Talking to the Tea Party

Talking to the Tea Party

Its partisans may be in search of political purpose, but that shouldn’t make liberals complacent.


Over a breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon in a back room of the Nugget Casino in Pahrump, rural Nevada, shortly before the midterm elections, the talk among some forty men turned to the most propitious moment for armed insurrection.

"The government needs to know that we will use [our arms] if they continue down the path they’re on. We’re not even ready. We need to get ready."

Another, fearing this could give a visiting journalist the wrong impression, insists that few in the room would agree with such a ridiculous view.

But it turned out that quite a few did. "Look how much damage Barack Obama and his socialist Congress did in eighteen months," bellows another. "It could take us ten years to undo this crap. And you say we can’t consider using weapons."

They call it the Old Farts Club: a gathering of elderly conservative men that has been meeting every Friday morning for the past five years at the Nugget for breakfast and a bull session that ranges from judges—one man calls for Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to be removed from the Supreme Court—to the fate of a local park.

A straw poll reveals that none think Harry Reid can beat Sharron Angle without stealing the election.

Four days later, in a plush suite at the Aria Hotel, the Tea Party Express watched Harry Reid win fair and square. They’d chosen the Aria because they wanted to taunt Reid, who was holding his election-night event there. Despite the open bar and the catered treats, it was a tough one to swallow.

Those two scenes—at the Nugget and the Aria—illustrate two distinct faces of the Tea Party. The first, at the base, is a very loosely affiliated group of like-minded people who may "identify" with the Tea Party but have no connection beyond that. The second, purportedly at the helm, is a series of well-funded competing organizations that pose as leaders of that base but in fact have no control or even link to it outside the media. Politically speaking, neither really exists. Or at least not as billed.

Where the base is concerned, there is no structure, leader or membership that links it to a bigger movement. Beyond "small government" and Obama-bashing, it’s not clear what the various groups would agree on. Some, like the Old Farts Club, meet regularly and, while they may get their talking points from Fox News, are nonetheless independent.

To those who dismiss the Tea Party as nothing more than "astroturf" (fake grassroots), such activity poses a challenge. The country has a long history of grassroots conservative activism. Indeed, one of the problems with the Tea Party label is that, far from describing a new phenomenon, it depicts an old one—the hard right—that happens to be enjoying an episodic resurgence. These people didn’t join it; it joined them. But even following Republicans’ midterm victories, the nature of that resurgence can be overstated and misunderstood.

An attempt over several months by the Washington Post to contact every single Tea Party group found that it was unclear if many actually functioned. Seventy percent said they had not been involved in a political event in a year—the very year the Tea Party made its most dramatic gains. The Post described the Tea Party as "not so much a movement as a disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings that do surprisingly little to engage in the political process."

"When a group lists themselves on our Web site, that’s a group," Mark Meckler, a founding member of the Tea Party Patriots, told the Post. "That group could be one person, it could be 10 people, it could come in and out of existence—we don’t know."

This comes more by way of description than derision. It is how movement-building goes. I have seen local antiwar and healthcare groups that live or die by the energy of just one or two people. Nonetheless, such facts are incompatible with the portrayal of a vibrant insurgent ideological entity capable of taking over first the Republican Party and then the country.

For that, one must go back to the second Tea Party, on the twentieth floor of the Aria and elsewhere. It is groups like the Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity that claim in different ways to speak for that base. Each one is run by veteran right-wing operatives who at some stage have been part of the GOP establishment. With the help of uncritical and unending coverage by Fox News, they have been able to amplify the inchoate, incoherent demands of the base and thereby transform it into what looks like a formidable electoral force.

The trouble is that these groups—and the Congressional representatives they have helped elect—have almost no relationship to that base beyond partial listservs. No threat, demand, assertion or ultimatum made in the name of the Tea Party is credible. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible to deliver on any of them, but nothing in the immediate aftermath of the election has suggested that might be likely.

Early on, Minnesota motormouth Michele Bachmann, leader of the Tea Party Caucus in the House, challenged a Republican establishment candidate for the number-four spot in the House, only to withdraw within a week after her bid, launched primarily through the media, failed to gain traction. Elsewhere there have been laughable scuffles between Tea Party organizations competing, mostly in vain, for the attention of Republican freshmen.

Several voices without a body; several bodies without a voice: Tea Party, a name with electoral appeal in search of ideological coherence and a political purpose. None of which should make liberals complacent. If these groups can do this much damage when they are this disorganized, imagine what might happen if they got it together.

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