The surprising thing about the Tea Party movement is how many experts were surprised by it. The U.S. has always been home to a large group of people who think the government is too big and spends too much. Why wouldn't those people rise up when the already gargantuan federal deficit more than tripled seemingly overnight? Some lexicographers say refudiate was the word of the year, but for sheer political impact, it's hard to top the word trillion.
America has always had its populists too, people leery of the predations of Wall Street and its Washington handmaidens. And here was Washington, right on cue, bailing out the fat cats who helped blow up the economy. It might be true that a crisis brought on by excessive borrowing by homeowners and investment bankers should be solved with yet more borrowing by the government (although even Ph.D.s in economics can't agree on that). But you can be certain that some folks will conclude that somewhere in that vast daisy chain of debt, somebody is going to have to pay and get angry when they realize that somebody is likely to be them.
The eye-catching aspects of the Tea Party movement were the folks with tricornered hats and the occasional offensive hand-painted sign and the wave-riding hucksters in various guises, from bumper-sticker salesmen to patriotic songwriters looking for fame to the Tea Party's weepy master of ceremonies, Glenn Beck. Such spectacles were mostly foam, frothing on the surface. Down deep, forces like populism, libertarianism and skepticism of government throw in some cultural conservatism and a dash of antielitism (and, according to Tea Party critics, some measure of residual racism) created the swell that swept over American politics in 2010, inundating congressional Democrats while battering the Republican establishment.
Despite the age-old currents, though, Tea Partyism is in certain respects a purely contemporary wave. It spread like wildfire, upending dozens of elections, yet has not coalesced around a single leader, a single agenda or even a common name. The Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights has produced a detailed history of Tea Party organizations from large to tiny, viewable at teapartynationalism.com. Included is a map covered with a blizzard of dots, each representing a group or chapter or website or even just a couple of people. This dizzying multitude is arrayed around at least six different banners: Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks, ResistNet, the 1776 Tea Party. Leveraging the same tools that helped elect President Obama Facebook, Meetup, blogs, YouTube the Tea Party opposition to Obama's policies grew huge without ever growing organized.
In a sense, identifying with the Tea Party movement was like catching Beatlemania in the 1960s. People were drawn in for different reasons the beat, the haircuts, the lyrics and great gulfs of taste divided the John fans from the Paul fans, the George fans from the Ringo fans.
Smashing success broke the Beatles apart. As 2010 closes, there is no bigger question in U.S. politics than whether the Tea Party will go the same way. The pressures on this already divided movement will be enormous. As long as the far-flung elements of the Tea Party were shoulder to shoulder against Obama, it was easy to keep them together. But now, the party that argued so effectively for smaller government is headed to Washington, where so many other waves have broken and receded. Having remade Congress and with a GOP presidential nomination up for grabs, the Tea Party is about to learn that rallying against its enemies is easier than choosing among its allies.
The Tea Party victories didn't magically heal the age-old divisions of the right. Senator-elect Rand Paul, the movement's flag bearer in Kentucky, is the son of libertarian icon Representative Ron Paul of Texas. Dad has often split with the neocons of the Republican Party over military interventions around the world. Like father, like son? For that matter, how will the hands-off libertarians get along with the factions of the GOP that want to enforce drug laws and ban abortion and same-sex marriage? Already the self-proclaimed Tea Party Caucus of the House of Representatives is clashing with GOP leaders over how to pursue repeal of the Obama health care law. Should the new Congress propose an alternative medical system or take a harder line: Just keep the government out?
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