Taking Tea Partiers Seriously

[ Posted Monday, January 25th, 2010 – 18:54 UTC ]

There has been an interesting alignment which has slowly happened over the past year, between two groups not normally in agreement -- inside-the-Beltway mainstream media types, and the bloggy Left. This alignment has occurred not in favor of some issue or another, but rather against a certain movement: the Tea Parties. Both the Serious Persons in the media, and pretty much the entire Left, have agreed that the proper thing to do with the Tea Partiers is to mock them, in the hopes that they'll go away soon. This, I fear, is a mistake, and it could be a costly one indeed for the Democratic Party.

Allow me to explain, because I'm about to stake out a position here that may not make me many friends. The Tea Party movement is currently hard to define and hard to pin down on the issues, but last month there was an extraordinary Wall Street Journal / NBC News poll which showed the Tea Party was seen more favorably than either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Meaning that the sentiments driving the Tea Party movement are a lot broader than anyone in Washington may fully realize.

Excepting perhaps the national Republican Party, who is downright terrified of the Tea Partiers. But the Democrats should realize that, when the hotheaded rhetoric is stripped aside, there are some natural similarities between what Democrats (should) stand for, and what the Tea Party folks are upset about. Meaning it would be possible to co-opt some of their key issues in this year's election campaign, in the hopes of siphoning off some of them by election day.

The Tea Party movement is a loose collection of some very disparate causes, who have banded together politically for now, but who also risk being torn apart at any moment by disagreements between factions.

Anyone who laughs at this description really shouldn't -- because it could just as well be applied to the Democratic Party on any given day.

Dissecting the makeup of the Tea Partiers is hard to do, given their nascent status as an emerging political movement -- one that may well coalesce into an actual third political party, if its factions don't self-immolate and descend into fratricidal squabbling.

First, there are the screaming lunatics. These are the folks who get on television, and these are the target of ridicule and scorn from the mainstream media and the Left (here's a good example of such ridicule). These are the folks for whom someone should really invent posterboard with a built-in spell-checker. People who wave signs (even with correct spelling) saying ridiculous things like: "Government -- hands off my Medicare." Added to this mix are the haters. There are some Obama-haters in this group, some flat-out racists, and then there are outside haters who merely show up at Tea Party rallies because they know they'll get on television (the most prominent of whom are followers of Lyndon LaRouche, who actually calls himself a Democrat).

These are the most visible of the Tea Partiers, because, as I said, television loves them. But what many on the Left fail to realize is that these are not the entire movement. Sure, it's easy (and fun) to mock someone with an idiotic sign, but that ignores the non-idiotic folks standing next to them.

But while the Left loves to mock the loudmouths, the media's mockery is of a more knee-jerk quality: they mock any sort of third-party movement, on general principles.

Then there is the corporate/fake-grassroots slice of the Tea Partiers. These are the deep-pocket folks who pony up the seed money for the bus tours and rallies, and their corporate news outlets who follow along for the ride. But even these guys aren't really the core of the movement, and already there are signs of strain between the fake grassroots and the real grassroots in the movement. This may come to a head next month, during the "Tea Party Convention," since the event itself is causing a lot of mixed emotions (it may even wind up being two competing events).

This is an inherent danger to any newborn political movement -- factionalism. The Tea Party folks have not yet adequately defined what they stand for (they are much better defining what they are against, at least so far). But, if you look very closely (and strip away all of the idiocy from some of the rallies), the Tea Party movement resembles a faction of the Republican Party which has been all but forced out -- what used to be called "fiscal conservatives." Fiscal conservatives, as opposed to social conservatives, used to be quite common in the Republican Party. They usually (but not always) hailed from New England. And they really didn't care about making America a theocracy, or what folks did in their bedrooms. Add to these Northeasterners the Libertarian strain from the Mountain West, whose members also cared more about the government's bottom line than any hot-button social issue.

This may be why the Tea Party did so well in the poll I cited earlier. In "favorable/unfavorable" terms, here is how each party ranked: Republicans -- 28 percent favorable / 43 percent unfavorable; Democrats -- 35 / 45; Tea Party -- 41 / 24. That should make it clear why the Tea Partiers are nothing to laugh at. They rank six points above Democrats, and thirteen points above Republicans in favorability. On unfavorable numbers, they rank roughly half of the disapproval of the two major parties.

What this means, in blunt terms, is that there are a lot of people out there who have never attended an actual Tea Party rally, but are still sympathetic to the movement's goals. More sympathetic than they are to either major party.

Robert Reich recently wrote a piece that comes a lot closer to taking things more seriously than anything else I've read. He identifies not only the Tea Party movement, but also the Progressives angry at the performance of the Democrats, and lumps them together as the "I'm-Mad-As-Hell" Party.

Now, as I said, the Tea Party is a very recent phenomenon, meaning it is almost impossible to make sweeping statements about them, their goals, and their sympathizers. But I would bet there are quite a few of what used to be called "Reagan Democrats" in the group (today, they'd be more likely called "Independents"). Whatever you call it, it's a fact that moving this demographic can win national elections.

The danger for the Tea Party movement itself, even without their factionalist problems, is going to become clear during their convention. Because, at heart, it's basically a one-issue movement right now. But that doesn't mean other groups aren't eyeing it for possible hijacking. It will be interesting to see, for instance, whether the Tea Party takes any sort of stand on issues like abortion, gay rights, or gun rights. If they're smart, they won't, because they'll have a wider appeal by refusing to take positions on all the favorite Republican social issues. A little-commented-on fact from Massachusetts was that the winner of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat is actually a pro-choice Republican, for instance.

