Thursday, September 23, 2010

Solving The Riddle of the Tea Party

It’s taken me a long time to wrap my head around the Tea Party. What had me confused was the strangely contradictory messages it seems to keep sending. It wasn’t until I realized that there are two “Tea Parties” (one real, one fake) that all the pieces began to fall into place. And now that I understand what’s going on, I can firmly say that the Republican leadership/establishment is doomed, the Democrats are about to become a permanent minority, and the country is undergoing a seismic shift that will reshape our politics. . . and not everyone is going to like it.

Let’s start with the real Tea Party. When I’ve spoken with actual Tea Party people and I watched their responses to events, a clear pattern began to emerge. These people are largely new to politics and they come from across the political spectrum. They are bound together by a common set of beliefs that they feel is no longer represented in Washington: smaller government, fiscal sanity, an end to interest group politics and corruption, and the replacement of ideology with common sense principles. And most importantly, they are serious about remaking the country to reflect these views, i.e. they have no interest in being a mere protest movement. Indeed, they have set goals and then methodically gone about learning how to achieve those goals.

Moreover, unlike other interest groups, these people are not interested in power, money, fame or political theater. They resent celebrity, which they see as not serious, and anyone who tries to exploit them. Indeed, they disdain leaders entirely. We know this from several facts. First, they are loosely organized with no chain of command, an unheard of structure for a political movement. Secondly, they’ve refused to anoint a leader; indeed they reacted angrily whenever anyone tried to claim the mantle of Tea Party leader. Third, they’ve set about doing the kind of work that doesn’t require a leader. In other words, rather than rushing to the Jones campaign and demanding that Jones be made President so (s)he can impose the Tea Party agenda, they’ve set about infiltrating the Republican Party from the ground up and doing whatever they can individually to fix whatever they can reach. They are in essence a million do-it-yourselfers who have decided to renovate their portion of our political system.

All of this adds up to something fascinating and truly rare in human history: a spontaneous popular movement. Popular movements occur when a critical mass of people suddenly all get the same idea AND choose to act upon it. These are really rare and really powerful. In fact, the only ones I can think of are the Civil Rights Movement, the abolitionist movement, the fall of Eastern European communism, the French Revolution, and the creation of Protestantism.

What separates these from the way societal change normally happens historically is that most change is the result of a determined group of leaders seeking to impose change upon the population from the top down. Examples of this range from the Communist Revolution to the Inquisition to the American Revolution. By comparison, a popular movement is based on a shared set of ideas and tends to be leaderless, meaning that the movement draws its momentum and goals from the collective beliefs of its participants and it spreads person to person until it simply overwhelms the old way of doing things from the bottom up. This makes these movements impossible to combat and much more permanent because the change happens in the very belief system of the population. For example, the Civil Right Movement didn’t just make discrimination illegal, it changed the culture so that people began to view discrimination as wrong and thus turned against the practice whether or not it remained legal. Moreover, you can’t stop a popular movement by discrediting its “leaders” because they aren’t what drives the movement; they are in fact irrelevant to it.

If this is an accurate assessment of the Tea Party, and I think it is, then the future looks like this: the Tea Party represents a permanent major realignment in American thinking, from which a new Republican Party will emerge as thousands of Tea Party people flood the GOP and instill their values in it. I understand this is already quietly happening. This will take some time, but it is inevitable, and its completion will be marked by a purge of the leadership.

When completed, the New Republican Party will advocate (1) smaller government, (2) fiscal sanity, (3) an end to government-sponsored privilege, and (4) an end to the party’s cozy relationship with lobbyists. This means an end to the relationship with K-Street and Big Business. The New Republican Party also will place a lower priority on social issues and likely won’t be as ideologically strident, which probably means a rocky relationship with the Religious Right, though the two groups clearly share some views, i.e. ending government funding of abortion. (As an aside, don’t confuse the Tea Party with the Libertarians on either social or economic issues; the Tea Party is not anti-government so much as it favors a humbler government, and it’s not libertine by any stretch.)

