I’m not a fan of the Tea Party and haven’t been for some time. As Jon Stewart put it, most of them are moral majoritarians in tri-tipped hats. It’s hard to see how they differ from the Ralph Reed disciples that stormed into the Republican Party in 1994. That said, it seems like what has become just a mouthpiece for the more outrageous elements of the GOP had some roots in something worthwhile. It’s just been thoroughly co-opted by the establishment for their own purposes.
So how did it all start? Way back in mid-2008, Ron Paul’s campaign for president was winding down and the newly energized campaign volunteers were still all kinds of riled up. They were sick of the constant centralization of both government and economic power, and sickened by the power structure of the parties that only allows “annointed” candidates to advance to elections. A coalition of libertarians, fiscal conservatives, and reformers were ready to challenge any and all party structures that did business as usual. So what happened?
Well, those in power in the parties didn’t get there by being stupid. They saw the wave coming and knew they had to nip that sucker in the bud, and what better way than pulling a reverse infiltration? Almost immediately, the same people who had been a part of the problem started loudly singing the praises of the Tea Party, carefully steering it into an attack dog of the Republican Party, not a near-partyless populist mob demanding more from everyone. In Utah, the problem was particularly bad as the organizers chose to invite elected officials to come speak to crowds, hardly the kind of thing a reform movement should want. It only took weeks or months to quell the uprising and get the media to label the newly-formed beast as a group of angry zealots whose rage was fueled by racism, misogyny, xenophobia, or whatever ugly thing could be attached to it.
What got botched was a trans-partisan populist movement to fight against centralization of power, public and private, that has lead to rampant crony capitalism, impenetrable political party power structures that exclude any kind of insurgent candidates from the process, and the reigning in of an out-of-control pattern of federal spending perpetuated by both parties. All of these are laudable and arguably popular goals. Unfortunately, they’ve been buried under a mountain of far-right social neo-conservatism with a very narrow appeal, obviously explaining the precipitous drop in popularity among the general populace.
Is there any hope for these much needed reforms to happen anytime in the near future? Maybe. It depends on if the lightning in a bottle during the first few weeks can be recreated, or if the original reformers have stuck around now that the real work begins.. Otherwise, I expect the same old story.