I am not one who has been active in the Tea Party movement, despite my sympathy with many of its aims. I’ve never attended a Tea Party event, nor have I joined a Tea Party group. What’s more, I’ve at times found myself in conflict with some Tea Party activists. I note this because I want it recognized that I write as one outside the movement, rather than as an insider.
So do I believe the Tea Party is dead, as obituaries like this one indicate?
But after months of wondering how the Tea Party would change the primary game, leaders inside the movement admit they never came in off the sidelines. For the Tea Party movement, the 2012 presidential primaries have been a bust.
“The Tea Party movement is dead. It’s gone,” says Chris Littleton, the cofounder of the Ohio Liberty Council, a statewide coalition of Tea Party groups in Ohio. “I think largely the Tea Party is irrelevant in the primaries. They aren’t passionate about any of the candidates, and if they are passionate, they’re for Ron Paul.”
Littleton is one of the many who have endorsed the Texas congressman; he blames the other GOP candidates for the lackluster energy they have generated in the grassroots that hosted a revolution two years ago.
From where I sit, only a couple of miles from Ron Paul’s congressional district, I don’t see what Littleton is seeing. The major Tea Party group in my area seems to have been dominated by Herman Cain Supporters, not supporters of the local congressman in the race. In addition, many of the Tea Party people here in Texas were drawn in by the Perry campaign – after all, our governor was a Tea Party favorite in the state in 2010. And I know some Tea Party activists who, having their eye on the movement’s stated goal for 2012 -- getting rid of Obama and ObamaCare, -- have been firm Romney supporters.
And that, you see, is the thing. The Tea Party was never a monolith. It was instead a coalition of disparate factions aimed at certain mutually acceptable goals. In 2010 it was obvious how to reach that election year’s incremental goals, but in 2012 it was less obvious. And that has been the undoing of Tea Party influence this year as those different coalition partners have each pursued their different directions.
Of course, this loose structure and the resulting fragmentation is not what some folks – among them Chris Littleton – expected or desired. Some wanted an opportunity to make money off the movement, while others wanted to create a top-down structure which would have leaders directing followers how to vote. The hucksters can be dismissed, but the latter group were really looking to replace an “establishment” they distrusted with an establishment that they themselves led – or at least a parallel establishment to counter what they see as an “insider” establishment out to impose itself on the grassroots.
I encountered that attitude during the last election cycle. I received a communiqué from the campaign manager/spouse of a neophyte candidate in which I was informed that the candidate’s Tea Party involvement made the candidate “the grassroots” and that I, the local GOP precinct chair, had better fall in line with “the grassroots” or prepare to be swept aside with the rest of the “corrupt establishment”. I didn’t – I had the audacity to ask some questions about the candidate, make some observations regarding the initial contact from the campaign, and pointedly criticize the way in which the campaign was being handled in its crucial early stage. After being lambasted NATIONALLY by a handful of the candidate’s early allies, the extent to which this “grassroots candidate” represented anyone was demonstrated in the primary – I was reelected precinct chair with some 70% of the vote in my precinct, while the candidate lost the nomination to the incumbent by a margin of 4-to-1. While I have since come to count the candidate and the spouse as friends and often allies as we struggle to keep the local GOP on a conservative course, it is also clear from this experience that the desire to become a new establishment is very much on the mind of some within the Tea Party movement – though that is not what much of the GOP base is looking for.
But if the Tea Party isn’t dead, what will come of it? I think that it will, for a time, remain an activist force in the GOP – and I find that an encouraging thing. It will bring new blood – like the couple mentioned above – into the GOP and into leadership positions. I find that a positive. But in the end, the Tea Party will survive ONLY by becoming part of the GOP coalition and proving that it is prepared to work within the party. In doing so, it will be responsible for a shift akin to that brought about by the Goldwater Republicans of 1964 who persevered to elect Ronald Reagan 16 years later. But change comes slow – and those who would bring change need to take the long term view rather than expect immediate results.
UPDATE: An interesting counterpoint to this post from Ben Shapiro, with whom I agree in part and disagree in part.