Let’s Get this Party Organized

Strong Politico story takes a close look at the Tea Party movement

In Politico today, Ken Vogel has a very interesting and worthwhile article about the emerging internal conflicts—both philosophical and personal—within the Tea Party movement. Vogel writes:

The grass-roots activists powering the movement have become increasingly divided on core questions such as whether to focus their efforts on shaping policy debates or elections, work on a local, regional, state or national level or closely align itself with the Republican Party, POLITICO found in interviews with tea party organizers in Washington and across the country.

Disagreements over those issues have spawned personal and institutional rivalries, at least one highly contentious lawsuit and — perhaps most significantly — resulted in the splintering of local, regional and national groups into a patchwork of hundreds of smaller groups that occasionally seem to be working at cross-purposes.

One consequence of this splintering, according to several of the people with whom Vogel speaks, is a decline in enthusiasm. As the movement’s initial burst of activity yielded few concrete results, and no clear authority exists to direct people’s energy and reward their participation, some followers are becoming disaffected. This is a problem that has not escaped notice among the group’s leaders, Vogel writes:

The organizational chaos — combined with a widening apathy at the edges of the movement — has produced a growing consensus among local, state and national tea party leaders that in order for the movement to evolve from the loose conglomeration of fired-up activists who mobilized this summer to register their dissatisfaction with Obama and Congress at town hall protests and marches across the country into a sustainable block with the power to shape the GOP and swing elections, it will require the emergence of a national leader, group or structure.

As the article correctly notes, this period of existential searching isn’t surprising, and it doesn’t mean the tea partiers won’t stick around. This is exactly the sort of crisis you’d expect a political movement to be facing at this point in its development. Successful movements are the ones that find a solution to this challenge and develop lasting institutional structures (which are not necessarily the same thing as large bureaucracies).

While we can’t know yet what will become of the Tea Party movement, Vogel has helpfully outlined its current predicament. He’s also introduced some names that aren’t on the radar of many readers—such as Ned Ryun, president of the nonprofit organizer-training group American Majority—and pointed to potentially significant future events, such as February’s National Tea Party Convention. And he’s done it thanks to some serious reporting—not the showy variety that involves bringing to light something that would have been public in a matter of hours anyway, but the straightforward kind that involves talking to a lot of people and organizing what they have to say through an intelligent frame.

And the best thing about the piece? A certain former governor of Alaska—who is the “darling” of the movement but is, at least so far, not really engaged with efforts to organize it—gets only a parenthetical mention.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.