Tea Parties at Crossroads
Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Mar 16, 2010
On February 19, 2009, Rick Santelli’s tirade against the stimulus and bailouts of irresponsible individuals and corporations sparked the tea party movement. And like the original Boston Tea Party, its goal is to start a revolution. This time though, the focus is our own government.
In the ensuing months, the tea party movement organized rallies across the country, scared congressmen into opposing health care, and became more popular than the two major parties. Yet like many social movements, it has lost momentum with a controversial national convention, losses in Republican primaries, and a decline in popularity.
The tea party movement is now at a crossroad and must decide its future direction. Will it fade away, start a third party, remain an independent movement, work within the Republican Party, or be co-opted by the Republican Party?
First, are the tea parties a mood or a movement? A recent CBS/New York Times poll shows that 18% of the public supports the tea party movement and much of this support stems from anger at President Obama, Congressional Democrats, trillion dollar deficits, bailouts, health care reform, and a sour economy. Will this support remain when the economy improves and/or Republicans gain power or will public support fade away like the Perot movement in the 1990s?
If they remain a political force, the third party idea is probably doomed. Successful third parties must be ideologically distinct from the two major parties. Yet polls show that over 60% of tea partiers are Republican and the anti-government motivation of tea partiers fits nicely with the Republican mantra of small government. Thus, smart tea partiers will run as Republicans with their established voting base, fundraising abilities, and organizations that excel at voter mobilization.
Consequently, it may make sense for tea partiers to join local Republican parties and use the party to further their agenda and force candidates further to the right. However, political participation teaches cooperation and compromise and thus moderation while ideological extremists rarely win elections.
The Tea Party’s extremism and active political involvement means that many establishment candidates will probably co-opt tea partiers to win primaries and then pursue more moderate policies to stay in office if elected. Already, tea partiers are upset with Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) for supporting the Democratic jobs bill and they will probably be upset at their current favorite candidate, Marco Rubio of Florida, who is using Governor Charlie Crist “embrace” of Obama’s stimulus to lead polls in the Republican Senate primary. Rubio is not a tea partier but a member of the establishment as a protégé of Jeb Bush and former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
This leaves an independent movement as their best option which, coincidentally, fits their personality the best. Tea partiers are distrustful of authority fearing that it will corrupt the movement. They prefer a more fluid, leaderless movement where the masses remain in control. This can help tea parties influence the Republican Party’s agenda and provide the volunteers and money to move Republicans to the right or tea partiers can pick and choose issues and candidates depending on the movement’s desires.
However, this distrust of authority leads to two problems. First, they are prone to the Judean People’s Front syndrome. In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the Judean People’s Front fought with the People’s Front of Judea, the Popular Front of Judea, etc. over small things losing sight of the big picture. Today, we see the tea partiers fighting each other as members of the Tea Party Patriots (TPP) sue each other while TPP distrusts the Tea Party Express’s Washington connections and the Tea Party Nation’s Republican tendencies.
Second, the distrust of authority sometimes manifests itself in conspiracy theories about black helicopters, the Federal Reserve, the origins of 9/11, and Obama’s citizenship. These conspiracy theories threaten the movement’s future as opponents will marginalize the movement as a “bunch of crazies.”
The organizers of the Boston Tea Party never knew that event would spark a revolution. The current tea partiers hope to lead a revolution but time and their own efforts will determine if their revolution ends with a bang or goes out with a wimper.
Article originally appeared in the March 16 edition of the Jackson Sun