The following is part of a series of articles on activism in the United States . For more, read The New Face of Activism and Lessons from the Godfather .
Judy Pepenella, codirector of New York’s Tea Party Patriots, insists that she has just blown my mind. “It’s ‘We the People,’ ” she repeats. “That’s the Tea Party—those three silly words: We. The. People.” She says it’s impossible to explain to an outsider, even a sympathetic one. “It doesn’t make any sense, but it makes all the sense in the world. In Massachusetts the people put out the call, and we helped Scott Brown. And no one can figure us out.”
Pepenella might not be able to define the Tea Party appeal, but she has the ingredients right. It is loud, self-regarding, incoherent, and endowed with a bottomless confidence that it speaks for real Americans. It sounds just like Republicans did circa 1994.
The year-old movement is credited with reviving right-wing populism, damaging health care reform, and electing Brown to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. Opinion polls reveal that Americans have a more favorable view of it than they do of the Republican Party. The Wall Street Journal compares it to the Whiskey Rebellion, heralding it as the fruition of Ross Perot–style populism, a great third force in American politics.
But in reality, the Tea Party is not Pepenella’s mysterious vehicle of democratic will, nor does it signal the emergence of an alternative to Republicans and Democrats. It’s a leaderless coalition of conservative activists who for all their revolutionary vim look less likely to take over the Grand Old Party than to be taken over by it.
At a recent Tea Party confab in Nashville, Tennessee, Sarah Palin suggested that the GOP would be “smart to start trying to absorb” the Tea Party movement. But it doesn’t have to absorb anything. The two are already inseparable. Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele, who recently used teacups as a prop during a speech, says, “If I wasn’t doing this job, I’d be out there with the Tea Partiers.” Eating rubber chicken and collecting a pretty good paycheck, no doubt.
The partiers provide a wellspring of fund-raising and volunteers, as they did for Scott Brown and currently are doing for Republican candidates across the country. During the health care debate, they supplied GOP shock troops for town hall meetings. At its sharpest edge, the Tea Party phenomenon represents the angry conservative base, punishing incumbent Republicans for any number of infractions: bailouts, support for amnesty, softness on terrorism, or, in the case of Charlie Crist, hugging President Barack Obama. But even the most militant rebels aren’t upending the establishment. They’re still playing safely within the confines of Republican orthodoxy.
The madness began on February 19, 2009, as a bizarre suggestion by CNBC’s Rick Santelli. In a disjointed and explosive rant, Santelli asked why we should “subsidize the losers’ mortgages.” The former Drexel Burnham Lambert exec thought Washington was going too far in trying to help homeowners. After shouting that Americans hadn’t made an attractive car since 1954, Santelli screamed, “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up at Lake Michigan, I’m going to start organizing.”
Santelli’s yawp came precisely, perhaps suspiciously, at the same time that Beltway institutions were encouraging their activists to start protesting. Brendan Steinhauser, who directs federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, a libertarian-leaning D.C. operation, recalls that in the week leading up to Santelli’s rant, the nonprofit had been bombarded with calls from conservative activists awaiting orders. “They had already jammed the phone lines on Capitol Hill,” he says, “so we sent out a newsletter, signed by [former Texas congressman] Dick Armey, telling them to go out into the streets.”
FreedomWorks had the resources to break the Tea Parties big; the group commands a budget in the $8 million range and claims 902,000 members. As the outcry rose, Steinhauser made himself a kind of switchboard operator, connecting activists to one another and arranging lessons in how to get permits. “It’s very Saul Alinsky,” he says of FreedomWorks’ role.
Within 10 days of Santelli’s rant, Tea Party protests were put on in 40 cities and began to gain national notice. But as the movement transitioned from Facebook to Fox News, its character began to change. “One of the signs I saw at the first D.C. rally read simply, ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ ” Steinhauser recalls. “But as the movement went out to the rural areas, it took on a more traditional Republican image, more hawkish on foreign policy, more conservative on social issues.” Less Ron Paul, more Sarah Palin. Talk of abolishing the Federal Reserve gave way to partisan shouts about Obama’s socialism. The young revolution began to sound a lot like the brash talk-radio right.
