The Tea Party and its activists like to hitch their wagon to the States' revolutionary star. And, like those starry-eyed colonists, this quixotic bunch is looking to shuck off the yokes of an oppressive government and steer the nation toward the ever-elusive "good society." Now, as their national convention kicks off, backstage negotiations are paving the way for new "compacts" they think will help achieve their goals. Those edicts will either solidify the movement or suffocate it into oblivion.
There's a nagging lack of ideology within the tea party movement, and tensions are growing into splinters, which are on the verge of becoming chasms. Liz Lauber, a Missouri native who once worked for that reluctant Tea Party hero, Dick Armey, put the broader movement's mission best when she explained her own congressional candidacy: "If you hold principles in front of you, you can get a lot of good things done. That's the arch of politics." Other hopefuls, like Floridian Eric Forcade, a deputy sheriff, echoes Lauber's remarks, saying that he's "a common man fighting for common sense." Such a campaign slogan taps into the larger meme pumping through the movement. The trouble with common sense, however, is that they don't always make sense. Nor are they always common, for it's growing increasingly clear that not all tea parties, nor their allies, share the same perspective - or, for that matter, principles.
This weekend's big tea party convention provides the most glaring example of the movement's woes. The gathering was meant to cement the Tea Party movement's place as a heavy hitter in the political arena. That dream, however, may have come to an end now that organizers Judson and Sherry Phillips have been accused of profiteering. Citing potential ethics investigations, Michele Bachman and Marsha Blackburn, both of whom were meant to speak, have pulled out, leaving the movement reeling.
While we pundits and gawkers stand in fascinated - perhaps Schadenfreude-fueled - awe, tea party allies don't seem too shocked. "Given the popularity of the Tea Party/912 movement, it does not surprise me that some would try to exploit the movement and profit from it," insisted Phil Troyer, a congressional candidate from Indiana. He doesn't call himself a tea partier, but has aligned himself with them and their beliefs.
Troyer went on to blame a few bad apples for the scandal before noting, "I believe there will always be people who try to figure out a way to profit from a popular enterprise - no matter what it is." Quite right. But it's such economic expressions that are helping fuel the tea party movement.
The Teabaggers are tapping into a brand of populism that, however historically familiar, has been tinged by the raw capitalism that fueled the nation's growth. "The Free Market shall rise again" might as well be a collective Teabagger slogan, because so many of the movements adherents remain convinced that everyone in power, even Republicans, is out to turn the US into the next USSR. "[The Republicans] don't seem to understand that the Tea Party movement is quite aware that moderate Republicans are just as bad as liberal Democrats," explained Forcade. "This results in a choice of either heading towards socialism slowly with the Republican or quickly with the Democrat." Still, the shared experience of opposition to Democratic rule and ideologue Republicans hasn't brought the movement any closer together. It's tearing them apart.
Obviously aware that the movement - and their dreams - are on the verge of an inescapable abyss, a number of tea party candidates and their allies are releasing their own version of a litmus test, which they may very well view as a 21st century Declaration of Independence. The rhetorical British aren't simply coming; they're here, and they're wearing both blue and red coats.
Questionnaires and surveys are nothing new to the American political system. Most politically active social groups, like the LGBT group Human Rights Campaign, send surveys to candidates as a way to judge their stance on controversial issues. The tea party movement has dozens of self-reflective dictates. They help set things straight, so to speak. But the Tea Party movement absolutely overflows with subjective rules and regulations. Forcade, for example, provides his own contract of promises on his website. The Tea Party Patriots, meanwhile, are penning their own document, which, they say, will be a compilation of ideas submitted by regular Joes, perhaps with a six-pack or two thrown in for good measure. But Lauber and Troyer, both of whom have labeled themselves Republican but strongly align themselves with the Tea Party movement, are going one step further and have penned a 10-point game plan called the "Compact with the American People." This moniker reminds one of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," which drove 1994's Republican Revolution.
There's no doubt that Gingrich's plan motivated this and other compacts. In fact, Troyer cites that very document when describing the Teabaggers' frustration. They feel "alienated," he says, because certain elected officials "failed to uphold the principles in the Contract with America." The result has been "a renewed effort to force candidates to make firm commitments and hold them accountable." While Troyer seems inclined to grant Gingrich at least some tacit credit, Lauber looks to her former boss, Dick Armey, who says he has received and is in the process of reviewing the compact.
Lauber scoffed at the idea that the Compact is a litmus test. "We stand by our 2010 Compact as the opportunity of a lifetime for candidates, and for America, but it's not a 'test.' Enacting it will be the test." Rather, the compact represents an "opportunity" for non-incumbent candidates from all parties to "honor the Tea Party movement's goals by standing as a credible alternative to politics as usual in Washington." And, yes, there are some credible suggestions, like increasing government transparency and creating term limits, which isn't a terrible idea. Other points, however, tap straight into the tea party's seditious nature, like stipulation seven: "Ban Socialism: prohibit the federal government from owning stock in private companies and require audit of the Federal Reserve." Yes, yes, this is all familiar tea party posturing, but it may also take the movement in a disastrous direction.
Troyer, Lauber and their allies want to create a big tent to accommodate the thousands of Republicans, Democrats and Independents who are frustrated with politics as usual. Similar documents, like Gingrich's aforementioned Contract, have proved successful. The extreme right-wing histrionics of this movement, however, risk relegating its candidates even further into the margins. Such stipulations could strangle candidates into rigid positions, positions not many seem inclined to break.
Chris Riggs, a Congressional candidate from California, promised me that if he makes it to Washington, he will not move one inch toward compromise: "If I were willing to compromise my values, then I wouldn't be any different from the man I am challenging, and voting for me would lose its appeal." Socialism failed in practice precisely for this reason.
Politicians from Mozambique to Germany hoped to create a "good society" by enacting more and more outlandish prerequisites for loyalty. Those who didn't fall in line were cut from the roster, or worse. I sincerely doubt that the Teabaggers would ever cross over into violence. In fact, almost everyone I spoke with about this article was more than friendly. But the idea of a Tea Party-drafted compact severely limits the movement's survival, because candidates would be forced to sign on to a document that not only doesn't' represent all Americans, but puts them into a prohibitive, ideological cage. These candidates and others, however, may not mind all that much, for not that any seem to expect the TP to live long and prosper.
None of the candidates I spoke to would say that the TP is just a trend. They did, however, accept the possibility it could all fizzle out. I asked Riggs whether he thought the movement had longevity, to which he replied, quite defensively, "It may. It may not. So what either way? If I had a crystal ball and could say for sure that it won't have longevity, then does that mean I should distance myself from it?" Forcade remained realistic, replying, simply, "You never really know." Lauber, meanwhile, took a more a more measured approach, telling me, "We will be a trend if the establishment Republicans in Washington abandons its quest for power and returns to its principles." Troyer echoed his ally, Lauber, insisting, "[Our longevity] depends upon how the Republican Party reacts to the movement." He then elaborated, "If it ignores the call to return to conservative principles and merely attempt to co-opt the movement into supporting its candidates, I believe the movement will remain separate from, and distrustful of, the GOP."
These responses don't convey an overwhelming amount of belief in the movement, but, still, despite all the absurdity and at times repulsive messages that come out of the Tea Party and its allies' camp, it's inspiring to know that American people haven't become pop-culture zombies who long only for the next "American Idol" results. Sadly, though, these people are shooting themselves in the foot by creating a "big tent" that is, in fact, a constriction. Whether their mission inspires adoration or revulsion remains, like common sense, a matter of opinion.