Even as evidence flows out that the IRS was not, after all, exclusively targeting Tea Party groups applying for 501(c)(4) status in the period between the 2010 and 2012 elections, conservative conspiracy theories continue to spread and become more lurid. The mega-meme started with Glenn Beck, of course, but soon became more pseudo-respectable. Slate‘s Dave Wiegel briskly sums it up:

The latest comes from James Pethokoukis, who asks whether we should put an asterisk next to Barack Obama’s 2012 win because he’d suppressed the Tea Party.

“Let’s say Tea Party groups had continued to grow at the pace seen in 2009 and 2010. And let’s further say their impact on the 2012 vote been similar to that seen in 2010. A new paper co-authored by AEI’s Stan Veuger estimates the grass-roots movement generated 3 million to 6 million additional votes in House races in the midterms. The 2012 result would have seen as many as 5 million to 8.5 million additional GOP votes versus a President Obama victory margin of 5 million votes.”

OK, starting with the general agreement that the IRS shouldn’t have leaned so hard on the Tea Party, let’s further agree that this is madness. Leave aside the fact that most real political activity credited to the “Tea Party” was organized by groups—FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity—that have had favorable tax status for years. From January 2009 to November 2010, the Tea Party went from zero to more than a thousand groups. From December 2010 to November 2012, the movement was growing less popular for reasons that had nothing to do with individual groups’ tax status. A November 2010 Quinnipiac poll gave the Tea Party a mildly negative 34-38 favorable rating; a year later this had fallen to a 29-42 favorable rating. Politics and life had intervened, and the “Tea Party’s” role in the debt limit showdown (i.e., starting the showdown in the first place) was wildly unpopular. Simultaneously, a slowly growing economy was making the president more popular.

So why assume that the movement would have continued to grow at its 2009-2010 pace even after the environment for its growth had been radically altered? Look at it another way. The civil rights movement was popular in 1964 and 1965. It won. It took on causes less popular than voting rights, like equal housing. Its popularity decreased. While 1964 was a very good election year for progressives, 1966 was a massive setback.

This parallel is unacceptable on the Right, of course, because it suggests the Tea revolt of 2010 wasn’t a unique event (or one confined to midterm elections with their older whiter turnout patterns). Indeed, the conspiracy theory is most useful because it “explains” why the 2012 results were nothing like those of 2010.

It’s pretty idiotic, all in all, but not only has an AEI blogger championed it, and then Pethoukoukis, but late last week, so did Peggy Noonan. Now Noonan is not exactly known for a highly scientific approach to political analysis (viz. her prediction of a Romney victory last November because of the yard signs she was seeing). But for that reason, perhaps, she’s looking for some unanticipated factor that made a hash of her intuitions about 2012. Next we’ll probably hear that all the surprise reported within Camp Romney over the results is attributable to their lack of understanding that the IRS had shut down the entire Tea Party Movement because they just couldn’t function without 501(c)(4) status.

Gotta have a scapegoat, because the conservative movement is never, ever, ever at fault for its electoral setbacks. In 2008 it was ACORN. It 2012 it was the IRS. It might be more efficient for conservatives to start auditioning scapegoats for future defeats right now.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.