Nate Silver Is Half Right About the Tea Party

Posted: May 24, 2014 7:25 PM

The resounding victory that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell scored over "tea party" businessman Matt Bevin this past week has thrown the media into a tizzy. Is the "tea party" dead? Did the GOP establishment kill it? Or did the GOP subsume the tea party, taking its candidates, its issues, and its ideology for the GOP?

Nate Silver writes that recent "tea party vs. establishment GOP" stories are inadequate:

The term “tea party” is applied very loosely by the political media. Was Missouri Rep. Todd Akin a member of the tea party, for instance? Weigel says no: Most groups associated with the tea party endorsed either Sarah Steelman or John Brunner in the 2012 Republican primary in Missouri. I think the case is considerably more ambiguous: Akin was listed as a member of the Tea Party Caucus on Michele Bachmann’s website in 2012. But these ambiguities arise all the time. Marco Rubio was once strongly associated with the tea party but is now somewhat estranged from it. Sometimes the term seems to serve as a euphemism for “crazy Republican” rather than anything substantive.

What is the tea party, exactly? That’s not so clear. There are a constellation of groups, like Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, who sometimes associate themselves with the movement or are associated with it. But their agendas can range from libertarian to populist and do not always align. As in Missouri, they often do not endorse the same candidate. Nor do they always endorse the candidate who self-identifies as member of the tea party.

Perhaps it’s time to discourage the use of “tea party.” Or, at the very least, not to capitalize it as The New York Times and some other media organizations do. “Tea Party” looks better aesthetically than “tea party,” but triggers associations with a proper noun and risks misinforming the reader by implying that the tea party has a much more formal organizational infrastructure than it really does.

This is all right, but it's also what the mainstream media has been doing when it comes to the "tea party" since its inception. The use of the label "tea party" has almost always been meaningless in a purely electoral context. "The Tea Party" is something that should never have been capitalized by the mainstream media - there's no official campaign apparatus, no way of endorsement, no hierarchy in which to officially settle disagreements.

"The tea party" was always a loose collection of Americans who banded together to protest policies implemented at the beginning of the Obama era - bailouts, stimulus, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank. The primary disagreements between outsider candidates and the "GOP establishment" now is about tactics, not policy. If we are to say that people like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are "tea party" type Republicans, it's because they are willing to risk a lot of political capital in order to push through a GOP agenda - filibusters, budget disagreements, etc. - despite their minority status.

This isn't new, though. In the first elections after tea parties began happening, we saw people like Scott Brown and Marco Rubio win surprising victories in a wave of grassroots conservative energy. They've got only a tenuous connection with what we might call "outsider conservatives" at this point.

The "tea party" was always about a grassroots energy that the GOP machine tried to translate into electoral victory.

Silver writes that "it's time" to abandon the phrase "Tea Party" as a proper noun. It should really never have been coined in the first place. The phrase "the tea party" implies more organization in and of itself than necessary.

I've personally tried to use the phrase "tea partier" or "tea partiers." There are individuals who have worked with or within assorted tea parties, but "the tea party" is never something that has accurately described this recent grassroots conservative movement.

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