As a result of these changes, I would envision the establishment wing leaving the party. In their place, I would look for conservative Democrats, who are finding themselves unwelcome in the increasingly far left Democratic Party, to join this New Republican Party. This should produce a strong, lasting majority.

So what took me so long to figure this out? It’s this second “Tea Party” I mentioned, which had me confused just as it’s blinded the establishment to the true nature of the real Tea Party. What the establishment sees as the “Tea Party” is a group of opportunists who spend their time trying to get headlines. These people are political and celebrity opportunists, lobbyists, armchair revolutionaries, and establishment conservatives looking to hijack political muscle. These are the people who were for the bridge to nowhere before they found it brought them more celebrity to be against it, who charged fees to speak at Tea Party events, who disclaimed leadership of the Tea Party while trying to become its national spokesman, who formed alleged-Tea Party groups using lobbyist money and put lobbyists on their board of directors, who claimed to support the Tea Party (after attacking it) while trying to redefine it to fit their own ideologies. These people are a rogues gallery of bogus-outsiders who use victimology and conspiracy theories to build a cult of personality, and who skillfully exploit a symbiotic relationship with the media to further their own fame and fortune. These people have nothing to do with the real Tea Party and are merely a distraction to a movement that does not need them.

I know some of you won’t accept this fact, but it’s true. The Tea Party has no leaders because it is not a movement that is amenable to leadership -- it is not a cult of personality sitting at home waiting for the right politician to lead it to the promised land. It is, instead, a million average people all struck by the same idea at the same time who are going quietly about achieving their individual goals. They've learned that they cannot rely on politicians to change the system, so they’ve decided to change it themselves.

Thus, put your faith in a Palin, a Bachmann, a Beck, an Armey at your own risk, for they don’t represent what is really going on. For that, put your faith in a BevfromNYC or a PittsburghEnigma and a million others like them. . . they’re the ones who are changing the world.


Tennessee Jed said...

It is a very interesting hypothesis with much to recommend it in terms of logical analysis. I think it may be quite a while before we actually see whether the impact plays out that way. I do agree absolutely about the "real" tea party movement as opposed to the coopted brand version. I also believe the tea party movement is primarily a reduce government influence movement so any attempt to bring in culture wars really does not resonate.

Tennessee Jed said...

another thought . . . the leader has yet to emerge that I trust to pull off that agenda. If and when they do, I will support them all the way. Another issue must be to change immigation policy. We cannot continue to bring in people who can be appealed to as victims.

LL said...


You got it right.

I don't know what the end-game is, but the "movement", if you can call it that, is gathering popularity because it is a hydra with 80 million heads (all of who, vote).

StanH said...

I like your analysis Andrew, however I differ in one respect. We all have our part to play, and in reality the useful idiots for the Tea Party are the Armey’s, Bachmann’s, and to a lesser extent Beck and Palin.

Dick Armey retired and went directly to K-Street and has worked as a lobbyist since, not cool. Bachmann has RINO (voted TARP and so on) instincts when you look closely at her record, but to her credit she had an epiphany, angry voters screaming “what the hell are you doing!” These two are being more opportunist and trying to harness the prevailing winds, but serve as targets for the MSM, useful idiots all missing the target.

Beck and Palin deserve some distinction. Beck was useful in the massive gathering in 9/12/09, and 9/28/10, and has been attacking overreaching big government both parties for years. He’s lately become a bit sanctimonious, but a conservative small “l” libertarian pioneer deserving our appreciation. Palin is the most put upon, derided, hated, Republican since Ronald Reagan. Who has endured this onslaught with a grace, and feistiness that I haven’t seen in many years, for that, I cut her some slack, and generally support her.

