Americans were still rubbing sleep from their eyes the morning after the election when the Tea Party headquarters in Washington began breathing defiance.
The election, its spokesmen insisted in a press release, showed that the Republican Party had not been true enough to the conservative principles that reflected the virtues and values of the Founding Fathers. A temporary setback, the Tea Party declared, would not deter the movement from going from future strength to future strength.
Now, it would be easy to dismiss this response as post-election delusion and to argue that the Tea Party had not done very well. Several high-profile Tea Party senators lost, as did a few Tea Party House members. But many of them won, and the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan ticket came within a couple of points in the popular vote of President Barack Obama.
Far from reflecting on the lessons of defeat, it’s likely the Republicans will regroup and remain well on the political right, because that’s where their voters are, not to mention their mega-money backers, the think tanks that animate them and, although this is mere conjecture at this point, most of the possible candidates for the party’s presidential nomination four years hence.
These would include Mr. Ryan, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and South Carolina Senator and Tea Party favourite Jim DeMint, plus an assortment of also-rans and has-beens on the far right (including Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee).
This prospective field – Mr. Bush excluded – doesn’t look much like one crafted from the notion now put about by post-election analysts that the Republican defeat sprang from being too far right for the American people. Forty-eight per cent or so of Americans voted for Mr. Romney, who twisted himself into a political pretzel appeasing his party’s right wing.
Indeed, the very words “right wing” misstate reality. The word “wing” suggests one part of an object, presumably balanced by another “wing.” But there being no moderate “wing” of consequence in the Republican Party, the “right wing” is the party. The moderates have fled or been pushed to the margins, and a few of them actually endorsed Mr. Obama.
What makes it unlikely that Republicans will become more moderate is the intellectual and media worlds in which they live, from which they get most of their ideas, and to which they look for inspiration. How could it be, you might ask, that 30 per cent of Republicans tell pollsters they believe Mr. Obama is a Muslim?
It’s because, out there in cyberspace and in the kind of media most Americans never consume, this is stated and restated as fact. A few years ago, a fascinating study asked Americans a series of questions based on understood facts, that, for example, climate change is caused by human activities. An astonishing number of people who identified themselves as Republicans replied to these fact-based questions with assertions that were clearly wrong, in fact, but were obviously believed by these people.
If your major source of news comes from Fox and the right-wing shock jocks on radio, and your preferred think tanks are Cato and the American Enterprise Institute, and you gladly accept oodles of dough from far-right donors such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, and if you bow before the likes of Grover Norquist (he of the “no tax increase ever” pledge), and if your rank and file are full of religiously inspired, fire-breathing populists, then your party is going to be what it is.
Mr. Romney got caught out telling a group of wealthy types in Florida that 47 per cent of Americans were essentially sponges for public money. He got shellacked in many quarters for this remark, but he was just telling those wealthy Republicans what they wanted to hear. He was them, in other words.
The Republicans have been moving toward this state of affairs for decades, and they did well enough Tuesday to suggest that the kind of fundamental rethink the party needs won’t happen. Half a century of repositioning can’t easily be turned around.