In order to be successful, populist grassroots movements must have a narrow focus. The antiwar movement of the 1960s, for example, was pretty clear about its mission: End the Vietnam War. Later, other issues would become associated with the movement. Some were related. Others were not.
As long as stopping the war remained the movement's primary focus, many Americans agreed or at least sympathized with the antiwar efforts. But when the movement began to latch onto other issues — feminism, socialism, class warfare — it muddied the waters and lost the support of Middle America.
The Tea Party began as a movement dedicated to a single purpose: to stop government spending. This populist grassroots movement began as a protest of President George W. Bush's TARP bailout and gained momentum as President Barack Obama continued to escalate his predecessor's big-government spending at a breakneck speed.
While the Tea Party had two different wings — one libertarian, the other socially conservative — the Tea Partiers found common cause in reducing the national debt. Some focused on reducing taxes, others the size of government itself. And there were also those who believed that the government should audit the Federal Reserve. But all of these issues were economic. There was a common theme. And as such, the Tea Party was widely popular.
According to 2009 Rasmussen poll, 51 percent of Americans viewed the massive Tax Day protests that happened that year favorably. And then as late as January 2011, the Los Angeles Times offered this factoid: "71 percent of Americans, even many who do not think highly of the 'Tea Party,' say it's important that Republicans should take its positions into account."
These concerns have only increased over the last two years, not-so-coincidentally in correlation with Washington's ongoing out-of-control spending. Or as Gallup noted this January: "Americans' concerns about the federal budget deficit and government dysfunction rose high enough in January to knock unemployment out of the top two slots on Gallup's 'most important problem' list for the first time since 2009."
Yet the Tea Party brand itself has suffered. A Rasmussen poll this month revealed that "only 30 percent of likely U.S. voters now have a favorable opinion of the Tea Party," a drastic drop from Gallup's 70 percent favorable rating just two years ago. Still, the concern over the "federal budget deficit and government dysfunction" — the Tea Party's original focus — is higher than it has ever been.
What has happened to the Tea Party movement is what happens to populist movements when they lose their focus. Although some within the movement have tried to import immigration or social issues into the Tea Party, they are not necessarily wrong about those issues, but they are wrong to associate them with the Tea Party. There are other movements that already address these problems.
But the worst damage has come from those who never liked the Tea Party to begin with: liberals and the left-wing media whose collectivist, quasi-socialist mindset has conditioned them to believe that grassroots populism is always supposed to mean more government, not less. When Tea Party candidates have made clumsy or embarrassing comments about social issues — things that have nothing to do with spending or the debt — certain liberals have not hesitated to associate these missteps with the movement. This is not to say that some Tea Partiers have not said or done some dumb things, but it is to say that the Left is always anxious to portray the Tea Party as a movement that is constantly saying and doing dumb things. Still, a significant portion of Americans continue to worry about what a $16 trillion debt burden will mean for them and their children.
The sentiment that the Tea Party is "dead" is simply not true in two very important ways. First, there is the obvious fact that the movement's original mission — stopping government spending — remains a concern for a broad spectrum of Americans. Second, are we to believe that there won't be challenges to establishment Republicans in 2014, 2016, and beyond, and that the grassroots base within the GOP won't make these challenges viable?
Whether the name "Tea Party" survives remains to be seen. That will largely have to do with whether or not the movement can stay focused on the economic concerns that gave it birth. But the name itself is secondary to the spending and debt issues the movement represents. These issues are not going away. In this important sense, neither is the Tea Party.
Jack Hunter is the new media director for Sen. Rand Paul.