Reporters are describing yesterday's Republican primaries, for the most part, as a series of victories for "the Tea Party." It may suit some people's purposes to envision the movement as a coherent entity, but any close attention to its evolution reveals pluralism and rivalry among the ranks of our modern pretend-Indians. There may be a coherent bloc of "Tea Party" voters, but the people they vote for may not share their solidarity.
It's important to remember that there are multiple "Tea Party" organizations within the movement. This came to public attention most prominently when one group attempted to read another out of the movement. It matters whether a "Tea Party" candidate is endorsed or sponsored by the Tea Party Express, the Tea Party Patriots or some other group, or by none of them. Carl Paladino, for instance, is described as a Tea Party candidate. This is accurate insofar as professed Tea Party voters chose him for the Republican nomination over Rick Lazio. But Paladino, as a self-financed candidate, is not the creature of any particular TP group. The Tea Party Patriots only endorsed him late in the game, while the Tea Party Express kept aloof from him early in the process after the scandal over his obscene forwarded e-mails broke. He didn't need any TP group, to my knowledge, to buy ads for him during the campaign, though circumstances may change as the general election against a favored Democrat approaches. In any event, Paladino's independence from any specific TP organization and his self-financing leave him a sort of free agent (or loose cannon, if you prefer) whose success won't necessarily empower any TP faction.
During the primary season, pundits have followed the fortunes of Sarah Palin while pondering whether her personal influence outweighs that of any TP organization. In Arizona she opposed a TP favorite who tried to unseat her erstwhile running mate, John McCain, but whether she made a real difference in McCain's victory is still up for debate. In Alaska a personal influence predating the TP movement made her endorsement of Joe Miller crucial against her longtime enemy, Senator Murkowski. That left observers questioning whether Teapartyism made any difference in the Alaska outcome (though Murkowski herself blames her defeat on the "outside extremists" of the Tea Party Express). That brings us to New Hampshire, where Palin threw her influence behind the "establishment" candidate for the U.S. Senate nomination, Kelly Ayotte, whose strongest rival, Ovide Lamontagne, was anointed (by whom?) as the TP candidate (despite Palin's claim that Ayotte was the "true conservative" in the field) and endorsed by Jim DeMint, a power in the so-called Tea Party Lobby in Congress. The primary remains too close to call as I write, but Ayotte holds a slight lead. New Hampshire needs a closer reading than I've been able to give it so far. Outside observers should understand that any analysis of the primary as a Palin-vs-TP test of strength is complicated by the presence of five other candidates, including a self-financed businessman who received 14% of the vote. It's probably also significant that Tea Party Express stayed out of the race, though I don't know how other TP organizations behaved. Some reporters have suggested that TPE could have tipped the balance in Lamontagne's favor with an aggressive ad campaign; others hint that the group may not have wanted to cross Palin. Why she went for Ayotte remains unclear to me; could it have been as simple as gender solidarity? The journalist or historian who can answer questions like this in an objective account of the New Hampshire primary will go a long way toward clarifying our understanding of a movement that has inspired and enraged millions of Americans.
Listening to NPR this morning, I heard a reporter comment on how unusual it was that no dominant Tea Party leader had emerged so far. She also speculated that the movement would lose influence rapidly, having perhaps peaked already, if no leader emerged soon. She found it remarkable that it had succeeded as much as it seems to have while remaining relatively decentralized, while taking for granted that a decentralized movement's chances for long-term success are limited. The reporter also claimed that the TPs aim at a cultural as well as political transformation of the country, hoping to revive a spirit of self-reliance as a precondition for a permanent reduction of the size and scope of government. If that's their plan, why should they subordinate themselves to a leader, whether it be Palin, DeMint, Glenn Beck or someone else? On the other hand, there are people who clearly aspire to be, if not the leader, at least the figurehead of the Tea Party movement, whether as a presidential candidate or a kingmaker. For now, no one plays that role. The game is on, however, and for journalists (or opponents of the movement) to treat the Tea Party as if it is a finished product or fait accompli rather than something that might still be split or played against itself is, arguably, to miss the forest for the leaves.