Tea Partying's First Anniversary

Protesters are in the streets. They're waving signs, and chanting loudly. Some appear in outlandish dress, and even more have outlandish slogans written on their signs and banners. But, when you look a little closer, the group is not one, but rather a collection of many groups. These subgroups within the general coalition may agree on a few certain ideals, but they may also disagree on many others, as they may disagree on tactics to right their perceived wrongs. There is a big discussion amongst the groups as to whether working within the existing political two-party establishment is the best way forward (since one party does exist which seems to at least partially share their aims), or whether working outside the whole establishment is better (since supporting that party has led to disappointments in the recent past -- and indeed, could be said to have created much of the situation being protested in the first place). At the fringes of the group there are those whose talk can only be described as "militant," who are advocating violence to achieve their aims.

What I just wrote could describe tomorrow's "first anniversary" Tea Party rallies. Or it could describe a late-1960s anti-war rally. About the only thing these two historical eras have in common is the age of the driving force behind the protests. In other words, don't look now, but the Baby Boomers are back in the streets.

The post-World War II "baby boom" is generally said to be those born between 1946 and 1964. That would make them between 46 and 64 years old now. Take a look, tomorrow, at how many of the Tea Partiers seem to fall within this age segment. While some are undeniably older, and some younger, from what I've seen of these protests, they seem to have a high proportion of Boomers within their ranks. This might explain a little of the "Me Generation" (or, maybe more accurately, "Me-First Generation") outlook they display, on occasion.

Which is interesting to me, because this is the generation that took political advocacy and public protest to new heights (or depths, depending on your point of view). In their college years, they were in the streets marching for many disparate causes (the Vietnam War was merely one of the more prominent of these), and they completely redefined the concept of political protest, introducing the concept of "political theater" to America as a result. Today's Tea Partiers, complete with Revolutionary War dress and all, are merely following in this tradition.

Following it from a different perspective, of course. I would venture to guess that there's not a lot of crossover between the folks who protested in the 1960s and those doing so today (although I admit I'm basing this on nothing but guesswork, and there may well be such a crossover). I think that, instead, the people protesting now were most likely the ones not protesting back then. I think they were the group Richard Nixon referred to at the time as the "silent majority" -- a political ploy on Nixon's part to discredit the protesters, painting them as a small minority of noisy folks who didn't represent mainstream America. Amusingly enough, Harry Reid was quoted recently talking about a "loud minority" who were against the health reform bill -- morphing the previously silent majority into exactly the opposite, and for exactly the same political reason as Nixon (except in reverse). The yin has become yang, in other words.

But, in less Taoist terms (or, perhaps, in more Zen terms), the Tea Party folks have created a swell of support for their movement in the past year, but their biggest strength may also prove to be their biggest weakness. Because the movement is not (although it could become) a true third-party movement, and instead prides itself on being decentralized and not having any one spokesperson who represents its diverse views. But this may limit the impact the Tea Party movement will have in American politics.

Some movements coalesce around a single idea or ideal (as, for instance, the Green Party). Some movements are led by one strong personality (as with Ross Perot or Ralph Nader). The Tea Party doesn't really fit either of these descriptions neatly. In actual fact, defining the Tea Partiers or drawing generalities about them is very hard to do -- again, as a result of their decentralized structure. Now, because many Tea Partiers have a fierce pride in their grassroots nature, this has left somewhat of a leadership vacuum at the top of the movement. Into this void have stepped a few groups who are trying to actively co-opt the Tea Partiers into becoming staunch Republican voters. These groups have staged bus tours and conventions in an attempt to convince the media that they're truly in charge of the entire movement. But, quite simply, they are not. They may have the bankroll to put on splashy media events, but the real strength of the Tea Party movement is, once again, decentralized. State and local Tea Parties -- who act independently of each other -- are the true "base" of the Tea Partiers, and a lot of them are just as annoyed with the Republican Party as they are with the Democratic Party. Many of them, if the Tea Party had never existed, would be either Libertarians or followers of Ron Paul.

This has already led to differences in tactics. While many political newcomer Tea Party candidates rushed to get their names on various ballots as Republicans (in primaries), in an attempt to challenge Republican Party regulars as Tea Party insurgents, most of them have failed in the primaries held so far. But some are having success -- although some candidates (such as Marco Rubio) are previously-established Republican politicians who have taken up the Tea Party banner, and not grassroots candidacies. This will likely continue throughout the primary season, as most "homegrown" candidates fail against Republicans with the party machinery behind them. But that's not to say a few true Tea Party candidates won't win some surprising upsets in Republican primaries.

Win or lose, the second round of tactics is going to get more interesting. Because that's where Tea Partiers will have to decide whether to back a real third-party candidate (which could possibly act as a spoiler, resulting in a Democratic win), or fall in line behind the Republican nominee. In states with Tea Party winners (like Rubio, in Florida), the Republican loser will have to decide whether to mount a third-party challenge themselves (as Charlie Crist is reportedly considering), in the hopes of a Lieberman-like win in the general election.

It all comes down to a question of "working within the system" or "working outside the system" -- the same choice faced in the 1960s by the Lefty protesters. Working within the system is a long, hard slog which is all-but-guaranteed to lead you to disappointments and compromises; but working outside the establishment rarely gets your goals even partly achieved, and could in fact work against your advantage to assure election for someone diametrically opposed to your views (instead of slightly-supportive of your views). On a personal level, it comes down to whether you think "both parties are now equally as bad" or whether you think one party is redeemable, with an injection of new blood. It's a very similar quandary to what a lot of Ralph Nader supporters felt in 2000. Some of the more-organized Tea Partiers are working very hard "within the system" of the Republican Party, down at the precinct-chairman level, and they may wind up having more of an impact on the Republican Party as a whole than any of the other Tea Party factions.

