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Eric Sapp

Eric Sapp

Posted: July 6, 2010 07:04 PM

Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese tactician said, "Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster. But if you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat." For Democrats and progressives trying to make sense of the electoral map and early outcomes of this past year, those words explain a lot.

As a movement and a Party we have come a long way since the Kerry years when Democrats stood for a laundry list of policies but could not articulate a core set of principles and values that defined us. We have become better at articulating our values and speaking not just to voters' heads but to their hearts (where most actually make political decisions). And we'd done a pretty good job of understanding Republicans and their voters during the Bush years--effectively peeling off independent voters and even some more conservative ones in our return to power.

But then came the Tea Party. And we find ourselves facing a new foe who's harder to understand. Some things are clear. Tea Party members ID as "conservative," most are registered Republicans (Gallup just announced that 80% self-ID as Republicans), and they are raring to vote. Couple those features with the nastiness and internally incoherent arguments coming from that movement, and many Democrats have simply decide these folks must all be racist, conservative, backward crazies.

But once we dismiss them, we stop trying to truly understand them... and in so doing we have failed to recognize their weakness and have helped strengthen and unify a movement that should be tearing itself apart...because identifying a political opponent is very different from understanding that opponent.

The Eleison Group has been at the fore of outreach and engagement of faith, veteran, and other independent and conservative voters in this country. And so we spend a lot of time in the communities from which the Tea Party is drawing its support. What we are seeing is that the Tea Party is not a rebranded version of the socially and politically conservative right wing of the Republican Party we are used to. It is something different, and it is DEEPLY divided.

Republicans and the media tend to focus on polls that show that 18% - 28% of the country identifies with the Tea Party movement or on the things that unify the movement like being "conservative." But here are some facts our side doesn't understand. Polling has also showed that the majority of Tea Party activists do not think government should support any set of moral values or define marriage. And a sizable majority of Tea Party activists are pro-choice. Think about that. Most Tea Party members hold positions that, in our completely un-nuanced political speak, make them "pro-gay and pro-choice."

How can they hold those positions and be "conservative?" The reason is simple: the Tea Party is largely made up of libertarians who are very different from the big business or Christian right groups that have dominated "conservative" politics for the last few decades. Libertarians don't want government intruding into their lives with programs or enforcing a moral code.

But where things get interesting is that the Tea Party also includes another group: the Palinesque Christian conservatives. Needless to say, they disagree completely on the gay and abortion issues with their libertarian brethren. But flip things again and where the libertarians are staunchly anti-immigrant, conservative evangelical leaders like the spokesman for the Southern Baptists and head of Liberty University have been outspoken proponents for immigration reform, and have spoken out in strong support for government regulation on the environment.

Perhaps most telling, another poll of activists sought to ID the ideological leaders of the Tea Party by asking who best exemplifies the goals of the Tea Party movement. Support broke down into two clear ideological camps between Palin and Ron Paul. But the divide became even more apparent when activists were asked who they would and would not support for President in 2012. It became clear that the difference is not one of preference but of strongly opposing views. 53% of Tea Party activists said they would not support Palin, and 59% said they would not support Paul if either was the Republican nominee.

Think about the implications...and then think about how poorly our side is developing messaging aimed at these folks that highlights the differences between the factions. Like the initial response to the Republican attempt to co-opt religious voters during the Bush years, we are simply accepting the Republican and conservative talk show narrative that all factions of the Tea Party movement have shared interests and values and then reinforcing it with our actions. We're keeping the Tea Party united by attacking them as one and failing to highlight these divisions which should be tearing them apart.

We need to be educating the public (and especially Tea Party members) about these differences. We should be proposing legislation and campaigning on policies that force their leaders to take positions on these internally divisive issues and bring them into starker relief. And we need to start bypassing gatekeepers and communicating to foot soldiers in one wing of the Tea Party what the leaders (and members) of the other actually believe. Eleison has proven this tactic works through campaigns to our list of 25 million evangelical voters around the country in this and past cycles, but there are a number of effective ways to directly educate Tea Party members. However we do it, we need to start.

Since the early Reagan years Republicans have managed to hold together an unholy alliance between big business, libertarians, and moderate/conservative faith voters. It's time we did a better job of knowing our enemy to help ensure the upcoming political battles of '10 don't end in disaster.