This is another truth that not many have seen yet: many of the Tea Partiers are as disgusted with the Republicans as they are with the Democrats. The Republican Party itself -- the national apparatus, and the politicians currently in office -- are quaking in fear at the power the Tea Party represents. They will be kowtowing to them all year long, in an effort to co-opt the entire movement, and absorb them into the Republican Party itself. But the Tea Partiers are actually countering this with their own low-level movement to take over all the Republican precinct spots -- meaning who co-opts who (and who winds up being absorbed by the other) is still a very open question.

This is where the Democrats should sense an opportunity. Not to co-opt the movement itself (which would likely be next-to-impossible), or to co-opt the loudest and angriest of the people in the movement (who are pretty clearly anti-Obama, on general principle). But rather to co-opt the core issues that sympathizers of the movement do care about.

President Obama is about to attempt something very like this. Because the Tea Party movement has more than a hint of Populism about it. And, traditionally, Populism has been against Big Business and Wall Street more than they've been against Big Government. To be fair, Populism has also been anti-immigrant as well, but until that issue is raised by Congress it will likely remain dormant in the Tea Partiers' priority list.

This is the opportunity, and this is why it could be a very beneficial thing for Obama and Democrats -- if the Democrats start tilting at the windmill of Wall Street, the Republicans are going to show their true colors as defenders of unfettered capitalism. Which, I'm guessing, would not go down all that well with the Tea Party's members.

Republicans will counter with "abolish all taxes forever" (or some flavor of this theme), and try to turn the anger towards Big Government and away from Big Business. But the real issue this time around is going to be jobs, and not taxes. That's my guess, anyway. And Big Banking is seen by many as the real culprit, meaning Republicans are going to be defending the banks if Democrats truly do try to pass some Populist legislation. Putting them at odds with the Tea Partiers' objectives.

Now, I'm not suggesting that all (or even a major part) of the Tea Party folks are going to vote Democratic this fall. I think the mood of the country right now is a lot closer to "anti-incumbent" than anything else, meaning there are a lot of folks in both parties who may be surprised by how deep this feeling goes come election day. I think the most accurate portrayal of what American voters are feeling right now is "throw the bums out!"

Democrats, though, do have an advantage -- they're supposed to be the party of "the little guy." If Democrats return to these roots (and quickly) and start fighting some battles for Main Street, it will pit such stances against a solid wall of Republican obstructionism. Which would clarify, to many, the differences between the two major parties. Anyone who thinks these differences don't need clarifying should read this truly sobering letter from an unnamed Democratic Senate staffer, which ends on a seriously dismal note:

I simply can't answer the fundamental question: "what do Democrats stand for?" Voters don't know, and we can't make the case, so they're reacting exactly as you'd expect (just as they did in 1994, 2000, and 2004). We either find the voice to answer that question and exercise the strongest majority and voter mandate we've had since Watergate, or we suffer a bloodbath in November. History shows we're likely to choose the latter.

It may wind up being a futile effort to try and coax some Tea Party sympathizers to vote Democratic this fall, but it would go a long way towards rededicating the Democratic Party to what they should have been doing all along: fighting for the little guy. Even with this, though, the anti-incumbent anger may win the day. On the other side of the aisle, the Republicans may successfully co-opt the whole Tea Party, or the Tea Party may successfully take over the whole Republican Party. We're still a long way from election day, meaning nothing is set in stone yet.

But one thing is for certain. Even the possibility of the Tea Partiers taking over a major American political party should show that they are stronger and more numerous than a lot of folks inside the Beltway now realize. So you'll forgive me if I don't join in the jokes and the ridicule directed towards the Tea Partiers by some. I will not be looking for ways to poke fun at them during their convention in a few weeks -- instead, I will be very interested to see what sort of "platform" they agree upon (if they do, that is).

It may be a lonely position to stake out now, but I'm willing to bet that in the very near future a lot of other folks will be taking the Tea Party movement a lot more seriously than they now do.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


-- Chris Weigant


3 Comments on “Taking Tea Partiers Seriously”

  1. [1] 
    Kevin wrote:

    A thought provoking column. I'm relieved by the lack of comments so far that none of your loyal readership appear to be closet tea-baggers. (Not that I'm really surprised...your logical reasoning would be toxic to their synapses).
    I know I shouldn't tweak them, but I can't help myself...up here in the boonies I only hear and read about their most extreme behavior.


  2. [2] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I have always found the two-party system very limiting because they have to be very big umbrellas. I would like to see more new parties because I think it would allow for greater variety and expression of ideas. The current system makes it very difficult for new parties to run candidates at the state or national level so it makes sense for groups like the Tea Party to start at the local level. That is why I am surprised that they are having a national convention and not surprised that the different local groups are not getting along.


  3. [3] 
    nutcase wrote:


    Be careful what you wish for.

    The closer people actually are ideologically, the more animus they tend to show in their differences. Most Baptists find far less to get upset about with Catholics than Foot-washing Baptists do with Snake-handling Baptists. When the orientation is ideological, you get more splintering.

    I recall one time reading that the Italians had 37 parties. They had also had 40 governments in 41 years. Their post office would periodically bulldoze all of the undelivered mail into piles and incinerate them. That doesn't represent the desired level of efficiency and stability.

    Ted Kennedy shared the stage with George Wallace. While they were both Democrats, no one ever accused them of being ideological bedmates. The same was once true of Republicans, such as Barry Goldwater and Jacob Javits. All they had to agree to was to support each other for election.

    The Republican insistence on ideological purity has engendered the Tea Baggers and even less savory types (see Alaskan Independence Party and others). Now the Tea Baggers are splitting into multiple shards. Even the Democrats are becoming more distinctively Blue Dogs and other breeds.

    Umbrella parties have other positive aspects but the primary one is that they tend to lend a modicum of political and social stability.

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