Here’s a head-scratcher: Say you’ve got a nascent political party—it’s got a name and everything—comprised of people primarily unified by their distrust of politicians. Your party is the culmination of a grassroots movement, a coming together of regular folks who are sick of the kind of people who relentlessly grasp at power. You’re going to remake the country you love, by doing away with top-down leadership, the arrogance of office, exclusionary parliamentary procedure and stultifying bureaucracy. It’s a revolutionary movement! So, um, how do you decide who runs it?
That’s the problem facing the Tea Party, whose first national convention, scheduled for early February in Nashville, is already threatened by allegations of corruption and establishment hijacking. When I heard there was going to be a national convention of Tea Partiers in Tennessee, and that two of my favorite things—stupid people who have gotten into politics and barbecue—would briefly be located in the same place in some sort of Keymaster/Gatekeeper-style convergence, I immediately decided to go. Then I found out that Tea Party Nation, the organizers of the event, were charging $549 a ticket, and I immediately decided to stay home. So did a lot of people, apparently. The National Precinct Alliance, a major Tea Party group, has withdrawn its participation on the grounds that, uh, it seems like they might be getting ripped off. “We are very concerned about the appearance of TPN profiteering and exploitation of the grass-roots movement,” said NPA spokesman Philip Glass.* “We were under the impression that TPN was a nonprofit organization like N.P.A.” It turns out that Tea Party Nation is not a nonprofit organization, and neither is Sarah Palin, who reputedly has been paid $100,000 to speak at the event.
That last detail bothers RedState.com‘s Erick Erickson, who has voiced his concern that the Tennessee convention “smells scammy” in a column that also features an unintentionally hilarious headline. “I am led to believe a number of the sponsors who lent their names early on have grown wary of the event,” he writes. “That lines up with what I am hearing.” It’s weirdly satisfying to see Erick Erickson forced to employ, in the service of his own attempt at informational reporting, the same passive, weaselly language he has trained himself to use to create the illusion of sources for his various screeds. Erickson’s phrasing also reflects the conjecture, rumormongering and outright paranoia that have defined the Tea Party for the last year. In the absence of any central party apparatus or even a history known to most of them, the Tea Partiers have no way to determine what is a legitimate Tea Party endeavor and what is not. Couple that with their fixation on “real” Americans—itself a nebulous concept, defined primarily in opposition to anyone in a position of power—and solid ground quickly vanishes beneath. The truly committed Tea Partier can’t trust anyone, which makes it difficult to make the jump from yelling outside the community center to actually putting someone in Congress.
Ironically, the Tea Party’s dilemma is remarkably similar to the one that faced the radical Left in the late sixties. That was a grassroots movement, too—one that emphasized the moral authority of “the people” against an equally vague “establishment.” Participation in liberal politics was as much a lifestyle in the sixties as an actual agenda, and that lifestyle—in which the individual noncomformist bucking the system was the central icon—quickly came into conflict with the actual mechanics of political change. Taking power back for the people turns out to involve a lot of repetitive labor and doing what you’re told. The counterculture was faced with a terrifying paradox: it wanted to remake society in its own image, but to do so it had to remake itself in the image of society. Eventually, those who were unwilling to make this compromise became either youth hostel employees or regular squares, and those who were willing became Democrats.
The Tea Party has the same problem. It yearns to move beyond gatherings of angry people holding signs, but in order to do so it has to adopt the political structures and methodologies it detests. Taking power from the federal government and returning it to We The People inevitably entails converting some of those People to members of the federal government. The only thing that can kill a vampire is, like, another vampire, and right now most of the Tea Partiers have their hands clamped around their necks. The irony is that their worst fear—that the Tea Party will be co-opted by the GOP—came to pass with the movements inception; the first Tax Day Tea Party rally was organized by FreedomWorks, the lobbying group run by former Texas representative Dick Armey. In this sense, the Tea Party is the consummate middle-class revolutionary, reading SDS pamphlets and tying black armbands while its parents work a double at the airplane factory.
Bonus: I urge you to go to www.teapartynation.com and sign up for an account, so that you can read their hilarious content. The new account approval process takes a day or so, but once it’s finished you’ll be able to read incredible articles like this one, which explains that soon all world currencies will be replaced with carbon credits, in turn leading to a totalitarian government. It’s possible these people are not ready for prime time.