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The Fundamental (and Fatal?) Tension in the Tea Party Movement

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Check out Kate Zernike's piece in the Times today for a glimpse of how the Republican establishment is "shaping tea party passion into [a] campaign force" -- or at least, how they're trying to. The article profiles the efforts of Dick Armey's FreedomWorks to "turn local Tea Party groups into a standing get-out-the-vote operation in Congressional districts across the country," in part through a series of trainings that would be right at home in the 2008 Obama grassroots operation. But this paragraph shows what game is actually afoot:

Its candidates are libertarians and economic conservatives, but in the 2010 midterm elections, FreedomWorks is urging Tea Party groups to work for any Republican, on the theory that a compromised Republican is better than Democratic control of Congress.

So much for an independent force in American politics! Voting for a "compromised" Republican is exactly the kind of decision that should be anathema to Tea Party idealists, since it's a classically cynical political calculation. Regardless of their rhetoric and their libertarian-heavy reading list, Armey's army is essentially trying to channel the Tea Partiers' anger into a form that furthers the ambitions of the broader Right.

Is it possible? It's worked in the past, at least according to the What's the Matter with Kansas argument, since for a generation conservative activists have voted for Republicans who've instituted corporate- and wealth-friendly policies once in office while largely giving lip service to moral issues and libertarian priorities. But here's the fundamental problem: the Tea Partiers may have mobilized against Obama and his policies (and in part be motivated by fear of him and the demographic changes he represents), but they're also opposed to big chunks of the Republican establishment.

E.J. Dionne has repeatedly pointed out that the Tea Parties are a phenomenon largely confined to conservative Republicans, many of whom grew disgusted with the Bush administration over the expansion of Medicare benefits and the general growth of government. As he put it in a column in today's Post, "Republicans are in the midst of an insurrection. Democrats are not." And it's hard to think of a more establishment figure than Dick Armey, a former House leader now in charge of an organization that's been pushing the economic conservative message for over 25 years, a point Jon Stewart hit repeatedly when Armey recently appeared on his show.

The Tea Party movement has already proven to be a mixed blessing for the Republican establishment, helping to elect Scott Brown in Massachusetts but also knocking off insufficiently pure party favorites in Utah, Florida and (probably) Alaska. As shown by the Times's description of local Tea Party resistance to FreedomWorks' advice to adopt more-traditional political practices, the movement's energy is potentially valuable but also inherently difficult to channel. Worse, channeling it may actually dilute it to the point that it's no longer a power at all.

The tension inherent in the Tea Parties is that politics requires compromise, but that every compromise is a step down the road to being "just another politician" -- something that Tea Partiers would seem to reject out of hand. In fact, too much compromise would betray the very beliefs that motivate activists to show up and vote, meaning that many would drift way over time, disillusioned yet again. Compromise also robs the movement of what its members see as the moral high ground -- absent principle, the Tea Parties would be left with little more than an incoherent sense of rage that a somewhat-liberal, half-black Democrat became president and intends to govern as he ran, mighty thin soup to sell to anyone outside of their ideological bubble.

Which brings us back to Dick Armey, who's set himself the goal of riding the proverbial tiger without getting eaten. For this political movement, though, political accommodation would likely yield turned-off activists and (ultimately) political death. The real danger for the Tea Parties is that Armey and the Republican party might ride their tiger to short-term victory in 2010 but tame it in the process, something that I suspect is very much on establishment minds. But a neutered Tea Party would be a party -- and a movement -- no more.

Originally published on Epolitics.com

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