Parallel or Together?

I have to say I’m deeply ambivalent about the tendency I’m seeing a lot these days on liberal blogs to call out “tea partiers” for not taking a libertarian stance on Social Issue X despite claiming to want “limited government.” I get that, given the MSM’s fascination with the “tea party movement” (and the conservative mainstream’s fellation of it), it’s necessary to point out that the data we have doesn’t fit the narrative of “high-minded patriots” as well as it fits the narrative of “scared old bigots.” But I worry that even by ceding the notion that there could be a unified “Tea Party platform,” we’re giving in — not to the tea partiers themselves, but to the Republican Party and conservative establishment that’s working so hard to co-opt them.

As Jamelle and others pointed out last week, conservatives are already rewriting the origin myth of the tea parties to suit their purposes. But remember how it really went down last February: Rick Santelli threw a temper tantrum on a Chicago trading floor about bailing out the auto industry, a bunch of traders behind him on camera got excited, and a mix of grassroots and “Astroturf” groups started planning the first round of tea parties. In the first stage of its existence, from February until Doug Hoffman’s ascendance in NY-23 in early fall, the “Tea Party Movement” was primarily about the tea parties themselves — the protests. It was about people who felt the country was “being taken away” from them getting together, making signs and being outraged about it: the same sort of expressive community you’d find at a rock concert or in a support group. The fact that they shared the “Tea Party” branding (thanks to the centralizing power of media) hardly means that everyone getting together had well-thought-out theories about the purpose of government, or wanted to get together to elect a candidate.

I really don’t mean to romanticize the tea parties of a year ago any more than the ones of today, and I’d wager that quite a bit of that original “shared outrage” was about racial anxiety than about betrayal of free-market principles. But it’s interesting that protest movements — or movements disconnected from electoral politics at all — are so rare these days that they can’t be recognized as being more about shared activity than about mobilizing for November.

The people who have the most to gain from trying to turn various tea parties into a Tea Party Movement, ascribe an ideology to it, and extol its voting power are establishment Republicans and conservatives trying to persuade the media that they share that ideology and will harness that voting power. There have been some bumps in the road — the Mount Vernon Statement seemed to sink without a trace, and the National Tea Party Convention was met with a lot of criticism for being “scammy” — but I think they may be winning the war. It’s hard for me to imagine someone going to a Tea Party rally now without seeing it as an ideological activity, and probably one tied to a particular conservative candidate or cause.

But to say that it started this way is to collaborate, however indirectly, in conservative retconning — the myth that Marco Rubio burst full-fledged on a horse from the head of Sarah Palin like Athena from Zeus. It may be fun to ask what “they” believe and why “they” aren’t more consistent about it, but I think it might be more helpful to take a cue from the ideology that Beltway conservatives say tea partiers hold, and keep an “originalist” definition of “tea partier”: someone who goes to “tea party” protests, without an invitation or honorarium. Everyone else is trying to co-opt the momentum and should be called out for the opportunists they are. Because, heck, if people want to be outraged and bilious and racist without any particularly high-minded reason, who are we to deprive them of that?

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Dara Lind

Dara Lind