Andrew Sullivan has been taking flak from movement conservatives (what else is new?) for calling the Tea Party protests nothing more than childish “temper tantrums.” He has repeatedly pointed out the hypocrisy of these protests being launched only after a Democrat is in the White House, rather than at any time in the last 8 years’ orgy of spending. He has further noted the complete lack of focus that these protests seem to have, noting that it’s tough to figure out what they’re protesting at all.
He is right, of course. And at the same time, completely wrong.
As Stephen Gordon, fresh from the Bob Barr campaign, has been taking great pains to document, the people at the root – though for quite some time no longer the forefront – of the Tea Party protests have been as vocal as could be over the last 8 years’ orgy of spending, “preemptive” war, civil liberties abuses, etc., etc. Gordon is – rightly -skeptical that the other groups joining in the demonstrations are only fair weather friends. I suspect and expect that he will quickly find his skepticism validated as the protests increasingly become nothing more than a vehicle for movement conservatives to advance their whole agenda, including a whole host of things that were the reason people like Bob Barr and others turned their backs on Republicans in the first place.
The trouble is that in order for a protest to have any success, it must become a movement. And in order to become a movement, you have to attact people who may agree with the specific cause you are protesting, but have exactly zero interest in signing on to your other beliefs. Worse, you cannot control the message they try to send in their own protest. Sure, you can try to limit the people who actually get to hold a microphone at the protests, but good luck prohibiting someone from speaking who has agreed to donate substantial resources to the protest, and even more good luck preventing individual protesters from carrying signs that convey an irrelevant message that you or – more importantly – the average observer may find appalling. Even if the average observer might not find that irrelevant message appalling, its existence makes it increasingly difficult for the average observer to figure out exactly what it is you’re protesting, and the result is that it just looks like you’re throwing a collective temper tantrum because your “side” lost an election, even if you never considered yourself part of that “side” in the first place.
And this is exactly what happened in the case of the Tea Parties. The concept started out as a relatively small idea organized by a handful of libertarian activists. Movement conservatives saw an opportunity to co-opt it – and they did.
To them, the Tea Parties aren’t just an outlet for expressing frustration over the recent orgy of government spending, they are an opportunity to complain about gay marriage, affirmative action programs in government hiring policies, and just about everything else that movement conservatives oppose even more vehemently now that they’ve been beaten – badly – in consecutive national elections. Never mind that the original point of the Tea Parties, so far as I can tell, was completely libertarian in nature and was to be as much a protest of the Republicans as it was of the Democrats.
Of course, if the Tea Parties had remained the sole province of a handful of libertarian activists, they never would have received the national attention they’re now able to receive, and thus would have had even less impact. By accepting the involvement of the movement conservative multitudes, the originators have lost control of their message even as the message has access to an ever-larger platform. The result? An incoherent jumble of protests that is going to wind up resembling the same sort of incoherence that has characterized large-scale protests and demonstrations for decades.
Sadly, I’m going to guess that “Pardon Scooter!” signs are likely to be the Tea Party versions of “Free Mumia!”