The Tea Party to me is almost like a religion that is spreading word of mouth, whispers in the dark. It has a life of it’s own. I’ve been to six gatherings, and not one was because a politician asked me, it was because I wanted to. That’s powerful, and will befuddle the pundits, Beltway talking heads, MSM media in general. It’s very exciting, and we can thank Barry for the reawakening of the American spirit, there is hope for our great land.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed! I agree that it will take time to see how this all plays out, I'm just trying to estimate where it's headed based on past experience -- but as they say in investing, prior experience is no guarantee of future success.

I think you make a good point about why the culture war points aren't important to them, because this is about reducing the government. So advocating a series of positions that would involve further expanding the role of government would seem contradictory.

This is what makes me uncertain if they can get along with the religious right or not. It's not that the two groups are unsympathetic to each other, but it's a matter of degree. For example, take abortion. I think making sure the government doesn't pay for abortions is something the Tea Party people would accept, but I see no will go further on that issue. Is that enough for the Religious Right to remain allies? I honestly don't know.

I do know that the Religious Right (see Huckabee, Perkins) started out by blasting the Tea Party, but have lately tried to co-opt them by claiming that the Tea Party is an evangelical movement. I don't think that will work and is more likely to anger the Tea Party people. I guess we'll see how it evolves.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Jed, On the immigration thing, I honestly don't know how important that issue is as part of "the Tea Party agenda," but it seems to have struck a chord with around 80% of the public, so I suspect it is important to them as well.

AndrewPrice said...

LL, Thanks!

"because they vote": That's actually the reason I think the Democrats are doomed. The Democrats are playing a Demographic game where they try to cobble to together small but motivated groups to turn out against an unmotivated larger electorate. The Tea Party people represent an energizing of the electorate, which will overwhelm the Democratic coalition.

In other words, if only 30% of the population votes and you get 90% support from a different 20%, then you control the election. But if 50-60% of the population suddenly starts voting, then pandering to that small 20% won't help you anymore. The Tea Party represents a wide swath of middle America that hasn't been involved until now.

Only 50 million people voted for Obama, and currently around 80 million people call themselves Tea Party people (or sympathetic) according to the polls. That spells a total shake up of our system.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I think the "religion spreading through whispers" is the accurate analogy here. Because that's exactly how it seems: people have had an epiphany and have decided to change their own lives without waiting to be led there.

That's the reason I don't think the movement has or needs a leader -- and why they've rejected all who've tried, because this is a personal revolution, with millions of people deciding to change their relationship with their government. Waiting to be led would simply be going back to the old way they've rejected.

Eventually, they will start putting politicians in power, but I suspect the partiers will hold them to much greater account than anyone has with politicians in the past, and they don't seem particularly interests in granting second chances.

I don't necessarily disagree with you about Palin and the rest. I think useful idiots is a good way to put it -- they have their uses for the Tea Party movement and as long as they are useful, they will have a nice a relationship with the partiers. But, I think they better be very careful about considering themselves "leaders" rather than "instruments" and they better not try to shift the direction of the movement. I also think that so long as the media focuses on these people, they will miss what's really going on.

What I have found so really fascinating watching the partiers is how serious they are about this. I don't mean "how intense" their feelings are, but I mean how much time they've been willing to put into, how they've studied the issues, studied the system and studied the candidates, and how they've continually adjusted to take the next step. That's a battle plan, not a protest movement. And few other interest groups (left or right) have ever been so dedicated or so intelligent about it. This really is a different movement.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: The Tea Party took its name from the original rebellion against taxes and oppressive government. Since it was called "The Boston Tea Party," the name was appropriate for the new movement.

Unfortunately, the name has caused a few problems and misdirections because many on both sides of the fence saw "party," and thought "political party."

Your discussion nicely sums up why the popular movement Tea Party is so valuable and so necessary, and the pseudo-political Tea Party can be divisive and destructive.

