Tea Partied out

The lead article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs is Walter Russell Mead’s disquisition regarding the Tea Party’s attitudes about American foreign policy.  This intellectual exegesis comes on the heels of P.J. O’Rourke’s similar effort in World Affairs.  This spread of analysis about the Tea Party’s hopes and dreams for Amerian foreign policy into ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

The lead article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs is Walter Russell Mead's disquisition regarding the Tea Party's attitudes about American foreign policy.  This intellectual exegesis comes on the heels of P.J. O'Rourke's similar effort in World Affairs.  This spread of analysis about the Tea Party's hopes and dreams for Amerian foreign policy into the serious policy journals can mean only one thing:  the Tea Party's influence on American foreign policy has peaked and will be on the downswing for quite some time. 

I actually have some data on my side.  The common denominator to all Tea Party supporters is a healthy distrust of the federal government.  A Pew poll released last week, however, suggests that anger at the government peaked six months ago:

[F]ewer Americans say they are angry at government than did so last fall. Overall, the percentage saying they are angry with the federal government has fallen from 23% last September to 14% today, with much of the decline coming among Republicans and Tea Party supporters. 

The lead article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs is Walter Russell Mead’s disquisition regarding the Tea Party’s attitudes about American foreign policy.  This intellectual exegesis comes on the heels of P.J. O’Rourke’s similar effort in World Affairs.  This spread of analysis about the Tea Party’s hopes and dreams for Amerian foreign policy into the serious policy journals can mean only one thing:  the Tea Party’s influence on American foreign policy has peaked and will be on the downswing for quite some time. 

I actually have some data on my side.  The common denominator to all Tea Party supporters is a healthy distrust of the federal government.  A Pew poll released last week, however, suggests that anger at the government peaked six months ago:

[F]ewer Americans say they are angry at government than did so last fall. Overall, the percentage saying they are angry with the federal government has fallen from 23% last September to 14% today, with much of the decline coming among Republicans and Tea Party supporters. 

There is also data demonstrating that trust in government is rising from last year’s nadir.  Part of this might be a dead cat bounce.  Part of it is likely due to the fact Tea Party supporters are pleased with the midterm election results.  Part of it might even be due to a mildly improving job picture.  The point is, it’s happening. 

The performance of the Tea Party’s rock stars is also suggestive.  As Glenn Beck has careened even further into conspiracy theory territory, he has seen his ratings and popularity fall to the point where other conservatives feel free to rip into him like a garden-variety Democrat.  As I pointed out last December, Sarah Palin’s poll numbers have been nosediving for the past year now — enough so that, again, possible contenders for the 2012 GOP nomination feel free to rip mildly tweak her.   

This has all happened after just two months of a new GOP-held House infused with Tea Party members.  My prediction is that, if anything, the Tea Party movement will splinter even more going forward.  Governing means compromising, and that’s exactly what Tea Party activists don’t want to see.  As the GOP members of Congress consider the pathetic horrible underwhelming list of 2012 challengers to Barack Obama, they’ll decide that it’s better to cut a deal with the current administration as a way to stay in power. 

As for foreign policy, Beck and Palin have radically different foreign policy worldviews, which suggests the inchoate nature of the Tea Party movement itself.  O’Rourke noted last fall: 

What is the Tea Party’s foreign policy? It’s a difficult question on two counts. There is no Tea Party foreign policy as far as I can tell, and, on inspection, there is no Tea Party. There are, of course, any number of Tea Party Coalition groups across the country. But these mix and mingle, cooperate, compete, debate, merge, and overlap with countless other groups grouped together as the “Tea Party movement” in the public mind. 

Mead makes a similar observation, but argues that passionate minorities can still wield veto power in American politics, and that eventually, "the contest in the Tea Party between what might be called its Palinite and its Paulite wings will likely end in a victory for the Palinities."  This implies the status quo of different elements of the Tea Party movement holding contradictory views cannot hold — and I see no reason why it can’t.  The simplest fact about the Tea Party is that, by and large, they don’t care about foreign policy

The only issue areas where I suspect the Tea Party will really matter going forward are in the policies that cater to both wing’s inherent American nationalism — namely, immigration and anti-Muslim hysteria concerns.  Beyond that, however, I suspect that ten years from now we’ll look back at the Tea Party movement the same way we now look ay Ross Perot’s Reform Party — a brief, interesting but in the end unstable collection of political oddities. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

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