Tea Party Choices: Purity of Principle or Maturity of Method

I was listening to some Tea Party leaders recently. They were unhappy some Representatives had not yet made their position on a bill public. They decided to find out those positions and if a Rep was voting “wrong,” to threaten him with a primary challenge.

Disagreements, even among allies, are inevitable. How we handle them defines our relationship’s future. In the aftermath of successful influence in 2010?s elections, some Tea Party activists are choosing coercion over cooperation.

It’s said you don’t truly know a man until you disagree with him. Character is revealed by conflict more than it is developed by it. What will Tea Party choices reveal? Will they choose purity of principle? Will they insist their way is the only way and burn the bridges between them and their natural allies? Or will they choose maturity of method? Will they permit allies to have varied convictions and still build bridges to lasting collaborations?

It’s true that elected officials can be more interested in reelection than good governance. Legislatures can become so insular that votes are disconnected from the constituency for whom they are being cast. All that matters is being there next year to cast more votes. On the other hand, activists can be more interested in today’s results than in tomorrow’s reality. The courage of conviction can become the inflexibility of arrogance. The piece of candy today is the prize at the expense of tomorrow’s bag of candy.

But there are real people on the other end of issues. Where is the profit in winning on an issue while destroying the connection to those for and alongside whom we fight?

My personal goal is a synthesis of the two approaches. Bad votes and legislation identify bad legislators. Yet at some point all legislators and activists will end up on the wrong side of an issue. How should we handle this?

Lives are videos, not snapshots. If a legislator can go from ally to enemy over a single issue, what sort of ally was he really? So, I try to choose allies carefully. In the event of disagreements, I try to give my ally the benefit of the doubt and generally practice private awareness and public silence. If I choose to comment publicly, I keep the discussion to the merits and flaws of the issue. Threats and personal attacks are not options. The rationale here is both social and practical. I can bully my Rep for a bad vote, but why? The Rep I threaten to primary today is the same one whose vote I need next week. Cooperation, goodwill and access are not built with threats as the default option. Like Momma said, you catch more flies with honey …

So what’s a tea’d off activist to do? Reason and facts are powerful. I believe they are the best currency with which to “buy” legislators. It’s easier for them to face cameras and constituents well armed with sound arguments than merely clothed with the knowledge their votes were coerced. Would we not despise them for caving to lobbyist threats to cut off funding? How is caving to our threats any different?

If our position is sound, we should have little trouble explaining its value. We find like minded souls to contact our legislators with the same arguments. We bring petitions, position papers, polls and data to support our view. Then we “Reagan” them; trust them to vote right and verify they did. That gives us a snapshot. We express private disappointment or public gratitude accordingly.

Since we haven’t alienated our Rep with bad behavior, we can engage him on the next issue and the one after that, always following the same pattern. That gives us the video. If it shows a Rep who, not over one issue – but over time, consistently supports bad policy, we don’t threaten to primary him, we actually primary him. Frankly, he’s unlikely to be surprised. We have the evidence we need to justify and implement that decision. Until then, we have not compromised our ability to work with him or to influence him to change.

It’s basic courtesy and common sense. It’s choosing long term results over immediate gratification. It’s a harder path to walk, but the rewards are equal to the effort – maturity of method over purity of principle. Sure, you could take a different road. If you do, don’t be too surprised to find it crowded with bullies busy reading Rules for Radicals. You might also start preparing for your turn wearing the target costume …