands why the left would warn Republicans against fortifying their ranks with new waves of conservative activists.
Conversely, it is always odd to watch Republican Party loyalists — the establishment theoretically responsible for expanding the party — resist the integration of each new wave of activism. Local country party chairs comfortable with monthly meetings of the usual, familiar, and few local Republican volunteers reacted negatively to discovering their sleepy meetings overrun by dozens of new recruits full of energy, direction, and a (seemingly irrational) desire to replace the sleepy local leadership.
One notes that Wal-Mart is pleased when their parking lots are filled by new customers. The store managers do not complain about all the annoying new customers they don’t recognize—and who may dress differently — coming into the store and messing up the inventory by buying so much stuff that had not been purchased before. In the real world, new customers are a sign of success. Each wave of new activists has had to overcome the Republican Party’s long tradition of looking askance at newcomers rocking the boat — and a decade later those rookies will themselves wonder deeply whether the newest Republicans wish to vote for our candidates for “the right reasons.”
IN THE FIRST wave, the Goldwater campaigns of 1964 — primary and general — attracted first-time Republican voters into the party and to political activism. It also formally marked the culmination of the long struggle to turn the Lincoln Republican party — a regional party of the North and Midwest without particular ideology—into a national Party based on conservative principles.
Phyllis Schlafly views the Goldwater movement as one occurring mostly within the existing Republican Party. Yet her book, A Choice Not an Echo, which began with an ambitious printing of 25,000 and which Republicans were instructed to send to their GOP delegates to warn them against the Eastern establishment and “Rockefeller Republicans,” eventually sold three million copies, attracting many to the Republican Party for the first time. Lee Edwards, the author of the biography Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution, argues that the campaign and Goldwater’s personal example introduced the Republican Party to a new generation and to voters in states that had no functioning Republican Party (almost the entire South), and created a cadre of Republican leaders that would drive the party to the right for the next 40 years.
The 1970s brought new conservatives to the Republican Party: the so-called “Religious Right.” There were four streams. First, the individuals and structures created by Phyllis Schlafly and her Eagle Forum and the Stop ERA campaign, which viewed feminism as an attack on traditional families and a studied insult to mothers who took the time to raise their families. Phyllis points out that many of her best activists were not originally Republicans, but they became fixtures in Republican Party politics for decades. A second stream were groups like the Moral Majority, motivated by the Carter administration’s attacks on the tax status of Christian private schools (asserting that they were all efforts to flee racial integration) and FCC challenges to Christian radio stations based on the “Fairness Doctrine.” This movement was largely Evangelical Protestant. Big-city ethnic Catholics began, at the same time, to leave the Democratic Party because of its enthusiasm for taxpayer-subsidized abortion. And lastly, the home-school movement: in the 1950s, a largely left-of-center movement of those who felt the school system too right wing, but now increasingly driven by families who feared the hard left/secular drive in many public schools. They were joined by many parents who noticed the government school monopolies were not actually providing an education. Mike Farris formed the Home School Legal Defense Fund and fought teachers unions in 50 states, winning the legal right to home school for a constituency that is now two percent of the population. The home school movement provides real manpower in politics through Generation Joshua.
There were figures in the Republican Party who believed the addition of traditional values conservatives would split the GOP in two. They failed to realize that the homeschoolers, defenders of Christian radio stations and Christian private schools, and opponents of government promotion of secular humanism through public schools and grants to “community organizers” simply wished to be left alone. Economic conservatives defended their economic livelihoods. The Religious Right’s non-negotiable demand was to be left alone to raise their families and live their faith.
A distinct third wave came in 1988, when the Rev. Pat Robertson ran for president, drawing on the Pentecostal movement to build a donor base of more than 320,000 committed supporters, and won the Iowa Caucus through the strength of his volunteer network. George H.W. Bush won the primary, but it was Robertson who was to have the longer run influence on the modern Republican Party after he took his activist base and, with Ralph Reed, built the Christian Coalition to 2 million members. Robertson exhorted his supporters from his “failed” presidential campaign to join the ranks of the Republican Party—not simply as voters but as local and state party leaders. Within three years, some 17 states were run or greatly influenced by his legions.
One can argue whether the Perot voters were the storm-petrels of the later Tea Party movement. Certainly the Perot candidacies of 1992 and 1996 were made possible only by the decision by George H. W. Bush to break his “read my lips” pledge to oppose tax hikes. Bush had an otherwise successful presidency, managing the collapse of the Soviet Empire without a great deal of blood on the floor and evicting Iraq from Kuwait without getting stuck occupying the place for a generation. No tax hike, no Perot. Still, the Perot phenomenon showed a willingness of 19 percent of the electorate to walk away from a Republican Party not committed to focusing on limited government.
The next wave came from the 2008 Ron Paul presidential campaign, which was always a more successful political movement than campaign. Paul raised more than $34 million from individual contributors. Every Republican event had more Ron Paul bumper stickers, posters, and visible volunteers than all the other candidates combined. McCain’s fatal error was endorsing the Bush TARP bailout, but he also erred in not enlisting the Paul supporters in his campaign. Indeed, Ron Paul had his own competing convention in Minneapolis in August 2008, attended by more than 12,000 very loud and energetic supporters who’d traveled on their own dime to their own convention. These activists continue their engagement through the work of the Campaign for Liberty (shades of Eagle Forum and the Christian Coalition), and their power can be seen in Rand Paul’s crushing victory in Kentucky’s GOP primary, the defeat of Nevada’s Sue Lowden — blamed for keeping Ron Paul supporters out of the GOP convention — and the more than 300 co-sponsors in a Democrat-controlled Congress for their legislation to audit the Fed.
THE TEA PARTY is the latest wave of new energy and activism and voters into the Republican Party. Tea Partiers are best understood as Americans who had been too busy running normal lives to focus on politics but who became, in early 2009, terrified by the overspending in Washington that they saw threatening the economy and the republic.
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