Full disclosure: I’ve not attended any of these “tea parties” (as the Santelli-rant-derived designation goes), and in terms of my voter registration, I’m independent, pretty much most of the time fed up with either of the primary parties which are represented on my various ballots. I was a sporadic voter out of college, but have voted in every general election since 2000, and the non-presidential cycles, and almost every primary since 2006. Beyond that, my political philosophy does not align neatly with any one party or candidate, so most of the time it’s a matter of prioritizing my priorities.
I have, however, kept an eye, via the media, on the tea party movement as it’s starting to be called–especially when punditry critical of it has to resort to sexually vulgar terms to refer to it, sort of like third grade boys repeating a new obscenity endlessly and feeling giddily cool about it. I’m not claiming to understand the tea party movement, but clearly the pundits critical of it either do understand it and fear it, or just simply and ignorantly fear it–and therefore dismiss it with vulgarities.
I think the tea party movement could well be among the most powerful political movements seen in America in a long time. I saw could, because I believe it presently is at a critical juncture. The strength of the movement is, quite frankly, in its decentralization. This seems oxymoronic, but, in fact, if the movement begins to be more organized, especially if it comes under a single leader, whether Gov Palin or whomever, its message will become diffused and weak, because it will be co-opted by forces which are antithetical to its existence. The conventional wisdom would seem to offer that to achieve power, the tea partiers must organize and centralize, then win in the general election nationally (and statewide wherever possible). I think this is exactly opposite of what should happen. The tea party movement should work itself into local leadership primarily, and from there move to “bigger” offices. Yes, the federal and state governments have huge impact on our lives–and that, in my view (fueled by Jacques Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity) is the problem–but it’s the county that has my everyday purchases jacked up to 10%. It’s the local school board that impacts the education of our children, and so forth. I believe the genius of the tea party movement is its decentralization. By building a decentralized local foundation, it is less susceptible of toppling when national or state leaders lose elections.
The other strength which could potentially be weakened is the breadth of view points orbiting a smaller and more central set of focus principles: less taxes, smaller government, fiscal accountability and so forth. For example (and I’m not claiming this is a position of the tea party movement): Fiscal conservatives on both sides of the social issue of abortion can agree that the government ought not fund abortion. They may find themselves at odds as to the legality of the procedure, but still have common ground politically on its funding. If the tea party movement starts to coalesce into the lowest common denominator on a much broader range of social and political issues, it will simply find itself being absorbed into the Borg that is the Democratic and Republican parties, Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee.
As one who finds the libertarian social agenda wanting in common sense reality, I think the strength of the tea party movement is that it is focused on fiscal conservatism, limited federal government, and so forth. These are, actually, pretty broad-based in pollling it seems to me, whereas on some of the social issues, this is not the case (though recent polling suggests that a plurality of Americans are opposed to abortion, by way of one counterexample).
While I’m not sold on Gov. Palin as a candidate, I do like her as a person, and am finding her gaining in her articulation of the issues. Perhaps by 2012 or 2016 she might have gained enough chops policy-wise to become a viable and winsome candidate. But I can say this without hesitation: I hope the tea party does not take her on as their de facto leader. Or anyone else for that matter. If the movement does take on such a leader, then the movement is very likely to be short-lived. (As a side note, I think it would be disastrous for Gov. Palin, if she is thinking of elected office in the next cycles, to seek to be or to allow herself to be co-opted as the leader of the tea party movement. If there is a genius to her working right now, it is that she is operating non-traditional media brilliantly, she is presently working within the Republican party but not being perceived as a Republican insider, and she is making millions to personally fund a warchest.)
It remains to be seen whether the tea party movement will find a unified voice on social issues. Some of the anecdotal stories of such gatherings seem to suggest there is a coalescence on some social issues. I think if they find a voice on one or two such issues, one that resonates on principled argumentation, then adding these to their fiscal conservatism and limited government could make for a very powerful political force. It will be interesting to see, however, how this political force moves ahead, whether it will infiltrate both the Democratic and Republican parties, which could be amazingly powerful in pushing both parties center-right on key legislation and governance, or whether it will find the need to fuel third party candidates. If the tea party movement tries to do this at the national level, I think we’ll simply have a repeat of the Perot debacle that ensured a lack of majority for any winning candidate. I think the tea partiers would be smarter to simply work in the venues they can: Democratic or Republican. Because after all, what the tea parties espouse are principles not parties.
But this is just the point now which I think will prove decisive for the movement. Will they continue to focus on principles, or will they devolve into partisan power-seeking.