One year ago, the first Tea Party protest hadn't even been held yet and the phrase remained safely ensconced in American history textbooks. This weekend, the first national Tea Party Convention will be held in Nashville, and the fractious movement has secured a place in the history of the Obama administration. But for all the attention it has earned, misconceptions abound. Here are the top five.
1. Tea Partiers = Independents
Independents are the largest and fastest-growing voter segment—a new CNN poll puts independents at 42 percent of the American electorate. Given the Tea Partiers' anger at overspending under Bush as well as Obama, it's been tempting to equate them with independent voters—but there are fundamental differences. Polls of independents' policy positions consistently place them in between Republicans and Democrats—closer to the GOP on economic issues and closer to the Democrats on social issues. But the Tea Partiers tend to be to the right of the Republican Party on both fiscal and social issues. Their opposition to the Obama administration is overheated and absolute. Independents are angry at the polarization of the two parties; Tea Partiers want more polarization between the two parties. Independents tend to be centrists; Tea Partiers attack centrist Republicans as Republicans in Name Only, or RINOs. Tea Partiers are conservative populists.
There is real grassroots anger going on, based in deep policy debates over the proper role of government as well as shallow partisan politics.
2. Tea Partiers Are All Wingnuts
The guys with the Obama-as-Hitler signs get all the attention, for obvious reasons, but the reality is that the Tea Parties began as a fiscal conservative protest in response to the $787 billion stimulus amid bailout backlash. Their ranks are full of folks who've never attended a protest before, small businesses owners who were angry at the way they were struggling to pay their bills while big business and big government could rack up debts and pass the buck onto taxpayers in backroom deals. There is common-sense anger at unsustainable deficits that are seen as generational theft. Reagan's rhetoric won Americans' hearts and minds when it came to Keynesian spending. Unified Democratic control of Congress and the White House also provokes in many a distrust that is consistent with a Madisonian desire for checks and balances. Extremists are always ultimately their own side's worst enemy, and I've seen plenty of people with ugly cases of Obama Derangement Syndrome at Tea Party protests. But it is by no means the whole crowd.
3. Tea Partiers Are "Astroturf"
On Tax Day 2009, Tea Party protests were held in 346 towns and cities, drawing an estimated 300,000 people, according to the dependable fivethirtyeight.com. At the time, liberal columnists joined with Nancy Pelosi in trying to downplay the events, dismissing them as artificial "astroturf" protests rather than a genuine grassroots movement. True, groups like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks helped fund organizational costs while Fox News helped make the protests a national conservative happening by airing more than 100 commercial promotions for the protests in the ten days before Tax Day. But these were the equivalent of conservative public service announcements. For all the "astroturf" asides, the crowds were homegrown. They may have been pumped up by partisan interests, but they were not purchased. There is real grassroots anger going on, based in deep policy debates over the proper role of government as well as shallow partisan politics.
4. Tea Partiers Are All Libertarians
This is the opening pitch to any young Tea Party attendee, a revealing attempt at finding common ground. The libertarian label accounts for the anger at overspending under the Bush administration and gives the movement a modern-sounding spin, recasting the Obama opposition into a clear-cut fight between individualism and collectivism. By contrast, social conservatism has an ideologically inconvenient collectivist streak embedded in it, particularly an intrusion of the government into questions of sexual and reproductive freedom. Past icons, like libertarian Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, couldn't have passed the party purity measures pushed by some conservatives. And current Tea Party icons like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh enforce the social and fiscal conservative straightjacket—they embrace the idea that there are no enemies on the right and RINOs on the left. Accordingly, they are hugely popular with conservatives but kryptonite to independents and centrists. Libertarians are given plenty of lip service, but they are not trusted with leadership roles in the conservative populist movement to date.
Rep. Michele Bachmann has said she wants the Tea Partiers to take over the GOP. Sarah Palin's hopes are more modest—a "merger" of the two forces. There's no question that conservatives are trying to surf the Tea Party wave into increased influence while also trying to purge RINOs from the GOP. But if you take a close look at what's happening in key campaigns, a different story emerges. The greatest symbol of the Republican resurgence to date is the election of Scott Brown to succeed Ted Kennedy in the Senate. The full 2010 trifecta would include taking Obama and Biden's Senate seats—and the once-implausible scenario now seems increasingly likely because of the centrist GOP nominees running. Illinois' Mark Kirk and Delaware's Mike Castle have been targeted as RINOs by grassroots conservative groups because they describe themselves as social moderates. Like Scott Brown, they are pro-choice. Like Brown, they are also fiscal conservatives and national security hawks. The secret behind the GOP's improved electoral chances is in fielding centrist candidates who can win over independent voters.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the web and in paperback. Advance orders can be placed here. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.