Who’s Serving the Tea?

The Tea Party hit institutional politics early, and now activists have to grapple with the realities of politics indoors.

This is, of course, a common story for social movements in America.  Activists mobilize for broad, often-ill-defined, goals, and then have to deal with allies working with real policies, numbers, and political constraints.  It’s particularly difficult for the Tea Party, which became a catch-all label that included virtually all opposition to President Obama’s administration, based around a tenuous coalition between populist conservatives at the grassroots and big business interests.

Of course, mainstream media is filled with stories about how Tea Partiers assess their current situation.

The New York Times‘s Kate Zernike interviewed notable Tea Party leaders, and found them disappointed by the lame duck session.   Mark Meckler, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, a grassroots-oriented clearinghouse, was angry at Republicans as well as Democrats for legislating, rather than going home and letting the new Congress work:

We sent them a message that we expect them to go home and come back newly constituted and do something different.  For them to legislate when they’ve collectively lost their mandate just shows the arrogance of the ruling elite. I can’t imagine being repudiated in the way they were and then coming back and saying “Now that we’ve been repudiated, let’s go pass some legislation.”  I’m surprised by how blatant it was.

The Tea Party Patriots announce their priorities for the new Congress:

defund Obamacare

cut spending

tax reform

entitlement reform

devolve power to state & local governments

greater transparency & accountability

Whether Meckler and other TP Patriots can mobilize the grassroots again on these issues remains an open question.  All of these issues sound more attractive in general terms than they end up playing out in grassroots politics.  Entitlement reform, for example, means cutting Social Security and Medicare, which doesn’t poll nearly as well.  Devolving authority to local governments?  It’s exactly what new California governor Jerry Brown is promising to get the state government off the hook in funding public schools.

Perhaps more significantly, the Tea Party Patriots presents as a collection of more than 2,500 local groups.  Before the election, the Washington Post found that fewer than 1/3 were actually in existence in any way.

Zernike also interview Judson Phillips, leader of a group with far less visible support at the grassroots, Tea Party Nation.  Phillips responded that the Senate’s ratification of the new START Treaty, an agreement that reduced US and Russian strategic nuclear arms, showed that “the GOP had caved.”  This is not an issue with traction at the grassroots.

The Washington Post published a fascinating profile on Gena Bell, a new Cincinnati-area tea party activist who has taken a job as the chief of staff for a member of the Hamilton County (Ohio) Board of Commissioners.  (Thanks to Amy Hubbard for the reference.)

Bell’s commitment and organizational skills had led to her being recruited by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative group funded by the Koch Brothers.  Treated to a conference at a resort in Cancun, Bell was frustrated that AFP wanted to channel her efforts–or at least her image–to fight against regulation to prevent climate change.   Obviously, this is a salient issue for the Koch brothers, whose business interests include oil refineries, but Bell herself believes in clean energy and environmental efficiency.

So Gena Bell has taken the passion of the Tea Party to try to make government work effectively and efficiently–at the grassroots, and, as Amy Gardner reports, to put her ideas to the test.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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