The Tea Party’s Biggest Challenge: Protecting Its Brand
The Tea Party, now a well-known but poorly understood American populist movement, has attracted so much attention because it truly rose from the grassroots passions of Americans who love their country.
To clearly understand the grassroots nature of the Tea Party, it’s important to note that the movement has never been controlled by any one central authority besides, perhaps, the rule of law and the constitution. This decidedly libertarian-conservative political movement has really grown up around a loose network of patriots united around a core set of issues. And around those issues, groups of people act with distinct autonomy based on the will of their members.
Despite this decentralization, or perhaps because of it, the movement has managed to focus the American political conversation on concerns and objectives of lasting importance to the American Republic: overspending, debt, and crony capitalism on the one hand, and government accountability, sound money and national sovereignty, on the other. But more than that, the Tea Party has sought to restore those timeless principles that were once cherished by all Americans: limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, free enterprise and equal protection under the law chief among them.
As a populist movement, it is only by remaining decentralized that the Tea Party will continue to unite the passions of Americans and reject the allure of power and influence. Already, it has successfully rebuffed attempts by the Washington and Republican establishments to co-opt the movement for their own purposes. National groups like FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Express, and Tea Party Nation have had limited success tapping the local Tea Party fervor because average Tea Partiers are wary of national groups that compromise principles for power.
This strength, however, is also proving to be its greatest weakness. Without a strong central authority or spokesman, it has been difficult for the Tea Party to maintain the purity of its core principles or to stay on track with its original grassroots agenda. Nowhere is this more evident than in its support of federal candidates.
In 2010, not long after the outset of the movement, the Tea Party successfully coalesced around several candidates for Congress, many of whom now serve in government as reliable limited government reformers. However, as the current session continues and the next election approaches, the Tea Party is having trouble both in articulating the same clear mission with which it began and in identifying that mission in the agendas of the current political candidates. Some candidates now claim association with the movement, but their record shows a clear disparity with the Tea Party. In this way, the decentralized nature of the movement has not been conducive to a critical defense of its brand.
But defense of the brand is critical, and Tea Party patriots must demand that politicians prove themselves worthy of the Tea Party label. That does not mean the candidate can just have a shallow commitment to Tea Party principles, but they must have the political courage to make deep and lasting reforms.
For example, the generic “cut government spending” principle is certainly a Tea Party concept, but by which standards will a candidate cut the size of government? Will he or she simply reduce the percentage of the increase in spending by trimming a few line items here or there, or will he or she reduce the size of the budget by eliminating redundant, unnecessary or unconstitutional programs and departments, and more importantly, will that budget be balanced without new debt?
Likewise, will a candidate eliminate only those deals with lobbyists and corporate entities that the incumbent has cultivated, or will he or she actually eliminate all cronyism in government and restore the free enterprise system where the market, and not government bureaucrats, picks the winners and losers? Does the candidate have a history of promoting free market capitalism or does he or she have a record of making deals for political gain?
Additionally, if a candidate is promoting a “limited government” approach, does he or she truly understand the federalist system that puts political power in the hands of the people by putting people in control of their own lives and reserving most of the governing to the states, or will the candidate continue to look for federal one-size-fits-all solutions, or worse, global solutions to the problems facing everyday people? How will the restrictions on federal power in the Constitution weigh his or her decisions, and does his or her record support the campaign rhetoric?
There is still a strong core of Tea Party patriots who are committed to the ideas that defined the Tea Party at its inception, but these people must remain proactive to protect the Tea Party brand. They must demand that politicians not merely speak about Tea Party issues, but demonstrate a passionate dedication to the ideals of limited government within the federalist system defined by the Constitution. And they must educate new Tea Party patriots on the movement’s core principles; communicate and coordinate with all the local groups identifying with the label; and clearly articulate the original Tea Party agenda to the media and the general public so candidates cannot attach themselves to the label when they clearly should not.
Without an active defense of the movement, there is a strong chance that the movement will slowly disintegrate. For without a strong brand and conviction to principle, populist movements cannot remain passionately united for the common cause, and in these times when America needs the Tea Party more than ever, this would be a tragedy.
Carolyn McKinney is a graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In addition to being a mother of four and small business owner, she is the Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire, an organization dedicated to conservative principles and the cause of liberty.