What seems to be happening here is that the grand coalition initiated by Nixon and cemented by Reagan is coming apart along its faultlines. The GOP of today is really three large constituencies that are "right wing" in completely different ways, and united primarily by their opposition to key elements of the Democratic party agenda rather than anything they have in common. Basically you've got:
classic, old style Country Club Republicans who favor Big Money
corporatism and foreign adventurism, especially when those wars serve
corporate interests. Their patron saint is Dick Cheney. They have no social agenda, but pay lip service to the Christian Right: Exhibit A would be serial adulterer, twice divorced, thrice married, ethically disgraced Newt Gingrich swearing his loyalty to "family values". Their Democratic Party flashpoints are the Unions and the social justice agenda.
includes the Christian Right (the successors to the original Christian
Coalition), along with various single-issue voters and, let's be frank,
bigots. They have no fiscal agenda, but pay lip service to "small
government" all while campaigning to use the power of government to
impose their social agenda. Their Dem flashpoint is liberalism in all its forms.
mostly people who believe in small government as a point of principle (and
damn the consequences for the weak or poor), with fiscal conservatism as
either a by-product or in some cases posited as a prerequisite. They
are increasingly frustrated by the profligate spending of Neocons on wars of choice and
their failure to reduce deficits (instead Neocons want to reduce
spending only as an excuse to reduce taxes for the rich). And on social
issues they have far more in common with liberals than social
conservatives, although often disagree bitterly on the "why". (For example,
many Libertarians favor gay marriage on the grounds that marriage is
none of the government's business at all, as contrasted with the liberal
position that the government should treat everybody equally). Their Dem
flashpoint is a fundamental disagreement over what the rightful extent
of government should be.
And now the tensions are
showing. The Neocons are frustrated that the Social Conservatives are
making them unelectable. The Social Conservatives are frustrated that
the other two constituencies won't support their social agenda and are
beginning to realize they've been played. The Libertarians are
frustrated by the Neocons' profligate spending and unwillingness to
genuinely shrink deficits or government power.
And the Tea Party? I have no explanation for them, but suspect they are more a symptom than a cause. The individual supporters are overwhelmingly social conservatives, poll after poll has shown, and in fact they are the most conservative of the conservatives: older, whiter, more racist even than the average old, white Republican. Bizarrely, many of them deny that they have any social agenda as a movement, that their motivation is "limited government", but beyond the "don't tread on me" bumper sticker sloganeering they actually elect social conservative activist representatives and fervently oppose, for example, gay marriage. Many are social conservatives in libertarian clothing. The financial backers of course are corporatists, primarily the Koch brothers. Their only agenda seems to be to do whatever is necessary to prevent government meddling in their ability to acquire unlimited amounts of wealth. And in the absolute intransigence of Tea Party representatives, they have found a useful weapon.
But increasingly, the rest of the Republican Party is recognizing what is going on, the tensions are surfacing, and the rest of us are paying the price.