A few weeks ago, two conservative culture-war mainstays, the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council (FRC), announced that they were launching a campaign to preserve the Bush tax cuts. It may have seemed odd -- after all, does the New Testament mandate low taxes for the wealthy? -- but you could see it as a bid for conservatives to retain their relevance, since the expiration of the tax cut is a looming battle, and in a bad economy their usual fights for Puritan sexual ethics have become less salient. It's also a good example of one of conservatives' greatest strengths: the willingness to stick together and work on behalf of causes that might seem outside their immediate interests.
It's not that the left is incapable of doing the same, but such an approach doesn't seem quite as tightly woven into liberals' political DNA. There are efforts like the Blue Green Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental groups advocating investments in renewable energy. But there you have two sets of advocates who see how their interests align and choose to work together. It can't quite be compared to a Christian group advocating low taxes for the wealthy.
Any political coalition whose goal is to hold national power and enact a broad agenda will inevitably end up a complex and unwieldy beast, made up of people with agendas that overlap imperfectly, all wanting their particular issue to get top priority. Few things are harder than getting those from one corner of the movement to sublimate their agenda to someone else's. Nevertheless, conservatives -- though they have as many sub-factions as liberals do -- have always seemed better at doing so.
The central divide within the right now, as it has been for some time, is between economic conservatives and social conservatives. The former are essentially libertarian, believing that government action is harmful almost by definition. The latter are quite happy to have government making decisions in people's lives, so long as it makes the right ones -- about whom you can marry, whether you can get an abortion, and what public schools will teach about things like evolution. Most of the time, they're able to work together, because they're concerned about different things.
But there's a difference in just what the two sides will do for each other. While the economic conservatives may not care all that much about same-sex marriage or abortion, they're willing to go along with the social conservatives' agenda, to a point. But you won't see a right-wing economic think tank launching a public crusade against same-sex marriage. On the other hand, groups like the FRC have practically written trickle-down economics and climate-change denialism into their scriptures.
This produces a natural imbalance -- while social issues may move up and down the right's list of priorities, economics is always at the top. There's another important imbalance as well: money. As Jonathan Chait of The New Republic recently pointed out, the big money in the conservative movement goes to funding a libertarian economic agenda: low taxes for the wealthy and corporations, looser regulations, and opposition to any legislation to address climate change. "There is an unusually large supply of capital to finance propaganda extolling the benefits of lower taxes for the rich and casting doubt on proposals to account for the externality cost of carbon dioxide emissions," Chait wrote. The groups working to fight gay marriage or abortion, on the other hand, have to rely more on small donors. The real money, in tens of millions of dollars at a time, comes from groups like the Chamber of Commerce that care about taxes and regulation.
And the economic conservatives have gotten a blessing from below in the form of the Tea Party. In Jane Mayer's recent piece in The New Yorker on the billionaire libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, who have become the right's largest funders of all manner of political action, former Ronald Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett explains what the Tea Party gives them: "The problem with the whole libertarian movement is that it's been all chiefs and no Indians. There haven't been any actual people, like voters, who give a crap about it." But the Tea Party provides the actual people, and the Kochs -- who lavishly fund groups like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, which are guiding and training Tea Party activists -- are "trying to shape and control and channel the populist uprising into their own policies," Bartlett says.
Meanwhile, the most visible Tea Party supporter in America -- Fox News' Glenn Beck -- seems to want to turn his personal crusade into a religious one. His recent revival meeting on the National Mall struck some as odd, because it seemed to concentrate so heavily on God and relatively little on politics. But the corporatists and anti-tax advocates probably don't need to worry -- as Ed Kilgore noted, according to Beck, "God's Will on this Earth happens to coincide pretty much precisely with the agenda of the right wing of the Republican Party of the United States, circa 2010." The religious conservatives who have been claiming to speak for God for the last couple of decades seem to think so, too.
Like all raucous celebrations, the Tea Party will eventually wind down, the rising sun sending the stragglers shuffling back home. Chances are that when the economy improves, the energy behind the Tea Party will begin to dissipate. All the talk of the Founding Fathers notwithstanding, the movement is more about anger than ideology. If nothing else, the movement's urgency will fade when Republicans gain back power, whether in Congress in November or in the White House in 2012 or 2016.
By that time, though, the Tea Party may just wind up assimilated into the GOP. As political scientist Hans Noel argues, "Today's outsider is tomorrow's insider." Parties relatively quickly accommodate themselves to whatever "outsiders" do that is successful, whether it's Jimmy Carter exploiting the Iowa caucus in 1976 or Howard Dean's use of the Internet in 2004. The GOP will do its best to pull Tea Partiers in, and considering that their agenda isn't particularly precise, many of them will be happy to be pulled. Your typical Tea Party activist may move from organizing anti-Obama protests, to being a precinct captain for the Palin for President campaign, to finally running for chair of her local Republican committee.
The people who used to be the conservative movement's activist heart -- the religious right -- have been mostly watching from the sidelines as this new cadre of door-knockers and sign-holders moves in. Even when the Tea Party becomes a memory, the people within it who stuck around will tilt the movement's balance yet more toward the economic conservatives. So don't be surprised when the next few Republican presidents, just like the last one, act as though cutting taxes is the way to create heaven on earth.
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