The Tea Party and its impending dilemma

Font Size:

It’s inevitable. A new party is forming.

It initially grew organically, with little money and near zero media coverage. Inspired by the iconic Boston event that led to the American Revolution, this reincarnation started humbly, with small rallies sprinkled all across the country. With an American drummer boy dressed in colonial garb leading the way, and Don’t Tread On Me flags in tow, these activists took to the streets on a symbolic tax day with chants of liberty, a constitutionalism mantra, and a goal of taking back their country. From this one day of rallies it would grow to become one of the most powerful and disruptive movements in modern American politics. There hasn’t been anything like it in over 150 years. And contrary to popular thought, Fox News and the Republican establishment entirely missed its beginning.

It is called the Tea Party movement and it was started on December 16, 2007…by Ron Paul supporters.

Widely unrecognized in Republican enclaves as the founding event of the movement, the Ron Paul candidacy is inarguably the precursor to the current Tea Party species. Following the trail of its origin provides a fascinating illustration of how a movement, and hence culture, evolves. And it is within these roots that one can find the promise, and impending dilemma, of this young movement as it grows and changes the political landscape.

* * *

It was the wake of the 2008 presidential campaign and the Republican Party, licking its wounds after losing the White House and seats in both houses of Congress, was searching for new leadership and a novel path forward. The party’s National Committee Chairman hopefuls all met for a debate in early January 2009 to discuss their vision for the future of the GOP, and from their words, one could see that the establishment recognized a potential movement. As Michael Steele saw it, “Ron Paul certainly brought a whole new generation of voters and I think it’s important going forward that we recognize the strengths and the attributes of these individuals who are out there actively building the party and building a movement, a consensus if you will, on certain issues.”

And he wasn’t the only one that expressed that sentiment. Katon Dawson, another candidate for the chairmanship, said, “I want people involved in my party that will hang off bridges and paint on their cars and make up T-shirts. There was a passion that I saw of those people for [Ron Paul] and his ideas.” And Chip Saltsman, a former campaign manager of the Huckabee campaign, also gave praise. “Dr. Paul…he is a wonderful man with wonderful ideas.”

The consensus of the future Republican establishment appeared to be that the Paul campaign brought what was absent in the party — new voters and passion. But until that point, the former OB/GYN and his followers were collectively the human pincushions of the GOP elite — a fact evident early in the 2008 campaign cycle.

Back in mid-May 2007, the second Republican presidential debate was to be hosted by Fox News and the stage was jammed with ten presidential hopefuls. On the big issues, little differentiated one candidate from the next, except for one unmistakable outsider — Ron Paul. The candidacy of the then-10-term representative from Texas stood on three main pillars: a strict constitutionalist interpretation of governing, a reduction in the size and scope of government, and sound fiscally conservative policy. In his opinion, a strict adherence to these conservative principles could only lead to one foreign policy approach — that of nonintervention. He stood as the lone voice against the Iraq War as a result of this position.

A little over halfway through the first Fox News debate, the moderator identified Ron Paul as “the only man on stage who opposes the war in Iraq.” When asked if his noninterventionist policy should have changed with 9/11, Paul answered, “No… They attack us because we’ve been over there. We’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years. I think Reagan was right,” he continued, “We don’t understand the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics. Right now we’re building an embassy in Iraq that’s bigger than the Vatican. We’re building fourteen permanent bases. What would we say here if China was doing this in our country or in the Gulf of Mexico?”

This was the idea that would stall the development of the first Tea Party species, and it was evident from the minute it was nationally uttered. At the first opportunity, his opponents practically tripped over one another to attack Paul’s perspective.

Despite this wildly unpopular position among the GOP elite, Fox News’ audience would vote (via text messaging) Paul the winner of three out of the four debates, falling second to Mitt Romney only once. His high ranking was, however, consistently marginalized by the network’s pundits who claimed the poll was rigged by Paul’s supporters — a position championed by Sean Hannity.

But Fox commentators weren’t alone in their disregard of the Ron Paul candidacy. The mainstream media was in agreement, and viewed his followers as borderline fanatical for their uncanny ability to swarm online forums whenever he was mentioned. It wasn’t until his grassroots supporters showed some fundraising muscle that the mainstream media began taking notice.

