Can the IRS resurrect the Tea Party?

By allowing mid-level bureaucrats to dump on local Tea Party groups, the Internal Revenue Series provided the movement a chance to regroup and re-emerge on the public stage.

Particularly at the grassroots, the Tea Party has mostly severely diminished, divided, and dissolute.  National groups disagree on major candidates, tactics, and issues–like immigration, social values, and foreign policy.  Public support has collapsed in the process, and the Tea Party is less popular than ever.   Tea Partiers remain active in the Washington Beltway, and some visible Republicans claim it as an identity, but they don’t always get along with each other or defining just what the Tea Party means.  Meanwhile, local activists have, uh, moved on…

Ah, but TAXES.  No dispute within the TP on that one.  But the Tax Day rallies staged this year were a shadow of the Tea Party’s heyday.

But then….

The initial revelation of the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups made for new energy and a restored unity.  Local groups staged protests this week outside IRS offices in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and across the United States.  The larger rallies generated crowds in the dozens, save for Cincinnati (the site of the key IRS office in the targeting), where activists turned out 250 Tea Partiers.

This may turn out to be a blip, and a little one at that, or it may be the provocation that allows the movement to reunite and reemerge from the church basements, community centers, and kitchen tables where it’s been sequestered.  Focusing on the IRS is the best bet for the movement–and for the national Republican Party–to rekindle the outrage and energy that animated the huge electoral gains in 2010.  For this reason, we expect Congressional Republicans to hold repeated hearings on the IRS–in between sessions of voting to repeal health care reform–again and again.

There’s a bigger movement lesson here: Social movements filled with relatively advantaged people–like peace activists, environmentalists, and Tea Partiers–respond to trouble, provocation, and bad news.  Common outrages paper over differences and give citizens a reason to be more engaged, active, and cooperative with others they don’t necessarily agree with on much of anything else.

Unfavorable policy provides the fertilizer for the grassroots, the grain of sand that produces the pearl, the pebble that makes someone take off his shoe and curse….

Folk Uke (Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson) provides additional insight on the general principle:

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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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