How much influence has the Tea Party really had in American politics?
The movement scored real successes in the 2010 election, when the GOP won control of the House and narrowed the Democrats' majority in the Senate. That success bolstered the GOP's budget-cutting fervor and set up the debt-ceiling showdown last summer. And wins by Tea Party candidates at the state level have helped create the wave of abortion restrictions recently passed by state legislatures.
On the other hand, there have been major disappointments during the past year. Sarah Palin didn't run for the GOP presidential nomination, and one Tea Party favorite after another ascended in the primary race, then crashed, until Republicans settled for perhaps the least conservative candidate in the race: Mitt Romney.
And electoral successes haven't guaranteed passage of hardcore conservative legislation, as the Tea Party-approved governor of Florida, Rick Scott, has learned. Scott began his term by nixing federal funds for high-speed rail in the state, and his approval rating dropped to the low 30s. Since then he's been forced to move slightly toward the center, proposing more funding for education and backing off his campaign promises to pass Arizona-style legislation that targets immigrants.
But the Tea Party's influence can't be measured by its legislative and electoral victories alone. Its main "achievement" over the past three years has been to help the Republicans advance their goal of creating total cynicism about our institutions. The religious conservatives who form the core of the movement have theological reasons for decrying government as hopelessly broken. That makes them a perfect match with the modern GOP, whose leaders decry the corruption and overweening power of government as a strategy for gaining power within the corrupt, overweening government.
The classic example is Newt Gingrich. It's hard to remember now, after his flameout as a presidential candidate, but Gingrich was the most powerful Republican in the nation in the 1990s, and he rose to that position by coordinating a relentless attack on precisely the institutions that he sought to govern.
As Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote recently in the Washington Post, "From the day he entered Congress in 1979, Gingrich had a strategy to create a Republican majority in the House: convincing voters that the institution was so corrupt that anyone would be better than the incumbents, especially those in the Democratic majority." Ultimately, Gingrich's strategy "activated an extreme and virulently anti-Washington base . . . and helped drive moderate Republicans out of Congress."
What makes this so damaging and dangerous is that cynicism breeds only cynicism, and hopelessness is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So it's interesting to consider that, at the heart of the biblical narrative that so many of the Tea Party faithful claim to believe, there's more than sin and corruption. There is also the possibility of redemption and a basis for hope. There is a Messiah.
Liberals often say that the Right's hatred of Obama is about his race. Conservatives say it's about his socialist agenda. But there's something more going on, and it's captured in the way that the Right has often mocked Obama as "the chosen one," the Messiah. Dig a little under the surface of that derision and you'll discover a world of confusion and ambivalence.
Obama is a deeply familiar figure among tea partiers and conservative Christians. He has the energy and charisma of a pastor, and he's the sort of authority figure many on the far-Right are conditioned to respect. But the context is all wrong. The messenger is a black man. The hope he offers is grounded in the possibility that human institutions can be expressions of the common good.
In truth, they want to respond to this kind of hope-affirming message, because balancing despair with hope is fundamental to their theology. And the redemptive promise doesn't even have to be otherworldly. Ronald Reagan became a demigod among conservatives by holding out a bright future for the nation while separating America from its actual institutions. He spoke to conservatives' need to actually believe in something. And he made it possible for them to believe in America's future while despising its government.
Obviously, no Republican since Reagan has rivaled his rhetorical gifts or his deftness at fusing electoral politics with a quasi-religious vision. George W. Bush seemed to understand the power of Reagan's rhetoric but didn't have the skill to pull it off. John McCain had no feel for it at all.
So the source of the Right's hatred of Obama isn't just that he's a black man and a liberal. It's also that he's so much better than any Republican at articulating "that hopey changey stuff," as Sarah Palin once derided it. The mockery of Obama as the Messiah reveals far more about the Tea Party than it does about the president. They long for a Reagan-style message of hope and possibility. What they get is...Mitt Romney.
And who wouldn't despair at that prospect?
Of course, there's far less talk of hope and change this election cycle than four years ago, especially since the Obama campaign has formally changed its slogan to "forward." And yes: It's hard not to feel disappointed, perhaps even cynical, thinking about the gap between Obama's rhetoric and his actual record these past three years.
But the Tea Party has only its cynicism, which leaves the field of positive solutions wide open for Democrats and progressives to occupy. It's important to critique and shine light on the endemic corruption of our institutions, but Obama was onto something important--in fact, radical--with the "hopey changey stuff."
Going beyond critique and offering an alternative vision--a measure of hope--isn't just a rebuttal to the Tea Party's cynicism and a good way to get under that movement's skin. Ultimately, it's the only path to reform.