Great article in the New York Times this week.
The Tea Party's Path to Irrelevance
By JAMES TRAUB
Published: August 6, 2013
WASHINGTON - The Tea Party has a new crusade: preventing illegal immigrants from gaining citizenship, which they say is giving amnesty to lawbreakers. Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, recently told Politico that his members were "more upset about the amnesty bill than they were about Obamacare."
They're so upset, in fact, that Republican supporters of immigration reform, like Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have become marked men in their party, while House Republicans have followed the Tea Party lead by refusing to even consider the Senate's bipartisan reform plan.
Tea Partyers often style themselves as disciples of Thomas Jefferson, the high apostle of limited government. But by taking the ramparts against immigration, the movement is following a trajectory that looks less like the glorious arc of Jefferson's Republican Party than the suicidal path of Jefferson's great rivals, the long-forgotten Federalists, who also refused to accept the inexorable changes of American demography.
The Federalists began as the faction that supported the new Constitution, with its "federal" framework, rather than the existing model of a loose "confederation" of states. They were the national party, claiming to represent the interests of the entire country.
Culturally, however, they were identified with the ancient stock of New England and the mid-Atlantic, as the other major party at the time, the Jeffersonian Republicans (no relation to today's Republicans), were with the South.
The Federalists held together for the first few decades, but in 1803 the Louisiana Purchase - Jefferson's great coup - drove a wedge between the party's ideology and its demography. The national party was suddenly faced with a nation that looked very different from what it knew: in a stroke, a vast new territory would be opened for colonization, creating new economic and political interests, slavery among them.
"The people of the East can not reconcile their habits, views and interests with those of the South and West," declared Thomas Pickering, a leading Massachusetts Federalist.
Every Federalist in Congress save John Quincy Adams voted against the Louisiana Purchase. Adams, too, saw that New England, the cradle of the revolution, had become a small part of a new nation. Change "being found in nature," he wrote stoically, "cannot be resisted."
But resist is precisely what the Federalists did. Fearing that Irish, English and German newcomers would vote for the Jeffersonian Republicans, they argued - unsuccessfully - for excluding immigrants from voting or holding office, and pushed to extend the period of naturalization from 5 to 14 years.
Leading Federalists even plotted to "establish a separate government in New England," as William Plumer, a senator from Delaware, later conceded. (The plot collapsed only when the proposed military leader, Aaron Burr, killed the proposed political guide, Alexander Hamilton.)
The Federalists later drummed out Adams, who voted with the Jeffersonian Republicans to impose an embargo on England in retaliation for English harassment of American merchant ships and impressment of American sailors. This was the foreshadowing moment of the War of 1812, which the Anglophile Federalists stoutly opposed.
Finally, in the fall of 1814, the Federalists convened the Hartford Convention to vote on whether to stay in or out of the Union. By then even the hotheads realized how little support they had, and the movement collapsed. And the Federalists, now scorned as an anti-national party, collapsed as well.
Contrast that defiance with Jefferson's Republicans, who stood for decentralized government and the interests of yeoman farmers, primarily in the coastal South.
They ruled the country from 1801 to 1825, when they were unseated by Adams - who, after splitting with the Federalists, had joined with a breakaway Republican faction.
In response, Jefferson's descendants, known as the Old Radicals, did exactly what the Federalists would not do: they joined up with the new Americans, many of them immigrants, who were settling the country opened up by the Louisiana Purchase.
Their standard-bearer in 1828, Andrew Jackson, favored tariffs and "internal improvements" like roads and canals, the big-government programs of the day. The new party, known first as the Democratic-Republicans, and then simply as the Democrats, thrashed Adams that year. (Adams's party, the National Republicans, gave way to the Whigs, which in turn evolved into the modern Republican Party.)
Today's Republicans are not likely to disappear completely, like the Federalists did. But Republican leaders like Mr. Rubio and Mr. Graham understand that a party that seeks to defy demography, relying on white resentment toward a rising tide of nonwhite newcomers, dooms itself to permanent minority status. Opposing big government is squarely in the American grain; trying to hold back the demographic tide is quixotic. Professional politicians do not want to become the party of a legacy class.
The problem is that the Tea Party is not a party, and its members are quite prepared to ride their hobbyhorse into a dead end. And many Republicans, at least in the House, seem fully prepared to join them there, and may end up dragging the rest of the party with them.
The example of those early days shows that American political parties once knew how to adapt to a changing reality. It is a lesson many seem to have forgotten.