Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Taking Tea Parties Seriously


Today is tax day. Around the country various groups, organizing using new social technology tools, and supported by Fox News and elements of the Republican Party are organizing tea parties to protest government spending and taxation. Glenn Reynolds, writing in the Wall Street Journal, downplays the support of Fox and Republican operatives and plays up the self-motivated, self-organizing, populist character of the protests. Much of the left blogosphere has been working to discredit the tea parties in advance, arguing that their goals are incoherent, that they are Astroturf rather than truly grass roots, and a publicity stunt by Fox News in order to draw higher ratings. Whether or not any of this is true, or even partially true, take Reynolds's description of the movement seriously for a moment.

So who's behind the Tax Day tea parties? Ordinary folks who are using the power of the Internet to organize. For a number of years, techno-geeks have been organizing "flash crowds" -- groups of people, coordinated by text or cellphone, who converge on a particular location and then do something silly, like the pillow fights that popped up in 50 cities earlier this month. This is part of a general phenomenon dubbed "Smart Mobs" by Howard Rheingold, author of a book by the same title, in which modern communications and social-networking technologies allow quick coordination among large numbers of people who don't know each other.

In the old days, organizing large groups of people required, well, an organization: a political party, a labor union, a church or some other sort of structure. Now people can coordinate themselves.

. . . .

What's most striking about the tea-party movement is that most of the organizers haven't ever organized, or even participated, in a protest rally before. General disgust has drawn a lot of people off the sidelines and into the political arena, and they are already planning for political action after today.

Cincinnati organizer Mike Wilson, a novice organizer who drew 5,000 people to a rally on March 15, is now planning to create a political action committee and a permanent political organization to press for lower taxes and reduced spending. Tucson tea party organizer Robert Mayer told me that his organization will focus on city council elections in the fall as its next priority. And there's lots of Internet chatter about ways of taking things further after today's protests.

This influx of new energy and new talent is likely to inject new life into small-government politics around the nation. The mainstream Republican Party still seems limp and disorganized. This grassroots effort may revitalize it. Or the tea-party movement may lead to a new third party that may replace the GOP, just as the GOP replaced the fractured and hapless Whigs.

What can we learn from the tea party movement?

First, the tea party movement is using new technology to organize, gather supporters, and advance its public prominence relatively quickly. The movement, whatever you may make of it, has taken only a few months to move from its origins from a general sense of crankiness, fear and malaise into the possible beginnings of something much larger. The size of the movement is still unclear. We don't know how many people will actually show up at the tea party protests. It may be a lot or a little. No doubt there will be considerable controversy on the size and success of the protests in the days to come.

Second, one of the lessons of the Dean campaign is that getting people motivated or even organized in the short run, does not necessarily lend itself to sustained, long term support. Support is costly, and long term support is very costly. What the tea parties might do is convince enough people that enough other people think it is worth sacrificing time and effort, a condition of mutual awareness that is a key ingredient in successful mobilizations. Here coverage by Fox News may prove very helpful indeed. So even if one thinks, as Reynolds does, that the tea party movement is largely divorced from the establishment conservative movement and conservative media (a very big assumption), Fox's coverage may be quite important to the eventual success of the movement.

Third, it follows from the second point that the tea parties by themselves won't be enough to create a sustained viable political movement. To create such a movement there has to be follow through that causes people to devote more and more of their time to the promotion of the movement and its goals (whatever those goals might be). The Obama campaign improved on the Dean campaign in part because of the nature of its message, in part because of the nature of its the candidate, and in part because the campaign was savvy enough to understand how to get people to contribute just enough so that they felt that they were part of something larger so that a share of them would contribute something more, not merely in monetary terms, but in terms of time and effort and personal sacrifice.

Whether the tea parties turn into anything longer lasting can't be determined just yet. It depends on features of the organization and its leadership that we don't know much about. A central viable leadership or a set of leaders who symbolize the movement may emerge, and may be sufficiently charismatic to drive the movement forward. Without such leadership, however, the movement may not proceed to the next step.