Paul’s unofficial grassroots campaign would align their fundraising efforts, coined “money bombs” by a supporter, with symbolic dates. The first that gained national attention was one modeled around V for Vendetta’s remember, remember the 5th of November slogan. The effort brought in a single-day total upwards of $4 million, an impressive number for a candidate widely unknown among the general public. To add to the success of their money bomb concept, Paul supporters scheduled another for an often-overlooked anniversary — the Boston Tea Party. Entitled Ron Paul Tea Party ‘07, Paul’s grassroots activists called on hundreds of his Meetup groups to stage Tea Party protests throughout the country on December 16, 2007. From Austin to Santa Monica, and Las Vegas to Boston, the first Tea Party rallies were held to bring attention to Dr. Paul’s campaign message of government intervention run amok.

It was on this day that the iconic images of today’s Tea Party movement were first packaged, to use marketing parlance. Each of the Tea Party symbols and ideas have long resided in the minds of Americans. But it was the grassroots efforts of Paul’s supporters — unseasoned political novices with no directive from the official campaign — that first packaged these ideas into one coherent platform and presented them to the public and (most notably) the political establishment. As often happens in our culture, the movement and its ideas were given a trial run on this day — and the test paid off. These first Tea Parties raised $6 million for Ron Paul — widely reported at the time as a one-day online fundraising record. Even the money bomb concept, a term that can be tracked definitively back to Paul’s supporters, would later be used by the primary organizers of the current Tea Party species.

It’s impossible to say with certainty whether in late 2007 any Republican leaders understood the power of the movement that Ron Paul’s candidacy had revealed. The excitement it sparked could be seen in their rear view mirrors, as many of the party’s chairman hopefuls would later voice. But what can be said with certainty is that the GOP establishment, and Fox News, looked in the eyes of the first Tea Party movement and did not like what they saw.

* * *

Several weeks after Paul’s Tea Parties, news circulated that he, along with Duncan Hunter, would be excluded from a pivotal New Hampshire debate. The timing was politically devastating. Hosted by Fox News and sponsored by the New Hampshire Republican Party, the debate was scheduled only two days before the state primary. By not being included in the debate, a message was being sent to voters — Ron Paul was not a viable candidate. Looking for a villain, Paul supporters began attacking Fox News for the exclusion. But from the initial reports, it wasn’t clear who was responsible for the unvitation.

Reports surfaced that a Fox spokeswoman pointed to the New Hampshire Republican Party as the one choosing the January 6th showdown participants. The state party later issued a statement suggesting that Fox News should not be in the business of excluding serious candidates, and noted that talks were ongoing with the network.

Paul supporters were outraged. In the first Republican primary in Iowa, Paul received over double the votes of Giuliani and he was polling higher than Thompson in the upcoming New Hampshire primary — yet both were invited to participate in the debate. And at the time there was no definitive leader. Compounding their frustrations, his campaign was widely thought to have outraised any Republican candidate in the previous quarter — and just came off of a reported one-day online fundraising record. If left out of the debate it would mark the beginning of the end of his candidacy.

As the debate neared, it was becoming apparent that the network would not be extending an invitation. The New York Times reported that the network was limiting participation to those polling in double digits nationally. What made this response confusing was that Paul was included in a Fox News debate scheduled four days after the one in which he was excluded. The New Hampshire GOP abruptly backed out as sponsor on the eve of the debate, citing that, “All candidates regardless of how well known they are or how much money they’ve raised should be treated equally here.”

As any savvy campaign would do, the Paul team planned a series of publicity events to use the exclusion to their advantage. Whenever possible, Paul referenced the snub, claiming Fox News was “scared” of him. His supporters took to the web, lambasting the network for what they saw as its control of the political process. The Monday after his exclusion, Paul appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno to air his positions — a message Leno felt should have been heard the night before.

As anticipated by poll numbers, Ron Paul would go on to receive more votes than Fred Thompson in New Hampshire. He would, however, pay a price for his bad-mouthing tour.

