US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

With a number of Republican officeholders sailing smoothly through primary challenges from their right, commentators (myself included) have started to mark 2014 as the end of the tea party. In doing so, they have had to reckon with what the tea party actually was. At Bloomberg View, Ramesh Ponnuru declared that “the tea party never existed.” Nate Silver conceded "tea party" may have meant something at one point, but it had lost its usefulness as a political descriptor. At Townhall, Kevin Glass agreed “tea party” wasn’t the most precise label, but it described something real: “a grassroots energy that the GOP machine tried to translate into electoral victory.”

Part of this confusion is due to the co-optation of the "tea party" label by political groups who saw opportunity in the movement’s grassroots energy. But a greater part of it is due to political journalists who applied the label indiscriminately to people and events that fit the narrative of far-right neophytes taking over (and bringing down) the Republican Party.

So what, then, was the tea party – and what wasn’t it?

Three things the tea party wasn’t:

1) A third party: Despite the confusing name, there was never any third-party impulse running through the tea party. In their book on the tea party movement, political scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williams found tea party activists, many of whom had long been Republican voters and donors, had little interest in third-party organizing. “Tea Partiers reject any notion of organizing a separate third party that would divide forces on the right and clear the way for Democrats.” Need more proof? Today, five years after the tea party began, there are two independent senators, both of whom caucus with the Democrats. The one long-shot write-in candidate who won a seat was Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska senator who lost her primary to a tea party candidate. To the extent the two party system has challengers, they’re not coming out of the tea party.

2) Astroturf: A common claim among liberals is that the tea party was a top-down phenomenon, engineered by elites like the Koch brothers and Karl Rove. It’s true that the tea party wasn’t solely a grassroots movement, but it was driven by genuine grassroots sentiment, combined with powerful organizations like FreedomWorks and Fox News. The sign-holders at rallies, the attendees at town halls and the voters that swarmed the polls in 2010 weren’t dupes being manipulated by distant marionettes. They were activists whose energies allowed them to tap into a well-developed conservative network.

3) New: Pulling the Republican Party to the right, challenging the establishment, purging moderates – these weren’t new ideas in 2009 and 2010. They have been the core of conservative political strategy for 50 years, since the right set aside third-party plans to organize on behalf of Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. It was a long process that picked up steam in the 1970s and was largely completed in the 1994 Republican Revolution. By 2009, moderate Republicans were already an endangered species, liberal Republicans an oxymoron. The tea party was no grand deviation, but a continuation of a decades-long process of aligning Republicanism and conservatism.

Three things the tea party was:

1) A brand: When it appeared on the scene, the tea party was popular. In 2010, more Americans had a favorable than unfavorable view of the tea party. That may sound like faint praise, but the Republican Party has had higher unfavorable than favorable ratings since 2005. Tea partiers were, by and large, just movement conservatives. Repackaged as the "tea party," they not only distanced themselves from Republicans but became something newsworthy. Now that the brand is tarnished, conservatives have begun to put it aside. But make no mistake – just because the tea party is winding down doesn’t mean conservatives are leaving the scene. It just means they will look to rebrand.

2) A rebalancing: The modern conservative movement has a contradiction at its heart: it brings together traditionalists who want an activist government to enforce moral norms with libertarians who want a dramatically smaller government. Libertarians got the short end of the stick during the Bush years, when Republicans supported the rapid expansion of the security state and a major crusade to ban same-sex marriage. The tea party rebalanced that relationship, tamping down the movement’s social conservatism while tea partiers rallied against health care reform and progressive taxation. Social conservatives didn’t stay down long – note how quickly contraception became central to health care opposition – but they returned as civil libertarians promoting religious freedom, a position far more appealing to libertarians.

3) A scapegoat: While Republicans scored major victories in 2010, they quickly ran into problems. Obstructionist policies led to a credit downgrade, constant budgetary crises and a government shutdown. With two shots at taking the Senate, Republican candidates lost winnable races. As its popularity declined, the tea party became a convenient scapegoat for the Republican Party’s problems. But as Slate's Dave Weigel shows, that narrative is all wrong. Weigel recently examined the claim that the tea party had cost the GOP the Senate and found it had helped Republicans win far more seats than it helped them lose.

As the tea party declines, political journalists will have to find new language to discuss the changes and challenges within the Republican Party and the conservative movement. And that’s a good thing – for far too long, the “tea party” label has obscured far more than it has explained.

This article originally appeared in US News & World Report