Amid all the recriminations about the electoral ineffectiveness of some Tea Party–backed candidates, it’s easy to lose sight of a central fact: It’s doubtful that, without a newly emboldened grassroots movement, Republican politicians would have been able to create enough momentum against Obama to produce the landslide of November 2.
As ebullient progressives descended on Washington for Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, many Republicans assumed the fetal position. Party strategists wondered just how much they could openly oppose the new president’s agenda, lest they be tarred as obstructionist or even racist. Barely a month into Obama’s term, his political operation tied Republicans in knots by pressuring them to disown Rush Limbaugh’s “I want Obama to fail” monologue.
The very month after the inauguration, two events turned the tide, eventually leading all the way to the Republican tsunami this November.
The first was the unanimous House-Republican vote against the stimulus, which in many observers’ eyes was the moment Republicans woke up from their post-election stupor and resolved to be a real opposition worthy of grassroots support, reminiscent of the kind Bill Clinton faced leading up to his midterm drubbing. The second happened in Chicago on February 19. That morning, CNBC’s Rick Santelli, flanked by cheering capitalists on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, tore into the administration’s mortgage-bailout plan and issued a nationally televised and YouTubed call for a Chicago tea party in July.
Empowered by the hyperconnectivity of the Web, newly energized conservative activists moved up the schedule by a few months. The first Chicago tea party happened within days, and tea parties quickly became a national phenomenon; more than a million people are estimated to have attended them on April 15, 2009 — Tax Day.
Republicans at high levels briefly fretted about the image of the GOP these unruly activists would present. Yet Republican candidates flocked to speak at the rallies, and an alliance between party and movement quickly formed, even as the movement worked to take out establishment stalwarts in primaries. According to a post-election report in the Wall Street Journal, it was the Tea Party–fueled showing at the August 2009 health-care town halls that spurred a new wave of Republican candidate recruitment — until then the missing piece to any hope of a GOP comeback.
With the mission of taking over the House accomplished, the movement is now at a crossroads, and where it goes next is a matter of crucial importance for the Right.
One option is closer cooperation with (and what cynics might call co-option by) the Republican-party structure. Given that Karl Rove’s “72-hour turnout plan” (an RNC-run effort to canvass neighborhoods and call voters that was first deployed on a massive scale in 2004) essentially did not take place this election cycle, the movement’s organizational muscle (not to mention the hearts and minds of its activist base) will be especially important to the party. It’s unclear who would be the majority shareholder if the Republican party and the Tea Party merged.
Yet deeper integration is unlikely to outlive this political moment. Just as the grassroots organization built during President Bush’s winning 2000 and 2004 campaigns did not outlive his presidency (or even, in fact, persist much beyond those campaigns), President Obama struggled mightily to conjure up the enthusiasm of his 2008 bid in this year’s listless campaign, limiting his stops to inner cities and liberal college towns. After the 2008 election, the vaunted “Obama movement” mostly fizzled out: It was moved in-house to the Democratic National Committee and given the moniker “Organizing for America.” Campaign-related activity on “MyBO,” OFA’s Web-based organizing hub, was down as much as 90 percent from 2008 as activists recoiled at the shift from the frenetic energy of a campaign to White House command and control. The experience should provide a cautionary tale to the Tea Partiers, with their more humble origins: Hitch yourself to established power institutions at your own peril.
No one is saying that the Tea Party movement didn’t have its share of misfires this year — for example, the fixation on Christine O’Donnell in Delaware kept the movement from helping Ken Buck and Dino Rossi across the finish line in Colorado and Washington State respectively. What is clear is that to endure, the movement will need to grow and develop from within — honing its political strategy, candidate recruitment, and online infrastructure with little help from traditional Washington players.
The movement’s relationship with the Republican party may be cagey at best — the Tea Party’s greatest pleasures came in beating up RINOs like Charlie Crist and Lisa Murkowski — but its relationship with the Beltway conservative movement probably isn’t much better. An October study by the Sam Adams Alliance, a pro-free-market nonprofit, found a decided distance between Beltway groups and local Tea Party activists, with just 6.5 percent of those inside Washington agreeing that the Tea Party knew very well how to get its goals accomplished (40.7 percent of activists themselves agreed). Though D.C. groups were highly interested in working with the Tea Party, a certain elitist attitude pervaded their members’ responses to the survey, with one D.C.-based participant saying, “[Our goal] is to inform the Tea Party people who have humility to understand that they don’t understand everything.”
Ned Ryun, executive director of American Majority — one of the more promising new institutions that have risen up around the Tea Party movement — wants to ignore Washington and go local. “What the movement is really about, quite frankly, is the local leaders, and I’ve made a point with American Majority of going directly to them, and ignoring the so-called national leaders of the movement,” he told me. “I think the national leaders are beside the point; if they go away, the movement still exists. If the local leaders go away, the movement dies.”
The smarter Beltway institutions realize that they won’t be able to orchestrate every advance the way they could in times past. They have latched on to the recent book The Starfish and the Spider as a way to explain the growth of the movement. With today’s communication networks, the book argues, movements can spawn and replicate without central leadership. If you cut off the spider’s head, it dies. If you cut the starfish in half, not only does it live, but the two parts grow into separate starfishes. FreedomWorks has been busy evangelizing the book and popularizing the Movement 2.0 concept of leaderless replication. “You take the Dayton tea party and you cut it in half, and it becomes two of them — and that’s what’s been happening,” FreedomWorks’s Adam Brandon told Politico in July. “It’s a better model for the type of activism we want to do. So we talk about it a lot. We recommend it.”
What comes next for the Tea Party movement? In a sense, the election results — including the lost Senate races in Delaware, Colorado, Washington State, and Nevada — were the best the movement could have hoped for. With the GOP controlling just one chamber, it remains a quasi-insurgency inside the Beltway, and insurgencies are conducive to the growth of true grassroots movements. 2012 will be all about the White House, not Congress, with the energy of the nomination fight and the general-election contest against Obama keeping Tea Party activists involved in Republican-party politics for the next two years.
Yet the Tea Party must take care to avoid the fate of conservatives in the late 2000s, who more or less threw in with the Bush administration, only to get disillusioned by the rise in domestic spending. It’s a fate that threatens also to befall the progressive movement in 2010; the “netroots” went all in for Obama in ’08, only to have to disown his political ineptitude this cycle, and have now largely faded from view. This doesn’t mean that the Tea Party must be cynical and oppositional, but rather that it should use this interlude to further develop its leaders and organizing principles.
This is why American Majority — which began by asking the question, “What happens after the Tea Party?” — plans an unprecedented push to identify and recruit new candidates at the local level starting with the 2012 elections. Focusing on Congress and the presidency is well and good, reasons Ryun, but achieving those goals is of little use without control of local governments, where national leaders usually start out. Working with the Tea Parties, Ryun says, his organization trained 1,249 new local candidates and 12,654 activists this cycle. His end goal is audacious and extends beyond the Republican party: “Power in D.C. must be devolved, and one of the ways you do that is to run out the ruling class, one by one, and not just in D.C., but in state capitals and municipalities. If the Tea Party can begin to control the nomination process — for not just the Republican party, but even the Democratic party, by running more conservative options in Democratic primaries — then the movement begins to control the parties, and then controls the system.”
— Patrick Ruffini is a founder of Engage, a Republican digital-media firm. This article originally appeared in the November 29, 2010, issue of National Review.