Is The (Tea) Party Over?

May 3, 2012

Has the Tea Party run its course? Is the Party over?

In 2009, America erupted in a passionate frenzy of grass-roots patriotic involvement in the fate of their country.  It started spontaneously, it grew spontaneously, it had profound influence spontaneously, and now, perhaps, it is fading spontaneously.  Is it a victim of its own success? Or is there some other factor leading to the slow fade?  Has it faded as opposition to it has also faded?  Or is this perceived downturn just a phase in a much longer, stronger and more influential movement?  Perhaps it’s some of all of the above.

When the Tea Party burst onto the scene on February 1, 2009, nobody realized that a great groundswell of anger and frustration, tempered by a passionate respect for the Constitution had been born.  And with that passion came almost immediate derision from, primarily, liberal commentators and comics.  “Tea Bagger” (a rather vulgar term for a particularly graphic gay-sex act) became a common put-down that was technically broadcast-acceptable – and even acceptable for mainstream liberal politicians to say in public – though all the smirking hip insiders knew what it referred to. But that was just one of many put-downs that, instead of deterring the tea party movement, seemed to add fuel to the fire of the participants’ passion for change.

On the other side, the evolution of Obamacare – which was created behind closed doors with no input from Republicans, conservatives or, as Bill O’Reilly calls them, “regular folks.”  And by the million, “regular folks” hated and feared Obamacare – it became a rallying cry and focal point for their anger, their rage and their patriotic passion.

Faced with a government that seemed both totally out of touch and hell-bent on stripping them of both political liberty and tax dollars, mostly middle-aged, mostly white, and mostly never-before-politically-active folks came together.  They did this, again, spontaneously – using “Meet up” and social networking to connect up and come together.  They (dare I say it, spontaneously) began attending and peacefully disrupting political “Town Hall”meetings, forcing politicians to actually answer tough questions and confront people who weren’t just supporters.

Many small, regional, national and Internet groups were formed, but they were all grass-roots movements, without much in the way of organizational structure and without any “official” leaders.  Not surprisingly, existing political leaders and political organizations – including the Republican Party – tried to assume or co-opt the leadership of the Tea Party movement.

Perhaps the closest to such a group was the Tea Party Express – created by a California PAC that was, in turn, created and controlled by a conservative Sacramento ad agency – it caught the attention of Fox News, many prominent conservative politicians and even entertainers – but it never proved able to insert leadership beyond, perhaps, helping the political neophyte Sharron Angle to grab the nomination from “anointed” Republican Party mainstream candidate Sue Lowden.  Sharron was a poor candidate, and lost to Harry Reid in a year when Republicans otherwise swept Nevada’s key positions, and when Tea Party-supported candidates won Congressional seats from Utah to Florida.

But there was never any official Tea Party organization that could speak for this spontaneous, grass-roots, ground-up movement.

Nonetheless, the Tea Party exerted significant pressure on local, state and Congressional elections in 2010, and helped the Republicans retake the House and nearly retake the Senate.  Pundits predicted that it would remain powerful and significant in 2012 and beyond – that it would be “institutionalized” and made permanent, even as it remained leader-less and spontaneous and grass-roots – the true vox populi of a suddenly re-born political movement.

I was one of the relative few who felt that the Tea Party was an ephemeral and transitory movement.  Perhaps because I became the Communications Director of both the Clark County (Las Vegas) Republican Party AND the Nevada Republican Party as part of the grass roots Tea Party effort that took control of the party from the country club establishment.

However, I quickly (and sadly) learned that the old saw about power corrupting was true – the grass roots activists who grabbed power were either already inclined toward a personalized focus on power – or they came to love-too-much the sense of power they had, and quickly lost sight of their idealism.  It wasn’t long before I moved on – I didn’t sign on to obtain or exercise power, and when I realized my role involved helping others grab and hold personal power, I decided I’d rather be an independent once again.

Or perhaps I felt that the Tea Party was a passing movement, not a permanent sea change in American politics, because I’d seen other “movements,” from the true-believer Goldwater supporters of ’64 to the Reagan revolution of ’80, to Ross Perot in ’92 (until he melted down after his gaffe at the NAACP convention in Nashville).  I knew that all had come out of nowhere, burst on the scene, made an impact, then faded from view.  Passion that intense cannot maintain its intensity for long – it either morphs into an organization, or it fades away.  I didn’t see it morphing.

Which is why I haven’t been surprised to see the visibility and the apparent power of the Tea Party waning.  In 2012, there is no national Tea Party Express to focus attention.  There is no Glenn Beck show to provide a national cheer-leading platform to help call together true believers and activists.  There don’t even seem to be any political Town Hall Meetings to focus attention and give Tea Partiers something to do with their passion.  Where Moderate Republican Bob Bennett was stripped of his Senatorial position as Utah’s junior senator with no problem, today’s “tea party” in Utah barely forced the far more RINO/moderate Orrin Hatch into a primary run-off.

That’s just one example of what seems to be the waning power of the Tea Party.  Another is the almost total lack of ridicule or criticism from the liberal chattering class, criticism that seemed to get Tea Party members’ backs up and gets them motivated to come together, to act, to make a difference.  Persecution can be a strong motivator – but apathy among opponents can sap any movement of much of it’s passion.

I think that one reason that the Tea Party has faded is Obamacare – when it was a legislative issue, people could get involved.  But now that it’s being decided by the courts, there’s nothing to get involved with, and when the courts decide, that will be the end of it. Either it’s unconstitutional and gone from view … or it’s constitutional and the law of the land.

It’s not clear, yet, that the Tea Party has run its course. It may bounce back.  It may rediscover its focus, its passion, its purpose and its impact. Yet I find it perhaps telling that the Left’s equivalent of the Tea Party – the Occupy movement – almost completely failed to turn May Day into a national eruption of liberal passion.  Like the Tea Party, it seems to have faded as well.  There were a few exceptions, but those were relatively few … nothing akin to what their pre-May Day promises (threats?) which made it seem that cities across America would be shut down by hundreds of thousands (instead of hundreds) of Occupy protestors.

This election season may yet stir passions on the Right, or on the Left, but as is often the case in “re-election” years, passions fade and both sides have to struggle to raise money or get the vote out, let alone creating spontaneous public acting out.  If conservatives want to replace Obama and return both houses of Congress to the Right, they’re going to have to find a way of reigniting the passion of the Tea Party.

Sadly, I can only wish them “good luck,” and without much confidence.

Ned Barnett – Nevada Conservative

Ned Barnett has worked in campaigns, and as a speechwriter to candidates and elected officials, since he was the “mascot” to the local Young Republicans in 1964 (Goldwater) – he has managed media and strategy for three state-level Presidential campaigns, and worked hand-in-glove with the legendary Lee Atwater in South Carolina in the Ford Campaign.  In 2009-10, as an active Tea Party supporter, he served as both the Clark County/Las Vegas and Nevada Republican Party Communications Director.  He owns Barnett Marketing Communications in Las Vegas, and provides a full range of PR, marketing, issues-management and fund-raising services for clients in Las Vegas, around the country, and in several other countries.  He can be reached at 702-561-1167 or ned@barnettmarcom.com …


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