The Necessary Evolution of the Tea Party Movement in an Election Year

The Tea Party movement draws its strength and its relevance from its spontaneous, organic and populist nature. That is also the source of its greatest weakness. Because it is a fledgling, leader-less and platform-less movement people are tempted anoint themselves leaders and project their own values upon the rest of the movement. Every faction thinks they own it, but no one really does.

The Tea Parties are best understood and used as a force of opposition. It is a broad coalition of anti-big government forces. It is comprised of many factions that have united to fight the radical, socialist agenda of the Obama administration. But uniting those factions in opposition to something is much easier than uniting those factions in support of a single platform or a single candidate. This is the difference between 2009 and 2010.

As we’ve fought Obama’s radical agenda, we’ve joined concerned Democrats, libertarians, populists, paleocons, independents and some tin-foil-hat-wearers. We needed their help to amplify our outrage. But the elections are near and conservatives must start promoting their own candidates. Some of those candidates may have warts, long voting records, ties to the establishment and specific policy positions that run contrary to many in the Tea Party movement. I fear that the populist fire that was lit in 2009 may turn into a conflagration that consumes important GOP candidates.

It is folly to assume that the Tea Parties simply represent frustrated Republicans who will fall in line if presented with a good conservatives. These factions agree on a couple of broad principles involving limited government and have united to fight a grave threat. But we cannot assume those same factions will automatically unite behind specific candidates with specific policy positions on foreign affairs, wars, social issues, cultural issues, trade policy, big corporations…

I started to write this last week on a whim, but canned it. And then I read about the events in Nevada; a Tea Party candidate is threatening to split the anti-Democrat vote and save Harry Reid. This is not the first time this has happened, and it wont be the last. Again, people tend to love the movement because they get to project their own ideals upon it because it has no platform. To many, it is a populist uprising of real conservatives “just like me”. The Birther eruption helped quash that notion. But that is just one split. On libertarian sites, they are irate that Sarah Palin “hijacked” the movement to promote a “neocon” foreign policy. There will be other splits. But as long as the focus remains on the radical, big government agenda of Obama and the Congressional Democrats, the Tea Party coalition may hold. We cannot allow ourselves to become distracted with other issues.

The founding fathers are often referenced as inspiration for the Tea Parties, but it often forgotten that the original Boston Tea Party leaders turned against the populist mobs after the Revolution because those same mobs undermined our young Republic. Famed Tea Party leader Samuel Adams led the movement to suppress the uprising of his former patriot brother Daniel Shays. George Washington led the march against the Whiskey Rebels. The founding fathers realized it was time to contain the populist fire. It had outlived its purpose.

This is not an anti-Tea Party diary, just another cautionary note. The torch lit by the Tea Parties still belongs to conservatives, but playing with fire is dangerous. Raw populism is difficult to control. The Republican Party should work to take ownership of the Tea Parties or they should dismiss it. I think Sarah Palin tried to initiate the former option at the Tea Party convention, but this process will require alienating some in the Tea Party movement. Otherwise, conservatives should recognize the Tea Parties as a great moment and not a long term movement. Well before November, conservatives must start rallying around all decent GOP candidates and support the GOP brand with or without Tea Party fervor.