Saturday, July 16, 2011

Is the Tea Party over?

Last week, Roll Call reported that organizers of a major Tea Party convention that had been planned for the fall was being cancelled due to low registration.

Organizers had hoped that the event, called the Freedom Jamboree, would provide an opportunity for Republican presidential candidates to court the conservative movement, and, apparently, both Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum had confirmed they would attend.

It seems that the twenty-one local Tea Party groups which began organizing the event did it in order to "reclaim the movement from national umbrella groups and offer an alternative to the annual fall Tea Party rally on the National Mall."

As one of the organizer's told Roll Call, "We were doing it because we were fed up with the infighting that these umbrella groups had done in 2010."

Interesting to note that this is the second Tea Party event cancelled because of lack of interest. Last year, a Tennessee-based group, Tea Party Nation, cancelled an event that was to have taken place in Las Vegas. They had their excuses, but, really, nobody wanted to come.

At a time when Republican politicians are being pushed around by the so-called Tea Party movement, it does beg the question as to who is doing the pushing. If these people can't generate enough interest to pull together a national event or two at the grass roots level, does it mean that we were all correct in our assessment of this thing as an astroturf movement?

The truth is that these things are never that simple. The Koch Brothers / Fox News / Sarah Palin type catalysts have been essential, but movements come into being because a subset of the population is ready for the message. I know some will howl, but the mass psychology of fascism is instructive here.

My point is that I don't deny that the Tea Party has been a mass movement, only that it will have to start organizing itself like a political party, or actually join one already in existence, if it hopes to continue to have any influence.

Yes, there is a reason that political parties exist and that is because it takes so damn much effort to aggregate interest across the country and give it direction. The Tea Party may have claimed pride in the fact that it has no leader, but after a while that just doesn't work anymore.

In the short term, if you throw enough money at any movement, no matter how diffuse, it's going to have an impact, hence the astroturfism of the Tea Party movement. The hard work starts when the "movement" begins to mature and requires centralization and leadership. Eventually that will mean that the Tea Party either folds into the Republican Party or goes away.

Not surprising that one of the organizers of the Freedom Jamboree wrote to fellow activists saying that "[i]t appears the Tea Party horse is riderless, and riding off in all directions at once."

In fact, a basic truth, whether from the left or right, is that social movements can influence politics, but they are not the same as a political organization. They are a blunt instrument without the ability or structure to make the kinds of decisions required by politics -- without the ability to bring it all together.

We are seeing this in Washington now with the debt ceiling negotiations. The Tea Party Caucus can't compromise, can't negotiate because its base is not an organization but rather an idea.

Again, in the short term you can get a bunch of people motivated to show up to mass events for the sake of idea. Many wonderful gatherings have taken place on the premise. But, after a while, you need the organization, you need the party or people will just stop showing up.

Too bad, though, because what this country really needs right now is another convention of colorfully-dressed people doing their best Founding Father impersonations.

(Cross-posted at Lippmann's Ghost.)

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