Fourth, successful mobilizations require their adherents to believe that they are working for something that is inherently good and valuable, so that it is worth spending time and effort supporting it and promoting it to the general public. What the good thing is doesn't have to be entirely clear, and members may disagree among themselves as to what it is. In the long run, the aims of the movement and its goals will have to be made clearer if not more coherent, but this is not required in the initial stages. (Remember that for a very long time during the primaries, Obama's message was summed up in the single word "change." Opponents argued that this was meaningless and incoherent. It turned out that it didn't matter.)

Therefore, multiple criticisms from the left wing blogosphere about the incoherence and banality of the message of the Tea Party protests may be accurate but are largely beside the point. The message of the movement now is not entirely clear, and it may not make much sense to outsiders. It is loosely organized around the themes of opposition to TARP and the stimulus bill, the fear that the stimulus and the plans of the Obama Administration will lead to ever higher taxes, and the fear of creeping "socialism." It also includes notions that the Republican Party failed the country because President Bush promoted out of control spending on his own watch (although whether the Iraq War counts as an example is not entirely clear).

What the message and its justifications lack in coherence they make up for in emotional upset and a sense of fear, grievance and the unsettling notion that something valuable in America, however indefinable, is being taken away. There is even a little paranoia around the edges. (Perhaps more than a little.) Perhaps the problem is big government, or taxes, or immigration, or socialism, or rumors of FEMA organized concentration camps, or secret DHS surveillance aimed at right wingers, or some combination of all of the above. In this sense, the tea parties are a twenty first century successor to various populist movements of the past, both on the left and the right. These movements often combined genuine grievance with genuine paranoia, deeply felt anger with a tinge of craziness. The grievances of populist movements come from many different sources and many interlocking sets of anxieties; these anxieties and fears help drive them, and the message that they present to the public only coalesces later on.

Fifth, although the participants in the tea parties may state that they are not interested in what professional politicians have to say, and are not affiliated with the Republican Party in any way, one cannot take these assertions too seriously. The movement for balanced budgets and term limits during the 1990s was also anti-Washington and anti-professional politician. It was quickly absorbed into the Gingrich revolution, which was supported by and produced any number of professional politicians. Part of the point of the tea party protests is remaking the Republican Party, and as the coverage on Fox News indicates, there are plenty of ambitious people in conservative politics that are only too happy to help the protesters along. The likely trajectory of the tea parties will be as part of a reform and/or purification of the Republican Party along right wing populist lines. No doubt some Republican operatives and politicians will try to ride the anger of this movement to electoral success, while others will wait to see if the movement generates sufficient power and if it does, go along.

Right now, at least, it is unlikely that the tea parties will lead to a third party, as Reynolds suggests at the end of his op-ed. Rather, it is more likely that the tea parties will be part of the current debate about the direction of the Republican Party following the elections of 2006 and 2008. They are not the only forces interested in this question; the entire conservative movement and the entire party is engaged in that debate. The tea parties, the people involved with them, and the political energy they generate may become part of a genuine reform movement in the party, no matter how rough hewn and cranky the protests seem right now. Or the energies of the tea parties may be cynically co-opted by politicians and pundits to advance their goals and ambitions. Only time will tell. However, folks on the left should not assume that this is just a flash in the pan, a spasm of unreasoning anger, an Astro turf job merely designed to increase ratings for Fox, or a political stunt. It may not develop into anything, but given the changes in technological methods of organizing, and the obvious need for revitalization of the Republican Party, it may be the beginnings of something much larger.

Sixth, and finally, consider the possibility that the tea parties are not an event isolated from the resurgence of a viable liberal politics in America, but its mirror image. Folks on the left understand, or perhaps hope, that significant changes in American politics are afoot, that the Obama Presidency will prove to be transformative in ways that are not even now fully determined. Assume that this is even partially correct. If it is correct, do you seriously believe that there will be no counter mobilizations on the right?

Note that this is not simply an argument about the inevitability of political reactions to Obama and the Democratic majority. Times of significant political change produce movements-- or attempts at movements-- on all parts of the political spectrum simultaneously. Some are more powerful than others, and may come to dominate the public's imagination for a time. But the others are present as well and may have important long term effects. (For example, left wing agitation in the 1960s was matched by right wing agitation. The latter was weaker in the 1960s but eventually became stronger.) The dissatisfaction and the desire for change that we saw on the left in the past several years is matched by a dissatisfaction and a desire for change on the right as well. What all sides agree on is that a change must come. What they disagree about is what this change should be.

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