Jonathan Rauch, writing in National Journal, seems to have done what no one else in the media has yet done – get a fairly decent handle on the phenomenon known as the Tea Party movement.
"From Washington’s who’s-in-charge-here perspective, the tea party model seems, to use Wildman’s word, bizarre. Perplexed journalists keep looking for the movement’s leaders, which is like asking to meet the boss of the Internet. Baffled politicians and lobbyists can’t find anyone to negotiate with.
The "boss of the internet" makes a great point. This is an unknown beast in politicoworld. And since the politicians can’t find the leaders (and there by attempt to "negotiate" or buy-off that leadership) and it is something journalists don’t understand, they’re afraid of it. And they keep trying to pigeon hole it, but the movement doesn’t really allow that. It is what it is for a reason:
"[R]adical decentralization embodies and expresses tea partiers’ mistrust of overcentralized authority, which is the very problem they set out to solve. They worry that external co-option, internal corruption, and gradual calcification — the viruses they believe ruined Washington — might in time infect them. Decentralization, they say, is inherently resistant to all three diseases.
And that’s a another great point. But keep in mind, that wasn’t a design feature, that’s a feature of the spontaneous coming together of those who’ve signed on with the movement.
Sell-outs occur when leaders are co-opted by enticements and promises. No leaders, no co-option. If you want examples of the other two – corruption and gradual calcification – look no further than your Democratic and Republican parties, or the governments they run. There is no TP "president", no "treasurer", no "communications director". In fact, the movement is a collection of hundreds, if not thousands of local TPs which identify with the movement as a whole. Negotiate with that.
"’The reason the tea party isn’t yet there is they don’t yet make a distinction between friends and foes and persuadables,’ says [Ralph Benko, a Washington-based public affair consultant]. ‘They don’t yet make a distinction on who they can focus on to change a vote, or how they can change the fortunes of their preferred candidates. As long as they’re in ‘We hate you all’ mode, I don’t know if they’ll manifest as a powerful national force.’
They’re clear in what they’re interested in – fiscal sanity on the whole meaning smaller, less intrusive government, less spending, less taxation. That the type candidate they’ve been backing in the various primaries. And, at least in the primaries, they’ve had some success.
But those in the movement are at once national and local. They’re a spontaneous reaction to the frustration the general population has felt by being ignored completely between election cycles while the politicians proceed to break every promise they made, spend us into oblivion and generally treat us like chattel.
The "We hate you all" mode that is referred too isn’t quite as global as Benko would like you to believe. Obviously some politicians haven’t had to face TP backed candidates or have been backed by the TP as incumbents. That’s because they reflect the general political goals of the TP – both the local one in their area and the national movement.
As for becoming a “powerful national force”, if Benko doesn’t consider knocking off establishment party candidates in a number of Senate primaries the makings of a powerful national force, I’m not sure what would impress him. He seems to be looking for that traditional political model with which to bestow that power. What the TP movement is doing is finding its legs.
It’s power is in its decentralization as Rauch points out above. How to wield that power effectively is what the movement is just now exploring. If it uses its template of governing principles and applies them consistently and persistently it will indeed be a ”powerful national force.” But I think it is a mistake to claim the TP is in a “we hate you all” mode. In fact, it’s just a target rich environment right now. In a few years with a few successes and other politicians figuring out which way the wind blows politically, the TP may be much more selective in its application of that power.
Which brings us to this:
"But, tea partiers say, if you think moving votes and passing bills are what they are really all about, you have not taken the full measure of their ambition. No, the real point is to change the country’s political culture, bending it back toward the self-reliant, liberty-guarding instincts of the Founders’ era."
Why do you suppose the TP is such a incredible mix of types of people? Because the dissatisfaction with the country’s political culture is an across the board phenomenon. It is this the two parties just seem not to be able to grasp. It isn’t about a preference for one or the other, it’s about not liking either of them or the culture they’ve spawned. The TP’s main message is “change that culture or we’ll find and back someone who will, and if they fail, we’ll kick them out and find others”. The fact is that in principle, it is the Republican party which should be the greatest beneficiary of this sort of a movement. But over the years, speaking of co-option, corruption and calcification, the GOP has lost its way. Dumping the Murkowskis and Bennett’s and rejecting the Crists and Castles of the party is the movement’s way of pointing out what the Republicans have to do to win their support. Naturally the establishment party is resisting the guidance.
Democrats, of course, are scared witless of the movement because they – on the whole – represent everything the TP isn’t for. Consequently that party has spent all its time denigrating, demonizing and falsely accusing the movement of being everything from a reincarnation of the KKK to the Nazi brownshirts. But they’ve been unsuccessful in pinning any of those tags on the movement. Time and again, TP rallies have formed in large numbers and done so peacefully and without incident. And, the one time there were supposed “incidents” it ended up blowing back on the Democrats when not one shred of proof of their charges could be found.
Obviously, it is still too early to say if the TP will actually have any staying power or whether or not if it does it will become a “potent national force”. However, it is clear that the media and politicians don’t know what to do with it, what it really is or means or how to take it down. And that’s the core of its power right now. Its spontaneity and decentralized “structure” enabled by today’s technology have them running scared. And personally, I’d like to see politicians kept in a perpetual state of fright – it seems to me that’s when they’re most responsive to the will of the people.
UPDATE: Ralph Benko responds.