As for the widespread impact of the Tea Partiers on American politics, we won't know the answer to this question for a few years yet, meaning we now have nothing but sheer speculation to go on. Looking back at the Left in the 1960s and 1970s shows a mixed record of achievement. The Left back then was just as all-over-the-map as the Tea Partiers are now -- especially when it came down to priorities and tactics. Was the highest priority ending the war? Civil rights? Destroying the system? Ending poverty? Black power? Feminism? Environmentalism? Should we storm the barricades of the 1968 Democratic Convention, or should we work within the system? Should we run for office? Or should we just go form a commune in Northern California or Oregon? Should we be Gandhi-like and MLK-like in our non-violent tactics, or should we embrace violence and join the Weather Underground? There was a lot to choose from, back then, and a lot of very heated arguments about which was the superior choice. Just as there is today, within the Tea Party movement.

But don't forget that the Lefties did score some important conceptual victories, both within and outside of the political system. Democrats held Congress for a generation after the 1960s, and they investigated some abuses and improved a lot of laws -- issues which would never have gotten any attention without a few people screaming about them in the streets. Some of the old "radicals" even got elected to Congress themselves (and some are even still there). Outside the system, immense changes in the way America thought about itself happened as well, from squarely facing the monstrous injustices of institutionalized American racism, all the way down to everyone recycling things today without a second thought for the hippies who pushed the idea originally.

I would venture to guess that the Tea Party will likely never coalesce into a viable third official political party in America (or even a "second party" if the Republican Party crumbles as a result). The odds are too long, and without a change in their pride in being so decentralized, it's likely they'll never get that organized and cohesive. I see it much more likely that the Tea Partiers essentially "purge" the Republican Party of moderates, deep thinkers, elitists, and "big tent" Republicans; and thus win the intra-party struggle for control of the party machinery. If enough Republican candidates win in November with nominal Tea Party support, this could lead to overreaching by the new Republican/Tea Party core (misreading their own popularity with the general public), which could drive moderate voters away in the next election round. But that's pretty far into the future to be crystal-ball gazing, I do admit.

Again, though, no matter what electoral success they may achieve, or how they ultimately influence the Republican Party in the future, the Tea Partiers are definitely already having an effect on the political discussion. Poll after poll shows Tea Partiers have support from a lot bigger slice of the public many on the Left want to admit. Call it roughly one-third of poll respondents these days have a positive view of the Tea Party. That's a lot more than just a fringe of people out there waving signs and screaming lunacies. And that, I have to say, is an impressive achievement in one year's time.

Think about that for a minute: one year ago, the first Tea Party was about to happen. A remark by a cable news guy spurred "tax day" protests around the country. Instead of being a one-off event, this grew into a movement. True, the movement has many parts (some of which are truly odious), and these disparate subgroups can't seem to agree on a whole lot, but that hasn't stopped its explosive growth in popularity. Few other political movements spring into being this spontaneously and then grow in such a fashion -- at least not without someone bankrolling them from behind the shadows or without a charismatic leader-figure out there drawing them in. In the Tea Party's case, both of these have now happened to some extent (groups like the Tea Party Express, or spokespeople like Sarah Palin), but both of these were Johnny-come-latelies (Sarah-come-lately?) to the party, and not originators of the movement itself.

Republicans are getting pretty nervous about the upcoming fight in the Senate over Wall Street reform, because they know that fighting hard for Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers is not exactly going to endear them to the Tea Party crowds. Republicans in Washington (those that have already won general elections, in other words) are actually pretty nervous about fully embracing the Tea Partiers, but they've also watched as anyone in the Republican establishment who expresses concern over diminishing the Republican Party's broader appeal with voters gets driven out of the tent by the purists. Privately, it's hard not to believe that some Republicans are downright terrified at what the Tea Party could do to the Republican Party's future. But, if this is true, they're not exactly saying so publicly.

Will the Tea Party be seen by political historians as a movement that swelled, crested, and waned -- but got some things done and some changes made as a result; or will they be seen as a real third party, one who perhaps replaces a fractured party which then shrivels and dies, leaving a different two-party alignment for the future of American politics? Or will the Tea Party itself melt away when the economy gets better, and people are less angry about Washington; or will it perhaps even destroy itself through factionalism and infighting, thus marginalizing the whole movement? The only thing certain at this point is that it is simply too early to tell.

One way or another, though, the Tea Party's future prospects are likely to hinge on whether their decentralized nature turns out to be their strongest point, or their weakest. Not having visible leaders and not being in agreement about policies and tactics makes the Tea Party pretty hard to pin down, either way. If they can use this nebulous nature to infiltrate the Republican Party ranks and stage a takeover, then it will have proven to be the Tea Party's strongest point. But if decentralization means the Tea Party devolves (once the rallies are over and the banners are put away until the next march) into even more of what seems to be an ongoing leadership struggle between differing groups with differing goals and tactics, who can't agree on much among themselves (other than defining what they're against, like Obamacare); then they're going to have a hard time having much of a long-term political impact, and instead may soon disillusion their own followers by such disorganization and infighting. In either case, though, 2010 will be an interesting second year to watch the Tea Party movement's evolution.


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