Tea Party movement: Sinking ship or smooth sailing?

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Decision time is approaching for the Tea Party movement.

So far, the movement has proven it can draw a crowd. National gatherings in Nashville and Washington and local events from Massachusetts to Hawaii have drawn huge, enthusiastic audiences animated by the Tea Party’s populist, anti-establishment rhetoric. Participants say they are drawn to the movement’s bottom-up approach, its lack of structure, its refusal to ask anything of its members beyond full-throated dismay with the current political structure.

As is, it’s possible the movement has nearly run its course. Recent setbacks at the ballot box in Texas and Illinois have created questions over its staying power, and alleged racial and homophobic slurs at a recent event in Washington have provided fodder for those all too anxious to label the group radical, irresponsible and threatening. If the Tea Party movement is going to be a success in 2010 and beyond, it will need to impose some discipline on its members and take on some characteristics of traditional American political movements, however distasteful some within the movement may find this to be.

First and foremost, the movement needs to establish a unified message. It doesn’t have to be long or detailed or comprehensive, and it doesn’t have to be a creed or a litmus test, but it must be understandable, coherent and attractive to both present participants and others who have yet to take to the street to demonstrate their concerns with intrusive government.

Let’s face it; many in the mainstream media seem hell-bent on seeing the Tea Party fail. Reporters find the movement hard to cover, harder to understand, and still harder to characterize for their readers and viewers. Many Tea Party participants not only don’t seem concerned, they view this almost as an affirmation. The problem is the movement is far short of the threshold of support necessary to become a sustainable political force. According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, only 29 percent of voters have a positive view of the Tea Party cause. If that is the goal—to become a lasting political force, change policies and elect candidates—then Tea Party advocates need to realize the homegrown, chaotic nature of the movement does not mesh with the ideals of the journalistic elite. They need not kiss the ring of media mavens, but they must recognize the fundamental difference in outlook between their movement and the media, and they need to blunt the media’s ability to highlight the movement’s fringe elements by adopting a unified message and sticking to it. Message discipline will increase the perceived legitimacy of the movement, which in turn will draw in new participants because it no longer will alienate some of those who currently view the Tea Party as a dangerous fringe group.

Moving beyond shaping the media narrative, you have to win primaries (within the two-party system) to remain credible.

Dissatisfaction with the current political structure—and the parties that uphold it—has created a tremendous opportunity for the Tea Party movement. It can make inroads with mainstream voters, demand attention and answers from candidates who may never have given such a movement the time of day, and continue to grow on the local and national scenes. But electoral success is key. Without it, the movement is likely to fold, at least in its current iteration. Bypassing primary elections and waiting until November to support candidates, could end up electing candidates who least reflect the movement’s interests. The path to success runs through the primaries. If the Tea Party movement can’t deliver votes in primaries, it will not be seen as a serious political player by Democrats or Republicans.

Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day: Focusing on down-ticket elections can demonstrate both the electoral viability of the movement and set the foundation for even greater influence in the future.

Local organizing is the hard work of party building, but it must be done. Of course, many candidates (particularly those with the resources to self-fund) would rather make big news and grab a Senate or House seat in 2010. But if the Tea Party movement can recruit and support candidates who engage in local and state politics (whether school boards, county councils, state legislatures, etc.) it will build a pipeline of experienced candidates (and networks of volunteers) who understand how to run successful campaigns—a foundation that can grow organically regardless of what the national media’s talking heads want to say about the Tea Party movement.

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are the co-founders of ProjectVirginia — “Where Politics Meets Social Media.” Ford and Steve advise political campaigns on the use of digital technology for effective communication, fundraising and voter outreach. You can follow them on Twitter @projectvirginia.