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Can the tea party survive success?

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American history shows that populist political insurgencies can burn out as fast as they flare up, either absorbed into a major party or shunted to the ineffectual fringes of the American mainstream.

The 19th century's anti-immigration Know-Nothing movement dissipated after striking deals with Democrats and losing the 1896 presidential election. At the other end of the spectrum, the 1960s John Birch movement, which also began as a right-wing Republican reaction to a Democratic president, remains a constituency for some Republicans today.

So far, the tea party has managed to emerge as a quixotic, if amorphous, force largely focused on economic issues, but imbued by strains of past xenophobic movements and simmering with culture war issues like "God, guns, and gays," says Professor Watson. Before the November election, USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham predicted that these views spelled its doom. "Left alone, there's a good chance that the tea party will sputter out of existence as quickly as the Know-Nothing movement did," he wrote last September.

But in a poll released on Monday, the Gallup organization found that the tea party has moved toward the mainstream of the political debate, reporting that 71 percent of Americans said the Republican party should take tea party positions into account when crafting new policy.

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