Looking at Tuesday’s election results, you would be excused for thinking that the Tea Party had not bothered to come out to vote. That must be partly true, but as with everything in politics, it is not as simple as that. The Tea Party is a movement at war with its own country, and war, even if it is just a culture war, is hard to sustain. After five years even the most ardent fighters must be groaning at the enormity of the task they had taken on, of toppling one of the world’s powerful countries and making its people bow down to a foreign culture. Election day in Pennsylvania, which did not go well at the polls for the Tea Party, also brought a court ruling that struck down the state’s hard-fought gay marriage ban. It is a decision that will not be appealed, in part because the ruling follows recent Supreme Court guidelines so literally that it would be almost impossible for the Supreme Court to disagree with it. The timing was coincidental, but the event was symbolic of the Tea Party’s biggest problem. With America becoming ever more American, what place is there for a group that just wants to shut it all down?
And this business of shutting things down is the other big challenge for the culture-war contingent of the Republican party this year. Last October 1, it arranged to shut down the federal government, symbolically shutting down the country. With the determination of the police who arrive at midnight to tell the house “the party’s over,” it vowed to keep the country shut down through this fall’s elections. That resolve lasted only a matter of days, making the Tea Party both a saboteur and a loser. It squandered about $100 billion of the people’s money and nearly caused a recession, and in the end, accomplished nothing. In doing so, it lost face and it lost any hope of holding on to its billions of dollars in Wall Street funding — and that helps to explain why, in losing this spring’s elections one by one, the Tea Party has gone away so quietly. The rented stage has been carried away. It is just as well, as the message had long since become hopelessly muddled. In its most recent form, it might fairly be paraphrased as “Rise up and let the poor die of their poverty,” which is not quite a stirring call to action.
I am not sure the Republicans are breathing easier for having shrugged off the pesky Tea Party so easily this spring. Republicans still face the problems that go with being 20 years older than any other party, and predominantly male at that. Time is not on their side. Just from basic demographics they fall another percentage point behind every two years. It is a problem they cannot bring themselves to face, and as long as they cannot, they will continue to be a party in retreat.