I think of the Tea Party movement (as opposed to the political Tea Party wannabes) more as a gigantic and dynamic caucus. But the "Tea Party Caucus" as a name for the movement wouldn't make any sense, historically or politically. So whenever I discuss the Tea Party, I usually distinguish the people I am so fond of as the Tea Party Movement in order to distinguish them from the Tea Party wannabe leaders and candidates.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, You make an excellent point. Sadly, unlike you, I did not make that distinction originally. When they first met across the country, it seemed like a one-time protest. Then a bunch of people jumped on it and tried to declare themselves leaders. And they began talking about forming a third party and fielding their own candidates, which made me take my eye off the ball.

That's why it's seemed so strange to me that the actually members I've known sent very different signals than "their leaders." In fact, nearly contradictory signals.

It's taken me some time to realize that there really are these two different groups, with rather different goals, and that the real group is simply going about their business no matter what the media or "their leaders" are up to.

It almost reminds me a cartoon where the two main characters are arguing over something in the foreground as the "unnamed characters" are simply resolving the issue in the background.

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

Andrew, good article. I haven't thought much about the "fake" tea party, but you're right about that. People like Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee immediately come to mind when I think of the "fake" tea party. Political opportunists mostly, and people I don't want anywhere near the presidency.

I also wanted to expand on some of the points brought up in your original article and in the comments.

First, immigration. Based on my observations of our local tea party group, immigration is definitely a major concern. There were urgings from many members to contact their representatives to oppose the latest defense bill. But the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" provision was barely mentioned. It was the DREAM act that had everyone buzzing with outrage. I think that fits in with the fiscal sanity point that you brought up. Illegal immigration costs us lots of money, and it's one of those basic constitutional things that government is supposed to control. It should be a no brainer for every single congress critter.

Second, religious issues. Again, from observing our local group, religious issues aren't on the front burner. There have even been a few tiffs where more religious members have asserted themselves a little too strongly only to be countered by other non-religious members. I recall several members saying things like, "Look, I'm a member of this group because I'm concerned about the financial chaos in Washington, but I get a little offended when someone here tries to push a religious agenda on the entire group. Not all of us are necessarily of the same religion or even religious at all." Some members even announced that they were leaving because of tiffs like this. A good example is the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" debate. I personally don't care much about it right now. I would care more about such issues when our country didn't have more important issues like out-of-control spending. I think many "tea party" people feel the same way. We understand that unless we get ourselves out from under this crushing debt train that we're on, issues like abortion, defense of marriage, don't ask don't tell, etc. etc. aren't going to matter in the slightest, because we aren't going to have a country in which to debate them.

You wondered out loud where the Religious Right would go. Well, where else can they go? To a pro-lifer like Bob Casey who probably disagrees with them on every other issue? (Well, it may also have been wrong of me to have used logic to come to that conclusion.) I think, I hope, they would have no where else to go but to our side.

T_Rav said...

Andrew, I'm going to apply your logic about the "real" vs. "fake" Tea Partiers to the Religious Right. Folks like Huckabee, who I don't much care for, I consider to be more religious than Right, which is to say that they're infused with more than a little bit of the Social Gospel (witness Huckabee's positions on taxes and immigration). I could see a lot of them going the way of Jimmy Carter.

On the other hand, most of the rank-and-file conservative Christians, like myself, think the Tea Party is the best way to support Christian values. This is partly because of the Democrats' success in joining secularism with big government in the public's mind, but also because it makes sense. Why would you want the government to enforce your beliefs, when the opposition could get control of it and start imposing an opposite set of values? Small government is the best way to preserve the ideal of a Judeo-Christian America, and I think a lot of people on the Religious Right understand that.

CrispyRice said...

I haven't read the comments yet, but this:

"As a result of these changes, I would envision the establishment wing leaving the party. In their place, I would look for conservative Democrats... This should produce a strong, lasting majority."

Ohhhh, Andrew, how I like the sound of that!!

AndrewPrice said...

Pitts, Thanks for the comment!

