Is the Media’s Tea Party Delusion Coming to an End?

Amanda Marcotte

It's time to admit that the Tea Party is less interested in some ideal of libertarianism that is rarely practiced in the real world and is indeed about promoting the patriarchy.

With the primary season coming to an end, finally we can say our long national nightmare of delusion has also come to an end.  No, not delusions about the President not being a U.S. citizen or about how Medicare doesn’t count as government-run health care—right-wing propaganda doesn’t stop chugging for anyone.  No, the delusion that’s coming to an end is the fervent mainstream media belief that the Tea Party represents a new kind of conservative movement, one less interested in promoting the patriarchy and more interested in some ideal of libertarianism that is rarely practiced in the real world.  Now that we have a full eyeball of the kind of candidates nominated when the Tea Party throws out Republican party favorites and brings in their own, we can safely say that the only thing really new about this conservative movement is the early republic-era costumes.

One glance through the newly minted Tea Party leadership, and it’s clear that putting a nose in every panty drawer still tops the list of conservative priorities.  And contrary to the earlier mainstream media claims that this year’s conservative movement is downplaying the talk about women’s rights, these leaders seem even more extreme than their predecessors.  Take, for instance, Christine O’Donnell, the surprise victor over moderate Mike Castle for the Republican nomination for Delaware Senator. Not only does O’Donnell take an extreme position on abortion, wanting a ban on the procedure with no exceptions for rape or incest, but she also made her name as an anti-contraception crusader.  In fact, her objections to non-procreative sex are so strong that she has even gone on the record opposing masturbation, causing an avalanche of jokes that indicates that the country’s opinions on this subject may have matured since the days Jocelyn Elders was drummed out of office for suggesting that masturbating is a topic worth being covered in sex ed.

O’Donnell may be the extreme example, but this season’s crop of candidates dubbed “Tea Party” candidates demonstrates a tendency to take traditional conservative opposition to abortion rights and to shoot it up with steroids.  As Rachel Maddow reported in August, Tea Party favorites Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, and Ken Buck beat their more mainstream Republican opponents in primaries with platforms that indicate they favor extreme abortion bans that would have no exceptions for rape or incest, or to save the health of the mother.  Since Maddow did that report, three more prominent Tea Party candidates beat the Republican favorite in Republican primaries: Christine O’Donnell, Joe Miller (who beat Lisa Murkowski for the Republican nomination for Alaska Senator), and Carl Paladino (who beat Rick Lazio for Republican nomination for New York governor.  All three of these upsets went to candidates who share this desire for an extreme abortion ban that would leave us in a situation where even rape victims, children impregnated through incest, and women who face massive disabilities if they give birth would be denied an abortion.

If it only happened once or twice that the Tea Party coalition threw out a favored Republican to put in their own candidate with extreme anti-choice views, one could chalk it up to coincidence.  Perhaps, you could argue, they voted for the Tea Party candidate over the mainstream Republican because they liked his/her views on economics and didn’t look twice at the abortion thing.  But now that this has happened over and over again, and the candidates seem to be embracing even more aggressive anti-choice language, the possibility has to be considered that the Tea Partiers are voting for these candidates because they like their extremist anti-choice views.

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More than any issue, the abortion factor has caused the mainstream media to drop the early narrative about the Tea Partiers being a libertarian uprising.  Now the narrative is more that the Tea Party is undertaking a purge of the Republican party, where anyone with moderate tendencies has a target on his back.  In the race to appear more hard-core-right-wing-than-thou, taking an absolutist stance on abortion can be a quick way for a candidate to establish bona fides.  And unlike with other stances where taking a hard line right wing stance can backfire by implicating the well-being of the actual voters, such as stances in favor of abolishing Social Security or deregulating the banks entirely.  Women of reproductive age are relatively rare amongst Tea Party supporters.  The ones that are there are often subject to the all-too-common belief that the need to abort a pregnancy is something that happens to other women, because of anti-choice stereotypes that paint women who have abortions as stupid or slutty.  Abortion banning becomes the go-to topic for proving your right-wing mettle, because it’s the perfect example of a policy choice that supporters can always believe only affect other people.

What does this mean for the future?  Possibly nothing, in terms of long term trends.  The current trending hard to the right for the conservative movement appears mostly to be a reaction to the election of Barack Obama and the changing demographics of a nation that made his election possible.  Those demographic changes show no sign of slowing down, which will eventually put a hard limit on right-wing power.  Even now, the mainstream Republican party is scrambling to stem the right-wing tide, out of a legitimate fear that candidates perceived as extremist can’t win elections, particularly in swing states like Nevada or Delaware, where Tea Party favorites have edged out Republican favorites for Republican Senate nominations.

But despite the demographic deadline facing the conservative movement, they can still massive damage on their way out the door. As the Center for Reproductive Rights documented, 2010 was a particularly bad year for reproductive rights, as many state legislatures passed increasingly strict regulations on abortion.  And even as the country as a whole moves more to the left, we’re also seeing increasing geographic polarization, making some areas of the country ever more right wing by the day.  For these areas, the crackdown on women’s rights may have just begun.   

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