Last week the most internationally mocked American politician was gracelessly tossed out by Fox News, a network under which she had once developed huge popularity as the right-wing’s female star of Obama-bashing and main-stream-media-attacking. Sarah Palin (best known around the world for her portrayals by Tina Fey in Saturday Night Live and Julianne Moore in the less-than-complimentary election film Game Change) has fallen from her heights of media stardom and a doomed campaign to be the first American female vice-president.
However this is not some isolated event of the fall from grace of a single politician, it is part of a wider political shift of the past year in US politics. This shift is the popular collapse of the once powerful Tea Party movement. What had begun with a slow slide in popularity has become a widespread abandonment of the movement and its rejection from the Republican Party within which it once held so much influence. Where only three years ago almost a quarter of voters affiliated themselves with the movement, now less than one in ten do. Where over half of voters once supported it, now just as many see it negatively and support has fallen to under a third. The 2012 presidential election killed the Tea Party, and it is a sign of much larger changes to come.
Three years is extremely fast for a country-spanning ideological movement to collapse, but the Tea Party’s rise was just as spectacular. Emerging in 2007 in the “Boston TeaParty07” event for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, the Tea Party movement only really began to gather pace in 2009, after the response to the financial crisis became the most important political issue in the Western world. Rick Santelli’s rant in response to the bailout of the collapsing financial institutions of the time created the new movement as he called for a “Chicago Tea Party”. The result was instant. Protests against the bailouts and rising taxes erupted across the United States, rallies which were noticed across the world as the most significant opposition to President Obama’s handling of the financial crisis.
The Tea Party movement reached it’s peak in 2010, over half of the Republican vote was members and the vast majority of Republican politicians owed the fever-pitch opposition to Obama to its grassroots drive. But what did this grassroots owe their support to? Largely big-business and individual billionaire investors with libertarian leanings. Unfortunately this initially very powerful combination between the anti-tax grassroots and their allies in politics and business opened cracks which would break the movement.
This break began shortly after the Tea Party movement began. Raised in the face of Obama’s landslide election victory and his big-government response to the financial crisis the Tea Party was unprepared to face a series of bloody losses to the Obama administration. First the big-bank bailouts and financial stimulus. Then the auto bailouts. Then the healthcare bill. The Tea Party was (and is) not only getting an absolute mauling in national politics but was also losing to successful policies. No matter how huge the airtime dedicated to the “grassroots” movement, funded by big-money donations to media organisations, there was no fighting the tide of goodwill the Democrats faced between 2010 and 2012 as the economy drove towards recovery.
Nor was Obama’s political success the only problem. Tea Party candidates were an increasing embarrassment to the Republican Party. Attempts to run inexperienced grassroots campaigners against experienced Democratic politicians was not as effective as the GOP had expected. Continuous gaffs from Tea Party favourites such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann destroyed both candidate’s hopes in 2012 and could be ill-afforded as the Christian-right joined them in self-immolation on women’s rights.
The 2012 elections were the last gasp of an already struggling political movement. In an attempt to secure their vote anti-tax politician Paul Ryan was nominated as Vice President. However not only did securing the Tea Party vote fail to galvanise support and overturn Obama’s huge 2008 majority, it actively damaged the Republican vote. In trying to capture the radical-right during the primaries Republican presidential candidates had completely alienated themselves from the centre, the place where all elections are won and where the vital swing-states lie. After months of predictions of Republican victory the right-wing were stunned to watch Obama waltz to an easy victory spurred by the women, industrial working class, racial minorities and LGBT that the Republicans had offended time and time again in their attempts to spur Tea Party-like activism in the radical right.
Now, with Obama yet again sworn into office, the Republicans are cutting the anchor lines to the Tea Party, Christian evangelist and anti-immigrant right wing which lost them the election they seemed so set to win. The sacking of Palin by Fox News is not just a symptom of the collapse of the Tea Party, but of the entire GOP radical right. The Republican party is returning to fight for the centre which will return them to power, and Sarah Palin will not be a mistake they will seek to repeat.
Photo Credit: sskennel