On January 10th, in the last Fox News primary debate, Paul was asked a question by the moderator that his supporters felt was brutally condescending: “Congressman Paul, yet another question about electability. Do you have any, sir?” The question was greeted by uproarious laughter both on stage and off. He handled the question with grace and would go on to win the text-in poll again, but it was too late. He, along with the first Tea Party movement, had been successfully marginalized. His own party, the same one that would later speak fondly of his new coalition, didn’t invite him to speak at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

Ron Paul would, however, stand with his supporters at his own protest convention held just a few miles away from the in-progress RNC. His spokesman, Jess Benton, said during the announcement of their event that Paul’s supporters are really “looking to build a national organization that is going to run at a grassroots level, be organized at a precinct level, and to identify candidates to support…real constitutionalist candidates.” A reported 10,000 people attended the mini convention.

* * *

The growth of a movement is a thrilling event to watch. Minor trends and agitations come and go, but a truly powerful movement is a rarity. When it first reaches the public conscience, it appears to have happened suddenly. But, as with the Tea Party, overnight success is seldom the case.

Movements are essentially a collection of ideas that people coalesce around to address a perceived cultural instability. The ideas are not created out of thin air, but rather already exist in some fragmented form in the minds of the people — each idea being a natural frequency of the brain. As Jude Wanniski said in his seminal book The Way the World Works, “great political ideas are not those which can be sold to the people, but are those ideas which the electorate craves even prior to their conception by philosophers or politicians.” A movement identifies these natural frequencies swimming in the minds of their future members and incorporates them into its body. As the group grows, attracting more and more followers, it begins to take on a life of its own. In a sense it becomes a virtual organism — with ideas as its DNA.

In the case of Ron Paul’s Tea Party movement, the ideas consisted of a return to constitutionalism, limited government, and fiscally responsible policy — the calculus of which, in Paul’s view, necessitated a noninterventionist foreign policy. But this last idea proved a fatal choice in the ecosystem of the 2008 Republican Primary. With a uniform platform that included a pro-Iraq War stance, Paul’s military position was unforgivable and would never receive the support from the GOP establishment.

But that didn’t mean the movement was dead.

No one could have predicted CNBC as the entity that would incite a national call-to-action. But Rick Santelli’s rant on the trading room floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is widely, and correctly, considered the national event that sparked the current Tea Party species. CNBC’s commentators were discussing Obama’s controversial mortgage refinance plan when they turned to the floor to ask Santelli if he was listening to their exchange. “Listening to it? I’ve been just glued to it because…the government is promoting bad behavior!” And this popular sentiment could easily be seen on the floor when Santelli turned to the traders and asked, “This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” A chorus of loud boos ensued as Santelli turned to the camera, “President Obama, are you listening?”

Then came his money quote. “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m going to start organizing.”

The instant the segment was introduced online it went viral. It resonated quickly within the right-leaning media ecosystem, with bloggers seeing it as a rallying call to oppose the growth of government. A site called ChicagoTeaParty.com was live within 12 hours of the rant, billing itself as the official home of Santelli’s Tea Party. A Ron Paul 2008 supporter, Anthony Astolfi, published another site called reTeaParty.com to promote a July 4th rally. Within hours of the rant, FreedomWorks — a non-profit political advocacy group viewed as the center of the Santelli Tea Party movement — used the segment to rally activists into action with a website called IAmWithRick.com. Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was quick to respond with an attempt to discredit and dampen the building storm. “Every day when I come out here, I spend a little time reading, studying on the issues, asking people smarter than I am questions about those issues.” Gibbs continued, “I would encourage [Santelli] to read the president’s plan…I’d be more than happy to have him come here and read it. I’d be happy to buy him a cup of coffee — decaf.”

But the White House’s response didn’t work. Tea Partiers wouldn’t wait until July to organize protests. A large number of small rallies materialized at the end of February. But the first major national forum was on Tax Day, April 15, 2009, and included massive protests throughout the country.

Santelli’s rant revealed the percolating discontent with the administration’s economic decisions and showed that anger was widespread.  The only explanation for how quickly the Tea Party movement gained national prominence is that it was there all along. As Kate Zernike offered in her book Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, “Paul’s libertarian campaign had seemed destined to be a footnote in the story of the 2008 election, but the Tea Parties made it look as though he had simply been ahead of his time.”

