The last time the right was energized with new blood, new foot soldiers, and new voters was in the late 1970s, when the Christian Right, as Evangelicals were then called, realized that they’d better get into politics or watch their way of life be swallowed up by permissiveness and secularism. A decade later, they were the largest voting bloc in the Republican Party and their issues had risen to the top of every GOP politician’s list. As our old friend and colleague, the late Bob Novak, wrote in the April 2008 TAS, “Without Christian conservatives, [Republicans] would resort to minority status and guarantee a permanent Democratic majority. You may not like them but believe me, you need them. The religious right is to the Republican Party what the labor movement is to the Democratic Party — absolutely indispensable.”
Are the Tea Party activists the next Evangelicals? Maybe, but some, including TAS contributor Michael Barone, think the Tea Partiers bear an uncanny resemblance to the antiwar activists of the Vietnam War period. Those protesters started off chastising both parties (remember “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”) but ultimately gravitated to the Democrats where, according to Barone, “they had a long-lasting and pervasive effect.” With their help (and certainly Watergate was also a factor), Democrats picked up 49 congressional seats in 1974, pushing the party well to the left in the process, and as a result controlled the House and Senate for much of the next 20 years.
The Obama-Pelosi-Reid left-wing agenda, coupled with unfathomable spending and deficits, has shaken millions of complacent, non-political Americans into action. Still without a single leader and still decentralized (which may be one of their greatest long-term assets), and still a thorn in the side to the Republican establishment, Tea Partiers nevertheless have, in just a matter of months, had significant impact. They have solidified opposition to Obama and have helped to publicize the price that future generations will pay for his programs. Spines have been stiffened among Capitol Hill Republicans as well, encouraging them to unanimously oppose the Obama agenda, including health care, bailouts, TARP, and cap and trade.
Whether the Tea Party movement will be a lasting force remains to be seen. It took the Christian Right several years and some false starts before becoming the force that it is on the right, just as it did the antiwar protesters to become a force on the left. Although both began outside of either party, both eventually migrated to their respective parties, moving them right and left in the process. Although many enthusiastic Tea Partiers are independents, to have any political clout they will need to slowly move to the Republican Party — probably from the bottom up — where they will displace at least some of the establishment. They have good reason to try to change things in the GOP — many Tea Partiers correctly believe certain Republican politicians (and administrations) have betrayed the party’s ideals. They are, in fact, just what the Republican Party needs. According to Reuters News Service, Tea Partiers are a “genuine, amorphous, conservative grassroots movement united by three core principles: constitutionally limited government, free market ideology, and low taxes.” What could be better?
The November election is the next stop, and Tea Partiers need to stick to their threats to Blue Dog Democrats and wavering Republicans (they are targeting moderate Republicans like Charlie Crist in Florida and John McCain in Arizona) and send them packing. If they do, and make their mark on the election, they may just go down in history alongside the anti-Vietnam War left and the Christian Right.