When the tea party movement burst onto the scene nearly three years ago, conservatives did something unheard of: they took to the streets! With the federal government in the midst of an unprecedented power grab in the form of the bank bailouts, auto takeovers, and Obamacare, hard-working conservatives could no longer afford to be apathetic about the country’s direction. And in the movement’s first election, the 2010 midterms, the tea party scored impressive victories in races across the country, despite significant disadvantages in both dollars and organization.
On the other hand, 2010 was a learning experience for the movement; one only has to look at the disastrous campaign of Sharron Angle to realize that mistakes were made. The tea party was often forced to choose between an establishment politician and a candidate unprepared for the big stage, because there was no time to develop and prepare candidates. Rather than building monolithic organizations or courting the establishment, the tea party rode the strength of its ideas and the universality of its principles to become a force to be reckoned with.
Now, with the Republican Party locked in a battle to nominate a candidate to take on Barack Obama, it has become fashionable for members of the chattering class to pronounce the “death” of the tea party movement. Because there is no authentic tea party candidate in the race, and because the moderate Mitt Romney has assumed clear front-runner status, many seem to think that the movement is “out of steam.” Running scared two years ago, the establishment is now rushing to celebrate the tea party’s passing with poorly concealed glee because their candidate has been building a successful national organization for nearly a decade. But those who proclaim the end of the tea party’s influence are not only wrong; their narrative betrays a shocking level of ignorance about what the tea party is and how it works.
The major misunderstanding about the tea party is that it is somehow a unified group, a perception that has never been true. Though there are many tea party organizations across the country, and though some of them have attempted to build national coalitions, the tea party has always been fundamentally decentralized movement made up of local groups of concerned citizens. The radical idea that representatives should be obligated to their constituents and to the principles of liberty and American greatness, rather than special interests or a national party hierarchy, is the basic strength of the tea party.
Were the tea party movement a unified bloc, with a D.C. lobbying office, allies inside the establishment elite, and an agenda formed by special interests and big-money donors, the pundits might be correct in pointing out the tea party’s “weakness” in this presidential nomination process. But this assumption ignores how fundamentally the tea party has changed politics. Rather than buying into the D.C. system and elevating leaders to be corrupted by it, the tea party movement has been built around core principles rather than power structures. Unifying a widespread national movement into a single organization might well give tea partiers more clout in this presidential election, but it would also lead inevitably to a perversion of what the movement was in the first place. What the pundits are really saying is not that the tea party has lost its clout, but that the tea party has failed to play the traditional game of Washington, D.C. politics.
This condemnation should be a badge of pride for the tea party: it is signal proof of success, not failure. Especially considering the often-underreported fact that although we speak for the most universal of American values, we are underdogs who have always fought just as strongly with the Republicans as with the Democrats. Just ask Lisa Murkowski or Dick Lugar. The tea party has resisted attempts to co-opt and marginalize the movement, and as a result it is seen as a threat not just by liberals and Democrats, but by moderate, establishment Republicans as well. Because the Republican power structure has been just as corrupted by D.C.’s culture of influence-peddling as the Democrats’, the tea party’s return to basic American values has been resisted by the entire political class.
This is not to say that the movement can’t do more; the tea party should absolutely demand that the Republican presidential candidate be a strong, committed conservative. But this idea that the tea party has no viability because it was unable to match the national campaign infrastructure of the well-funded political establishment is laughable. The fundamental principles of the tea party movement remain as inspiring as they were in 2010 and the grassroots activists who will decide critical House and Senate races are better funded, better organized, and more effective with a successful election already under their belt.
Not only is the tea party’s clout most effective in congressional and local elections, but these races are often overlooked by the national media and Republican leaders during a presidential election. All the more reason for us to focus on them! After all, returning this nation to the principles that made it great will not be as easy as defeating Barack Obama or electing more establishment Republicans. And no matter who wins the presidency in November, electing authentic conservatives to Congress is the only way to comprehensively get this country back on track. This is where the tea party’s impact will be felt, and where the seeds of America’s rebirth will continue to be sown.
Dustin Stockton is chief strategist of TheTeaParty.net and chairman of the Western Representation PAC.