18 July 2010

A Tea Party Purge: Necessary Step or Beginning of the End

The Tea Party movement is said to be decentralized in nature, a simultaneous uprising from the grass roots across the country (with some "astroturf" arguably thrown in) with no single impetus or inspiration and no one leader or leadership to give orders to or take responsibility for the rank and file. What, then, is the significance of the National Tea Party Federation reading Mark Williams's Tea Party Express group out of the movement? Williams gave offense most recently with his since-retracted "Letter to Lincoln," which asserted that black people loyal to the welfare state don't really want to be free and would prefer the restoration of slavery to actually having to earn their way in the world. We last left Williams wondering whether his conciliatory gesture would impress black critics, but it apparently failed to convince some Tea Partiers. The Federation apparently pressured the Express to repudiate and rid themselves of Williams -- perhaps in that way obliging those in the NAACP who want to see TPs rejecting racists in their own camp. The Express has refused to comply, and has itself been repudiated by the Federation.

What will Tea Partiers who don't necessarily identify with either the Express or the Foundation make of this schism? I suspect it won't mean jack to many of them, as many if not most TPs may well distrust any entity that claims to represent them (rather than speak for them on the radio) on the national level. Will it mean anything to those outside the movement in the long term? Possibly. There'll be a temptation to see this as something like the moment in the 1960s when William F. Buckley, from the bully pulpit of his National Review magazine, repudiated the conspiracy-mongers of the John Birch Society. Buckley's move is widely credited with making his brand of entrepreneurial conservatism more palatable to the masses by dissociating it with the wackos who suspected Dwight Eisenhower of being a Communist agent. It clearly set a limit to the diversity of opinion that would be indulged by the new-style conservative, or at least to what Buckley and his magazine would tolerate. Some modern observers may want to see the Federation's repudiation of Mark Williams as a similar gesture, but I think it misses the mark. The people who really need to be repudiated to make the Tea Parties credible to outsiders are birthers and truthers, and I'm not aware if the Federation or any other TP group has done that.

The Tea Parties may be a different sort of force from the ideologically-driven Buckley-era conservative movement. They may balk at being told that there are any forbidden thoughts or opinions, since forbidding any mode of criticizing the enemy will smack of political correctness to many of them. The Federation's assumption of a right to dictate and purge may well provoke other TP groups to question that right. The Williams controversy might not prove a clarifying moment or a milestone in the consolidation of a coherent Tea Party ethos, but might act as a deterrent to greater cohesion as groups or individuals refuse to take dictation from anyone else. Yet another possibility, of course, is that this won't prove a decisive moment in any way. That'd be disappointing, if only because conflict would be more interesting. But time will tell.

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