A little while ago, on one of the blogs I read regularly, I came across a rather interesting article. The author, a proud resident of Texas (but I repeat myself), was amused to get a robo-call from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison touting her endorsement by “National Tea Party leader Dick Armey.”
I shared Sgt. Mom’s amusement at the thought, but it stuck in the back of my mind. And I started noticing that there was a lot of talk about how the Tea Party movement was an astroturf organization, that it had been put together and was being run behind the scenes by GOP bigwigs and other moneyed interests. And Dick Armey’s name kept coming up, too.
First up, who is Dick Armey? Well, he was a high-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives for almost 20 years, peaking as Majority Leader for his last eight, leaving office in 2003. Since then he’s been a lobbyist and headed up a couple of Washington think tanks. He’s also partnered with a group calling themselves “Tea Party Patriots.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!)
But back to the Tea Party movement. I find these charges against it quite puzzling. Whenever you have a national organization backing something, it’s usually because the cause is something that would benefit from the strengths a national, centralized organizational structure offers. but I just don’t see how that fits.
Funding. The Tea Party movement is politics on the cheap. They don’t use mass-produced signs and placards. They don’t all put on distinctive T-shirts. They don’t rent out big venues and transport folks in by the hordes. They don’t have high-priced consultants and coordinators and spokespeople and support staff. Members spend their own money, create their own protest materials, and use cheap or free media to spread their messages.
For example, my old blog-buddy Rob Port of Say Anything. He’s probably fairly close to being a “leader” in the North Dakota Tea Party movement. And how did he do it? By leveraging his blog into a friendship with a talk-show host, then a part-time talk-show gig of his own. His radio station chartered a bus to one Tea Party rally — and then sold tickets. They did it as a promotion for the station and its talk shows, but it’s possible they actually turned a slight profit on that gig, and quite a few people who wouldn’t have been able to attend got there more cheaply and conveniently.
Unity Of Message. I’ve attended a Tea Party, and there was very little unity of message there. Oh, most were there for the same general theme — the government takes and spends too damned much money as it is — but there were a lot of others who wanted to spread their message, too. The Paulbots were the most noticeable, but there were those whose pet peeves were illegal immigration, resistance to ObamaCare, a general disgust with Democrats, a few pro-religious folks, and a few others. There was NO discipline imposed on keeping the message simple and uniting.
And to me, that wasn’t a bug, that was a feature. It is the sheer amateurity of the Tea Party movement that reflects its grass-roots nature. These are not slick professionals, they’re average folks who’ve had enough.
National Coordination. The Tea Party movement is doing just fine without professional assistance. Somebody somewhere comes up with an idea. (“Let’s have a bunch of protests on April 15!”) Others decide they like the idea, and they talk about it and jump on it. With the explosion of cheap mass media and social networking, the idea takes off like wildfire. They don’t need highly-trained and highly-paid professionals to work their magic with Outlook’s Calendar and Lotus Notes to find the optimal day for events, and to use their networking magic to spread the word. They don’t have to go through the mainstream media and tradtional PR outlets to get the word out. And they don’t.
No, there are exactly two groups who would stand to benefit from having Dick Armey crowned King Of The Tea Parties. The first is Dick Armey himself, and his people. Hitching their star to such a fast-growing and wildly popular movement would give him great credibility and political power — the kind of which he could parlay into a run for the presidency.
The other group that would love to see Dick as the face of the Tea Party movement are the opponents. After all, they know that one of Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals is to “Pick the Target, Freeze It, Personalize It and Polarize It.”
Right now, the Tea Party is utterly immune to that form of attack. (That’s why their opponents have invested so much in another Alinsky attack — “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counteract ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.”) You can’t personalize an attack against a group that has no single person or group as its leadership.
And that is precisely why the Tea Party should continue to politely refuse any attempts to be co-opted by political leaders. Sarah Palin attended their first convention, but it was clear that she was there at most to feel out a possible alliance — she wasn’t looking to become their leader, and they weren’t looking to crown her.
And Dick Armey should be told — politely but firmly — that if he’d like to help out the Tea Party movement, he’s more than welcome to do so. But he ain’t gonna simply step in and take the reins.
Of course, there’s no central leadership to tell Mr. Armey that. So, instead, a whole bunch of people all need to say it, until enough have said so that he gets the hint. At that point, we’ll see if he’s really interested in the Tea Party Movement’s stated principles, or he’s just looking for a leg up for his own personal benefit.
Time will tell about Mr. Armey’s intentions. Personally, I’m not inclined to put much faith in a guy who spent 18 years in Congress, then became a lobbyist. But if he’s sincere, I personally will welcome his assistance. I just doubt I’d ever vote for the guy.
As of right now, the Tea Party movement has achieved a hell of a lot more than a lot of other political movements — especially those built around a single, unifying leader. Two examples that come to mind are Ross Perot’s Reform Party and the Ron Paul nuts. And they’ve done it without a leader, without backers with very deep pockets, and without some single, transient issue to hold them together.
If they’re smart, they’ll keep it that way. And so far, the Tea Party folks have impressed me with their political savvy.