15 September 2010

Tea Leaves: Are We Missing the Real Stories?

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.


d.eris said...

"It's important to remember that there are multiple "Tea Party" organizations within the movement . . . The journalist or historian who can answer questions like this..."

Indeed. A few weeks/months back, Darcy Richardson published a really thorough article on the genesis and development of the various strains and factions of the tea party movement, in the print version of the Jackson Observer, which never went online, unfortunately. (Richardson is also the author of a six volume history of American third party and indy politics!) I have a PDF copy that I could forward along via email if you're interested.

Anonymous said...

If it is so decentralized and, to an extent, disorganized, can it truly be said to be a "movement"? Or is it actually a number of vaguely related movements utilizing a generic name? Perhaps it is best described as a "political bowel movement" headed by angry white men who feel disenfranchised in a democratic-republic because their relative minority is relatively powerless?

Samuel Wilson said...

d., that Richardson article sounds interesting. I'll see if I can give you someplace to send it. There's an indisputable spontaneity to the movement, even if you describe it in Crhymethinc's terms, but that co-exists with multiple efforts to shape or steer it.

Crhymethinc, "movement" at least conveys the phenomenon's disorganized nature more than calling it a "Party" would. Also, don't generalize: in our progressive age I'm sure there are plenty of angry white women straining (*ahem*) to spread this movement alongside their men.

d.eris said...

Hey Sam,
I figured out how to make it accessible via a simple link, I think. It's the whole paper, so you'll have to scroll through for the individual article, if it works.


Samuel Wilson said...

The link works find and takes you to a decent, nonpartisan account of the movement's evolution. I think the Libertarians' dashed hopes of winning the movement were never greatly justified. Ron Paul's followers gravely underestimated the jingoism of so many who otherwise sympathized with his economic principles. That's a quality we see again in the current Islamophobia, though I suspect that in most cases TPs hate Democrats even more than they hate Muslims. That's the ultimate problem: they're no more willing to concede government to the Dems during the time it'll take to build a truly representative party than progressives are to concede government to Republicans while building a progressive party. Now, of course, TPs think that they've taken over the GOP, but insurgents have felt that way before.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention the good ol' boys of the GOP aren't going to take kindly to being supplanted by a bunch of redneck upstarts. It won't long before you start seeing attack ads from people like Karl Rove or Dick Cheney blasting Sarah Palin, et. al.

Frankly, I'd love to see both sides waste millions destroying each other. It would give me some hope for the future of the country and the human race.

Anonymous said...

Sam: If there are women straining, it's because their men order them to. We are talking about the dirtclods on the right here. The kind of people who are still fighting against women's rights, etc.

Samuel Wilson said...

Crhymethinc: Are you suggesting that Todd Palin is the secret leader of the Tea Party movement? The TPs are bad enough when we see them as they are without stereotyping. Women are quite capable of greed, bigotry, ignorance, etc. as many Republican candidates this year (and their main promoter) show.