The Tea Partiers moved to institutionalize themselves, which also helped to lash the movement to the GOP. Tea Party Patriots, the largest group, boasts 1,000 local organizations with 15 million “associates.” Then came Tea Party Express, which played a major role in Glenn Beck’s 9/12 demonstration in Washington. Another group, Tea Party Nation, put on the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, grabbing headlines when it nabbed Sarah Palin as speaker in return for a fat $100,000 fee.
Everyday Tea Party activists, when they consider their relationship to the GOP, either say “it’s complicated” or admit outright that their interests are, for all intents, twinned. “Everyone I know is basically Republican,” says Todd Harvey, who organized a Tax Day rally in Dutchess County, New York, and belongs to a Tea Party group in Sebring, Florida. “I went to the premiere of the Tea Party documentary, and everyone who spoke was a Republican: Jim DeMint, Marsha Blackburn, Dick Armey, and Joe Wilson.”
Harvey’s local group gets together weekly. “We talk about the Tea Party movement,” he says. “It’s a feel-good session.” Anything else? “We support Rubio,” Harvey says of the conservative challenger to Florida’s incumbent governor, Charlie Crist. Of his efforts in suburban New York, Harvey says that Tea Party activists mostly busy themselves with getting Republicans elected: “We replaced some incumbents on the town boards and got some people on the county legislature.” His experience—from anger to activism to Republican politicking—is being replicated in hundreds of Tea Party cells nationwide.
Already, the GOP is implementing strategies to enfold the Tea Party within its tent forever. The South Carolina state GOP announced in early February that it would unite with Palmetto State Tea Party groups to share resources. “This is not something the state party by edict pushed down,” state chair Karen Floyd says. “This is something the grass roots pushed up with an understanding that we are stronger together than apart.”
Despite the real idealism of some of its activists both inside and outside the Beltway, the Tea Party is nothing more than a Republican-managed tantrum. Send the conservative activists into the streets to vent their anger. Let Obama feel the brunt of it. And if the GOP shows a modicum of contrition, the runaways will come home.
The plan is working perfectly. The power of Washington seems so remote to most people that even a scripted acknowledgment of their grievances tends to pacify them. Attendees at Tea Party Nation’s national conference were treated to every kind of insult that could be hurled at John McCain and, to a lesser extent, George W. Bush. But what does it matter if malcontents holed up in a southern hotel pour their anger on has-beens who will never run again? Especially when it seems to soften them to Sarah Palin.
The Tea Party movement creates the conditions in which the activist base of the GOP can feel like it is part of the game again. They can forget Bush-era betrayals, swallow their doubts, and vote Republican this November. All it takes is for someone to appreciate the anger—and it doesn’t matter that she supported the bailouts that enraged them or the candidate who forsook their support. Just as in 1994, Republicans have only to keep up the pretense that they, and they alone, are responding to an urgent uprising across the country.
Brilliantly, Sarah the Maverick mentioned her husband’s “independence” from the GOP during her Tea Party Convention appearance, referring to the fact that Todd Palin is not a registered Republican. Her suggestion of outsider status charged her bond with the conventioneers, but the veep nominee was not introducing Tea Partiers to possibilities outside their GOP abode. She was merely validating their feeling that Republicans have to win them over. Eventually, they will give in. They always do.
Judson Phillips, who runs Tea Party Nation, told the crowd that just two words scare our nation’s liberals: President Palin. He could easily have come up with two words to scare Republicans: third party. He could have found a pair that would rock the entire establishment: Revolution now! But that’s too risqué, even when everyone is hopped up on tea.
The Tea Party movement may be a bit frisky and unpredictable, but it will always have a warm cup to serve the GOP. In Nashville, the chanting went up tentatively at first, then gained force: “Run, Sarah, run!” She graciously accepted their adoration—then left in the company of the Republican professionals who make up her entourage.
Michael Brendan Dougherty, a former associate editor of The American Conservative, is a Phillips Journalism Fellow. Excerpted from The American Conservative (April 1, 2010), a journal of “old conservative” ideas. www.amconmag.com