Republicans (and their supporters) should take note of a potentially dangerous influence within their party, with an innocuous-sounding yet simultaneously – thanks to the blessings of history – menacing name: The Tea Party.
Comprised of ardent opponents of current president Barack Obama and the Democratic agenda, future historians may well be surprised that the Tea Party began as a protest movement against the policies of a Republican president: George W Bush. Bush managed to run up over a trillion dollars worth of debt in war alone, to say nothing of what would become known as his other excesses, including a sizable expansion of prescription drug benefits under Medicare. Having experienced some six years of both a Republican presidency and a GOP-controlled congress, with little to show for it from a fiscal conservative standpoint, a significant faction of the Republican party had had enough. Naming themselves after a famous historical tax revolt, the TEA Party (then short for Taxed Enough Already, though this acronym is almost never used anymore) demanded sharp reductions in spending and a return to their approximation of responsible fiscal policy. Though their opponents bitterly decried them and even called them demeaning names such as “teabaggers” (a jab made easier, it must be admitted, by the decision of some Tea Party members to wear actual tea bags on their persons), the Tea Party quickly rose to prominence within the GOP, and became a force increasingly difficult to ignore. There was even fear that they might officially splinter off, forming a true Tea Party with its own candidates. Thus far this has not happened, though as we will shortly see, in many ways it may as well have.
The Tea Party has undergone some fundamental changes over the years, primary among them the embracing of the religious right. What began as a protest against liberal spending policies (of, again, a Republican president and congress) has solidified into a movement championing a wide array of traditional American Christian values, among them opposition to abortion, support of Second Amendment gun rights, and yes, continued calls for reduced spending. But the views of many of those within the Tea Party have become increasingly extreme, and the positions of their politicians have followed suit. Thus we have witnessed such spectacles as congressman Paul Broun stating that evolution and the big bang model (scientific theories in disagreement with the teachings of the Christian Bible) are “lies straight from the pit of Hell”, and former representative Todd Akin claiming that women are able to “shut down” their body’s reproductive system when they are raped. Cases such as these are worrying for the Republicans, because such positions are often not only tolerated, but positively demanded by the ultra-religious Tea Party before a candidate will be considered for nomination in the primaries. Unfortunately, it is difficult for these candidates to divorce themselves from such extreme statements in the general election, when they must answer to voters with decidedly more centrist views.
The dilemma for Republican politicians is glaring: Please the Tea Party, at the risk of saying things that may prove self-destructive in the general election, or maintain middle-road electability and face the danger of never being nominated? One need only reference the case of Eric Cantor, whose out-of-nowhere loss in his own primary shocked the GOP (and sent ripples throughout American politics), to understand the ongoing influence wielded by the Tea Party within the modern Republican tent. How can this very pressing issue be addressed? Only time will tell.