On the fake party, as I say above, I hadn't really realized it until recently that there are these two groups. There were some obvious disconnects. For example, a lot of people who clearly had no "tea party spirit" were claiming to be its leaders (Newt, Armey, etc.), and a lot of what the rest were advocating seemed to run contra to what I knew people like you were talking about at your meetings and doing behind the scenes.

Then I would periodically hear people like you or Bev or others say "we don't follow X, they don't represent us," even as the media was ready to anoint them with the crown. That's when it all started to come together for me, when I realized that the "rank and file" weren't a rank and file, you were a million do-it-yourselfers, and the idea of following a leader simply doesn't make sense in those circumstances.

On the immigration issue, I assumed it was part of the agenda for the reasons you state, but I didn't have any confirmation about that. And you're right, that is a crushing economic burden in the happening. As an aside, I know for a fact that your stance has nothing to do with race because I've seen the Tea Party go out of its way to shove out anyone who shows the slightest hints of bigotry -- and many of your members are minorities. I think this should scare the Democrats more than anything, that you are forming a movement without a demographic. That could pull a lot of blacks and Hispanics away from the left in a way that the current Republican Party cannot.

On the Religious Right, I think the whole issue remains undecided. I think you're right that the Tea Party is not a religious movement and is not generally interested in religious doctrine or religious based ideas. However, I also know that you all are not in the Libertarian camp of "anything goes." If anything, I've heard a rather practical -- "we should never have to pay for it" attitude.

That's where I think the Religious Right can work with the Tea Party -- on the idea that the government should not be supporting any of these things. But, like you, I see no will to get into the government-regulating-behavior mode that the Religious Right takes. Whether this is enough to work together, I honestly don't know.

As for where the Religious Right would go, that's a good question. In a strange way, they would be more comfortable on the left, if the left hadn't chosen to throw its weight behind atheism. They could threaten to stay home, but (1) that's a dangerous threat to make, and (2) I don't think the Tea Party is worried about such threats because that just creates a bigger vacuum for you to fill. I guess we'll see?

In any event, thanks for the insight! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, In a strange sort of way, we have a double hostage crisis going on today. We should swap our liberals for their conservatives and end this problem! :-)

darski said...

I have always been a fan of the "Committee of One". I believe that 90% of all the work in the world is done by 'one person' at a time.

This bodes well for the American tradition of individual responsibilities and rights.

AndrewPrice said...

darski, I think there is something to that, though mass movements are different -- which is why they are rare. In normal social change, all it takes is one determined individual to push through the change. Whether or not it succeeds depends on the person (or small group) who want to impose the change. But with these popular movements, it's millions of people all getting the same idea at the same time. The change happens because society itself is transformed in a million places at once. But, as I note, these are very rare -- and they usually need a catalyst.

Hence, Rick Santelli's response to the TARP is Martin Luther nailing his Thesis to the church door or Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus or the first person to climb up on the Berlin Wall. These inspired everything else that happened, but it was the actions of the millions of inspired people who changed history.

Joel Farnham said...


It is the strength of the Tea Party that there are no leaders. To me it is the natural antibody to liberal infections of the body politic.

I don't have a faith in leaders trying to coopt it. The problem with the Reagan Revolution, was not Reagan or his policies. It was that the government still was infected with liberals. The faith in Reagan was that he solved all the problems. There was no Tea Party involved at the time. So no lasting correction to the liberal infection.

BevfromNYC said...

Bravo Andrew - Exactly right. And that is why it has been very difficult for others to clearly define who we are. It is very clear, in spite of what Obama says, what we want.

The other point I want to throw in is that is regional. What is important to a tea party group in Flagstaff will not be exactly the same issues as in NYC. But the through line with ALL TP groups is the fiscal responsibility, smaller government, etc. And though we rally in DC on big issues, we act locally to influence local issues, candidates, and party politics.

