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The Tea Party Will Remain as Long as We Keep Discussing It

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The following was my contribution to The Hill's weekly "blogger face-off," as the conservative Ace of Spades and myself answered the question "Like Sen. Graham said, will the Tea Party movement die out?" I discussed this further on this week's LiberalOasis Radio Show podcast.

Tea Party: Nothing New. Nothing Big.

Was GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham correct when he told the New York Times Magazine that the Tea Party would "die out" because "they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country"?

It would be nice if that were the basis on which political parties and movements survived or collapsed. But the Republican Party did not have a coherent vision for governing the country between 2001 and 2008, and it is still around. (Michael Steele notwithstanding.)

The Tea Party can easily survive on blind hatred for responsive government, revulsion of shared responsibility, rampant misinformation and conspiracy theories.

How do I know? Because it has survived for decades.

The Tea Party is nothing new. It is merely the latest incarnation of the right-wing fringe that predictably overheats whenever a left-of-center reformer is elected to the presidency. It was the John Birch Society and the National Indignation Convention in the early 1960s, the Moral Majority and other "New Right" groups in the late 1970s, and Rush Limbaugh's "dittoheads" and the militia movement in the 1990s.

But survival is not the same as significant.

The Tea Party is not large. Poll after poll has shown the Tea Party to be nothing more than a far-right faction of the Republican Party. They do not represent anything close to a majority of the country (a mere 18 percent in the April New York Times poll). And the more other Americans hear about the Tea Party's conservative ideas, the less they like it.

And the Tea Party is not effective. After its main salvo to kill healthcare reform - spreading the "death panel" smear - was flatly debunked in the September 2009 presidential address, dubious Tea Party claims ceased to be an obstacle to passage. (Reluctant "centrist" Democrats, peddling their own false information about the cost of reform, were the ones who dragged out the process.) The Tea Party's follow-up attack, twisting the Wall Street reform bill into a "permanent bailout" bill, barely registered at all.

Yes, some of the Tea Party's favorite congressional candidates have won Republican primaries. But others have been complete flameouts. Moreover, a conservative candidate winning a Republican primary is a minor achievement at best, and a Pyrrhic victory at worst if these far-right candidates blow it in November and ruin Republican chances to make big gains.

Perhaps a fresh moniker will marginally help to invigorate a conservative base that was rattled by Barack Obama's solid election victory, which may boost Republican candidates in the November midterm elections. But midterm elections often feature an energized opposition while the party in power suffers a conflicted grassroots base in the aftermath of tough governing choices. There's little evidence the Tea Party is playing a unique role.

So why is the Tea Party perceived as being so influential?

Because we keep talking about it.

The traditional media has given them disproportionate coverage. No Tea Party protest has come close in size to the anti-Iraq War protests of the prior decade, but no media outlet was ever pre-occupied about how the anti-war movement might reshape national politics.

But the media does obsess about the Tea Party in part because both conservatives and liberals eagerly consume, click, blog and e-mail Tea Party coverage. It's more fun for liberals to be outraged by Glenn Beck than to make sense of Sen. Ben Nelson's votes, even if the latter is far more relevant to our ability to govern ourselves.

And the conservatives themselves are far savvier at manipulating this media dynamic - pushing liberal buttons that gin up online outrage and cable TV debates - than the PR-illiterate anti-war movement.

We will surely keep talking about the Tea Party, despite its meager impact on policy and ordinary impact on politics.

So don't expect the Tea Party to die out anytime soon. But do expect right-wingers to come up with a new catchy name for themselves when the next left-of-center reformer is sent to the White House.