The nature of a movement is initially one of a slow-building organism, often met with near fatal events. The early stages can be thought of as a rehearsal, with each of its ideas field-tested in the ecosystem in which it resides. After time and the lessons learned from conflict, some ideas are kept and others eliminated through a process related to natural selection. Simply put, a movement on the rise will adopt those ideas that help it to grow and shed those that don’t. With the Santelli Tea Party, the movement smartly adopted the packaging of the Ron Paul Tea Party, and avoided one element — Paul’s foreign policy position — to maximize its coalition on the economic issues at hand.

This is a prime example of how a culture evolves through a process known as “self-organization.” There is nothing necessarily nefarious about this action of appropriation. Some of Paul’s supporters may think Santelli’s Tea Party hijacked their movement — an understandable sentiment given their initial marginalization. Still others may deny that the Santelli Tea Party was derived from the Ron Paul campaign (in fact, Dick Armey, the founder of FreedomWorks and unofficial lead philosopher of the Santelli Tea Party, makes no mention of Paul’s contribution to its origins in his book Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto). But the undeniable fact is that appropriation is how cultures evolve. Ideas that naturally resonate in the minds of people are potent weapons. Movements that grow adopt these effective ideas, and drop those ideas that (at the time) decrease its coalition. As with offspring — some of a parent’s genes make it through reproduction, and some don’t.

It may seem abnormally opportunistic to appropriate another movement’s ideas. But in fact, one of the most celebrated political movements in US history grew in this exact same fashion.

* * *

It was early in 1854 and the administration was attempting to push through a piece of highly controversial legislation that would forever change the concept of the United States. A small group, with a perverse interpretation of the Constitution, had slowly been gaining political power and was working to increase it exponentially with one act. Once passed, it would grow this group’s power into areas that were thought to be completely off limits. Opponents believed the legislation would send the country into an economic tailspin and help grow a crippling institution. If they could pass this piece of legislation, what couldn’t they do, argued their opponents.

Then someone stood up. His name was Salmon P. Chase and he co-authored an argument, a rant if you will, in opposition to its passage. With no Internet, text messaging, television, or YouTube, his appeal spread far and wide, gained steam, and led to protests across the country. As Eric Foner put it in his book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, historians tend to agree that Chase’s appeal was “one of the most effective pieces of political propaganda in our history.” The rant was entitled Appeal of the Independent Democrats, and it galvanized opposition to the 1854 Nebraska-Kansas Act that would allow for slavery to expand into the new territories.

The group behind this act was gaining in influence, slowly acquiring access to the levers of our system to decrease resistance to their growth. Groups are always vying for power. But if the scale is dramatically tipped toward one, with no group to counterbalance this new power, the environment becomes unstable — providing the impetus for the birth of a movement. This was the setting that led to the existence of the Republican Party.

The birth of the GOP bares resemblance to that of the Tea Party. Like the Tea Party movement, the passage of controversial legislation galvanized the public in opposition to a growing power imbalance. In the 1840’s and 1850’s that power became known as “slave power” — a small group of slaveholders that were using the Democratic Party to slowly pass legislation that aided in the spread of slavery. During the years leading up to the Civil War, known as the antebellum years, tensions built between pro- and anti-slavery elements within the dominant parties of the time — the Democrats and the American Whig parties.

The fall of the Whig Party that led to the rise of the Republican Party is a long and complicated tale best highlighted in Michael Holt’s The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. But one perspective that cannot be disputed is that neither of the two major parties that existed at the time had an answer to the growth in power of slaveholders. The Democrats, controlled by Southern slave owners, threatened civil war if anti-slavery forces moved to abolish their abhorring practice. It was a Democratic administration that passed the Nebraska-Kansas Act, and Southern Democrats that cited the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in their push to grow slavery into what was formerly free territory. Slavery was slowly creeping into areas, both new territories and free states, previously considered off limits. The Whigs, for their part, feared Southern secession and as a result took no clear position against slavery at a time when dealing with the power of slaveholders reached a critical point.

With violence rising in Kansas as a reaction to the passage of the Nebraska-Kansas Act, and threats of secession and civil war by the Democratic Party, the Whigs wanted only to avoid a dismantling of the Union. But Salmon P. Chase’s Appeal did much to arouse popular opinion against the spread of slavery, forcing the emergence of a new party to deal with the instability. Prior to the Appeal, a new movement called the Free Soil movement gained influence as an alternative to resist the growth of slave power. Their idea that free men on free soil represented a morally and economically superior system to slavery took hold in the North. They carried this idea into their slogan — Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men. After forming the Free Soil Party and unsuccessfully nominating a presidential candidate in 1848 and 1852, the movement looked to build a broader coalition. Moderate anti-slavery supporters from the Whig and Democratic parties were reluctant to join under their banner because of factors that always plague our political system — wedge issues and the political rivalries of the time. With a clear enemy, a new party needed to be forged to house anti-slavery supporters that focused with pinpoint precision on its opposition.

So, as the current Santelli Tea Party has done, the new Republican Party adopted the primary ideology of its predecessor — Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men — stripped away all extraneous policies that would inhibit a broad coalition, and focused energies on reducing the power of its opposition. Their platform would become a no-compromise position on slavery — complete abolition.

A new party was born on the back of a previous movement.

There should be no trepidation among those sympathetic to the Tea Party in recognizing its origin in the Ron Paul 2008 campaign. Understanding how the initial movement was attacked and marginalized are valuable lessons that will be needed as it attempts to challenge the political establishment. But it is in these roots that one can see the Tea Party entering into a critical chapter of its existence. Weighted with the responsibility of combating the fiscal crisis of our time, it is about to reach a crossroads — reform its cousin the Republican Party or create a new coalition. But if the GOP’s Pledge to America is any indication, the path forward may have already been reduced to one of these options.

No political movement can claim the banner of fiscal responsibility without a unilateral approach to reducing government spending. A party’s ability to embed spending favoritism within our system is not a practice for which Democrats hold the patent. As time progresses, attention will turn to the GOP’s version of Big Government spending, and its “exception” for seniors and military budgets will enter the spotlight. Argue as it may that these exceptions are off limits to budget cuts, as its leadership laid out in the Pledge, a movement that holds fiscal responsibility at its core will quickly lose credibility if it does not legitimately tackle the fiscal crisis from all angles. Americans have been hearing about our Road to Serfdom at least as far back as the publication of F. A. Hayek’s famed book of the same name, and have historically been immune to the warning. But this time something is different — and everyone feels it.

If these exceptions go unchanged, the Tea Party movement will inevitably lead to a new party because, as with the Whig and Democratic parties of 1856, our two major parties cannot formulate a concrete solution to the growth of powerful interest groups. Each party has increased the government’s size and scope to unsustainable levels under the guise that their party’s spending is more rational than their opponent’s. As history has shown, neither of the major parties will curb their ability to distribute favors. In essence, they’ve created the most efficient favor factory ever devised. Tackling this instability is where the Tea Party’s dilemma, and possible glory, resides.

The Tea Party must tread carefully on the issues of our military spending and social safety nets to avoid the pitfalls of our two major parties. Some common ground within the movement has tentatively been mapped out, as was seen in a discussion regarding foreign policy between Sarah Palin and Ron Paul on the debut of Freedom Watch — both agreeing that empire building was fiscally unsustainable. This is potentially where common ground can be found and a new coalition forged. The movement must seriously address the spend-a-holic nature of both major parties. And as the Ron Paul Tea Party experienced, it must be prepared for attack by the establishment for tackling these issues.

Make no mistake about it — a political reorganization is occurring that will inevitably lead to a new party. It may take many cycles to play out but the process is in motion. The Republican Party, the movement that brought stability to our country in the darkest days of the Civil War, did not happen overnight. The abolition movement first delved into politics in 1839 with the Liberty Party, which later joined forces with the Free Soil Party in 1848, then grew its coalition under the umbrella of the Republican Party in 1854, which didn’t take the reins of the White House until 1860 — some 21 years from its birth. The Tea Party may be the vessel, or it may be the conduit to a new coalition. But if it does not take a unilateral, unbiased approach to government spending, and reinvent our approach to government-sponsored intervention, the movement will fracture and another will rise through the laws of self-organization — a process that prefers groups that legitimately attack instability.

* * *

Patrick Courrielche gained prominence from a series of articles that highlighted a White House effort to use a federal arts agency to push controversial legislation. He has been published by wsj.com, reason.com, Breitbart’s BIG sites, and appeared on Fox News, Fox Business, CNN, NPR, BBC, and various nationally syndicated radio shows. He is a communications specialist, former aerospace engineer, writer, and can be followed at Courrielche.com and twitter.com/courrielche.