In early 2012, at the Breitbart News offices, as we watched one of the more disappointing presidential primary debates with our founder Andrew Breitbart, an interesting debate unfolded: would it be better for Mitt Romney (by then the inevitable nominee) to lose?
Andrew said no: a second Obama term would be a disaster for the country. Others countered that a Romney loss would provide a long-overdue opportunity to overhaul the Republican Party. One person even suggested that an effort could be organized to take over the GOP from within.
“Why would you ever want to do that?” Andrew asked.
In my new book, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, I document the political history of the Tea Party–the movement that changed American politics. It remains one of the most unique opposition forces in the world. Unlike protest movements in Europe–and Occupy Wall Street in the U.S.–the Tea Party marched for less government, not more.
And unlike other movements–but like Andrew–the Tea Party often shunned political power.
That was not always a matter of choice.
In 2010, after the Tea Party led conservative voters to the polls in one of the biggest “wave” elections in modern history, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) made a bid to join the House Republican leadership. Arguably, she–or another Tea Party champion–deserved a prominent post. But the top brass closed ranks, and Bachmann soon dropped her campaign for a seat at the head of the congressional table.
Yet while it was often frozen out, sometimes the Tea Party simply failed to compete.
When Tea Party activists stunned the nation by helping to defeat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a congressional primary in June, the movement could have mounted a strong bid to replace him in the House leadership with one of its own. Yet in short order, the position was secured by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)–the next in line on the GOP chain.
The Tea Party has been, at best, ambivalent about governing. In contrast, the “netroots” of the left, who also rebelled against their party’s establishment, did so–especially after 2004–by taking over the Democratic Party apparatus.
In doing so, the netroots gained control over policy–and lost their independence. The fortunes of the “new blue media” and “progressive” organizers now depend wholly on the Democratic Party retaining power.
There are advantages and disadvantages in each approach, and Tea Party leaders and supporters have long grappled with questions of political leadership and strategy.
To Andrew, political power lay beyond politics, in the realm of the media and popular culture.
That is where the Tea Party, and the conservative movement in general, have been most successful–primarily in reshaping political debates, especially but not solely around fiscal and constitutional issues.
Immigration reform advocates, for example, seem to have expected to fight for their demands on the usual terrain of racial politics. Instead, they were met by a grass-roots opposition well-practiced in arguments about the rule of law.
Yet as successful as the Tea Party has been in protecting its independence–and in forcing Republicans to heed their own platform–its major challenge remains national leadership (though Tea Party favorites have governed well on the state level).
Without addressing that challenge, the movement could wane. And with the left collapsing swiftly into the Clintons’ orbit, the country needs a strong alternative.
That is where the Tea Party must–and can!–turn next.
Senior Editor-at-Large Joel B. Pollak edits Breitbart California and is the author of the forthcoming ebook, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, available for Amazon Kindle.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelpollak