By Luke Brinker
When the Tea Party emerged in 2009, its leaders asserted that the movement represented a dynamic new force in American politics. Motivated by a visceral hostility to the bailout and stimulus policies of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Tea Party activists would emphasize the free market and small government, not social issues.
In reality, the Tea Party is not so much a new force as an emboldened old one. The profile of the typical Tea Party member is that of a typical member of the Republican Party base. Tea Party supporters tend to be older voters who identify as conservatives (including on social issues) and watch Fox News. Tea Party membership is also correlated with racist attitudes and fierce opposition to the rights of undocumented immigrants. For all their self-professed independence from the two major parties, Tea Partiers are partisan, conservative Republicans.
Because it’s virtually impossible to win a party’s nomination without support from the party base, Republican candidates are heavily reliant upon Tea Party support in primary elections. A Washington Post-Pew poll in October found that while only 32 percent of Americans overall sympathize with the movement, 63 percent of Republicans express Tea Party support. To paraphrase the legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko, a Republican who would seek office by denouncing the Tea Party is an individual who would probably begin a diet by shooting himself in the stomach.
But while courting the Tea Party may serve the GOP’s immediate interests, adopting Tea Party policies could prove electorally disastrous in the long-term. Mitt Romney has reversed his positions on abortion, gay rights, and immigration to appeal to core GOP voters, which may well help propel him to the presidential nomination, but such hard-core conservative views are out of step with long-range trends. A recent survey found that 71 percent of college freshmen (including 43 percent of self-described conservatives) support same-sex marriage. Sixty one percent espoused pro-choice views. Younger voters are also more likely than older voters to perceive gaping economic inequality as a major problem. (And contrary to popular belief, people don’t usually become more conservative as they age.) Finally, with the nation’s Latino population expected to triple by 2050, right-wing anti-immigration views endanger the GOP’s hold on even the most reliably Republican states, including Texas.
To remain relevant in the 2020s and beyond, the GOP will need to adopt a more socially tolerant, immigrant-friendly stance, and be willing to address mounting concerns about economic inequality with more than a promise to discuss the problem in “quiet rooms.” Republicans attuned to this reality do exist; former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, for instance, supports civil unions (albeit not same-sex marriage, at least yet), endorses the scientific consensus on climate change, refuses to adopt the conservative base’s harsh anti-immigration rhetoric, and says he understands why the Occupy Wall Street movement is upset (even if his economic policies mostly adhere to conservative orthodoxy). What remains to be seen is whether in future years the GOP will listen to Huntsman or its aging, dwindling Tea Party base