As a side note: I am shocked that the conservative candidates are doing so well against the established Democrats in NY State. Most are within 5 points. Even Cuomo who I thought was a sure thing, is losing ground daily. He and Carl Paladino, the self-annointed TP candidate, are only 6 points apart!

Though all that being said, if anyone needs a Queen, I am available....

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I think you're right. Reagan did great things, but he was limited by being just one man working against a whole system that opposed him with every fiber of their beings. Thus, they slow-walked everything he did and they kept trying to find ways around it.

I do think he brought lasting change in how the country saw itself and in bringing tremendous credibility to conservative ideas, but politically much of what he achieved was undone over the next two decades.

Interestingly, I suspect that we will get another Reagan when the Tea Party people purge the establishment, because he is exactly the kind of leader who would have understood them.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Bev, and I think you're right that it is easy to see what the Tea Party people want... unless you are watching the "leaders" who keep trying to redefine the party in the direction of their own interests.

I also agree about the regionalism, because that's what you would expect from a group that organizes at the local level. But no matter what side issues are involved, they all seem to share a set of principles that are constant across the country. And that's what the media and Obama haven't been able to understand because those principles aren't considered serious in D.C. anymore -- because everyone says they stand for them, but they all know they are lying just to placate the public; thus, it's a shock to meet people who really mean it.

I'm a little surprised they are doing so well in New York, though not as much as you might think. I think people are sick of being led down the path by corrupt parties that have created a political elite who move back and forth between fiefdoms, lobbying and the media. Cuomo really fits right into that culture. Will he lose? Probably not, unless there really is a huge drop in turnout, but the mere fact that he's threatened means that even in New York people are sick of being treated as second class citizens by their government.

Good luck with the Queen gig! ;-)

Ed said...

That's a lot to think about! Great comments too. I wonder what Palin would make of this? ;D

Individualist said...

As I see it right now there cannot possibly be a TEA Party leader for at least another six years. The act of the matter is on the spending issues no politician let alone a party has ever stepped forward and done anything. Heck the way they do the budget now a 2% raise in spending is a "Budget Cut" because the raised it 3% last year.

The state the country is in people are understanding the sttus quo cannot prevail and no one cares what the politicians say really they want them to do it. That is why so many incumbents in the Republican party that made statements in support of allowing the spending to stay in just in a "diet" version are out. (Murkowski, Crist, Castle).

The only leaders that can emerge that TEA Party members will allow to speak for them are those that go to Washington for a few years and actually reduce spending, cut taxes and eliminate government intrusion on our lives.

I for one am not as optimistic this will be done overnight. I think the TEA party is going to have to keep working for years to accomplish these goals.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I doubt she'd be happy about it because she's in the wing that wants to use the Tea Party movement as political muscle.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, I don't believe this will happen overnight, not at all. I think that 2010 will get the Tea Party foot in the door. 2012 will get them in the door in numbers. It's possible 2012 will be the year they take over the Republican Party, or its possible it won't happen for another 2-4 years after that. But it is coming.

And I think you're right that the Tea Party people won't get any real leaders until they are certain that those people will do the right thing in Washington -- that means getting elected, spending time in the legislature, and proving that you actually "get it." Any less than that is just words, and the people have been lied to too many times to accept words at this point.

But even if they get a leader or two (which they will need to control government), I still expect that the movement will remain largely leaderless because it really does seem to be a do-it-yourself movement.

CrispyRice said...

Oddly enough, Andrew, Rush was saying something along these very lines yesterday. (Or maybe he reads Commentarama? Hmmm???) He was saying how the Tea Party is unique because no one is telling anyone what to do; they're just citizens going out and doing it. And they're "taking over" at the precinct level, which is where you really effect some important changes as an individual.

It was nice dove-tail with your piece.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Thanks for the update. I'm always glad to hear when Rush and I agree, and it's good to hear some more confirmation about the Tea Party people taking over at the precinct level. That's where this change will finally happen!

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