Whatever the outcome of the Nov. 2 elections, you can be certain that commentators around the country will be fixated on the impact of the Tea Party movement. If Republican candidates do well on Election Day –- and particularly if Tea Party-backed candidates like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sharron Angle of Nevada win their races -– the Tea Party will be credited with having revived a moribund Republican Party. But if the Republicans fail to live up to expectations — and expectations are exceedingly high –- the Tea Party will be blamed for curbing the Republicans’ ability to capitalize on historic levels of voter dissatisfaction.
These headlines are unlikely to do justice, however, to a complex movement that is hard enough to define, let alone to evaluate.
At the nucleus of the Tea Party is disquiet over the direction of the country, and antipathy toward what is seen to be profligate levels of spending and governmental involvement in the economy. The Tea Party, however, has little formal organizational infrastructure. Some groups -– like FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Express, and the Tea Party Patriots –- claim to speak for it, as do some individuals like Glenn Beck and Jim DeMint. But they do not always agree on things as basic as which candidates to endorse. FreedomWorks, for instance, declined to endorse Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, fearing she was unelectable, while many of the other groups did.
Nor does the Tea Party have any official platform. And there seems to be little interest among members of the Tea Party at forming a political party proper; instead, most of its stakeholders are seeking to reinvent the Republican Party’s brand.
Any effort to assess the impact of Tea Party needs to keep this context in mind. Moreover, there are several distinct dimensions along which the Tea Party might be evaluated -– and they lead to some relatively complex conclusions about its effects.