These disparate groups might have disagreed about whether Adam and Steve should be able to get married, but they agreed that both Adam and Steve were overtaxed and being spent into bankruptcy by an out-of-control federal government.
But the Tea Party has drifted away from its strict economic-conservative origins. Yes, opposition to Obamacare and government spending remain priorities. But increasingly issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and immigration have become the tail that wags the dog.
According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, Tea Party members are now farther to the right on social issues than Americans as a whole or even the Republican party. For example, while the public now narrowly approves of gay marriage, Tea Party members disapprove by nearly two to one. The public is largely split on abortion, but 60 percent of tea partiers believe it should be illegal in all or most cases. Tea Party members are roughly 20 percentage points more likely than the general public to oppose a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. A majority of Tea Party supporters now say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on issues.
As a result, economic conservatives, libertarians, and anti-tax moderates are leaving the movement. Fewer than a quarter of tea partiers now describe themselves as libertarian-leaning. In last fall’s Virginia gubernatorial election, socially moderate suburbanites overwhelmingly backed Democrat Terry McAuliffe over tea-party favorite and arch-social-conservative Ken Cuccinelli.
The tea party has begun to look not like a broad-based coalition of economic conservatives but simply the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. The tent is getting smaller. As Steve Billet, professor of political management at George Washington University, noted, “The polls suggest that where the Tea Party has failed is when they tried to expand their agenda beyond the explicit budgetary issues, and got much more involved in some other social issues.”
It’s not as though the issues that first sparked the Tea Party have gone away: TARP itself may have been largely repaid, but the culture of crony capitalism behind it still thrives. Deficits are in temporary decline, but the national debt continues to grow and the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare continue to mount. Obamacare, if anything, is proving to be an even bigger disaster than anticipated. The need for a strong voice in opposition to Big Government is as great now as it has ever been.
And the Tea Party is far from powerless. It continues to tap into grassroots mistrust of the Washington establishment. Its ability to mount primary challenges will keep Republicans from straying too far from its agenda. But if it hopes to regain the power it once had to reshape the American political landscape, it should remember why it started in the first place.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.