Monday, November 8, 2010

Now The Tea Party Comes To The Hard Part

The Tea Party has gone through many iterations in its relatively short lifespan: in the beginning it was called inconsequential, utterly incapable of being anything more than a novelty. Certainly it could not be expected to become a force in politics capable of turning an election. When this description failed to take hold, a new narrative emerged: since the Party seemed to be growing it must be an astroturf effort funded by the Republican Party. While this view was popular with the left -- which had its own issues with astroturfing at the time -- it didn't survive long. Arms of the movement were popping up all over the country, and established Republican politicians were increasingly on the receiving end of the Party's wrath.

Next were two conflicting pictures of what a typical "tea partier" looked like. On one hand, a Tea Partier was a disaffected upper class white male, railing against having to pay his fair share. On the other a member was poor white trash, ignorantly rabble-rousing the under-educated to rise up in armed conflict against the government. These disparate views surfaced at roughly the same time and jockeyed for position, each one taking the fore depending on the context of the describer. The unifying thread between these two oppposite views was that Tea Party members were uniformly white and racist. That there were more people of color at a single Tea Party event in, say, Ohio, than in anything John Stewart ever presided over is lost.

Once it became clear that charges of racism and backwardness were only playing well to the far left, the Tea Party was accused of shilling for Republicans. Despite the fact that the Party endorsed some Democratic candidates, this description has shown the most staying power. The stories in the wake of the midterm elections paint a picture of a Tea Party that swept Republicans in and Democrats out. This is certainly true in a strict sense; the new balance of power in Congress shows this. However, this description posits that the Party is all about electing Republicans rather than electing small government, small deficit candidates of any political stripe. The truth in this view is weak at best in 2010. The Republican establishment has had little success in co-opting the Party. How that changes in advance of the 2012 election will go a long way in determining its legacy.

The Party defies a single descriptor. This is because it is a large, organic, amorphous thing. It means different things to different people. There are certainly some unifying principles behind it: goverment is too big; it spends too much money, and largely doesn't spend it well; it is slowly working to erode the everyday freedoms people should be able to take for granted. There are certainly other principles involved. You can go to a Tea Party rally and see Birthers. You can find a racist, a closed-border advocate, someone who wants to erase the line between church and state. To argue that the views of people like these define the movement is ludicrous, however.

In regards to the 2010 midterm elections, none of these descriptions matter. The plain truth of the matter is that the Tea Party influenced many races and won surprising victories over the types of politicians it opposed. The next two years will be the real test of the Party's staying power. Harnessing anger to achieve short term goals is relatively easy, especially in an economy like the one we face today. Keeping that anger focused over the long term is a much harder prospect. Many dangers lurk, not the least of which is co-option by the Republican Party apparatus. But lethargy, fatigue, and complacency are also real dangers. I'll be very interested to see what descriptions people come up with for the Tea Party over the next couple of years, and I'll be even more interested in what description it writes for itself.

(Cross-posted at Say Anything)

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