From Tea to Shining Tea: An Interview with Stephen Gordon
It is impossible to understand politics in the United States over the last 12 months without some in-depth discussion of the impact of the Tea Party movement. Over the course of the last several days, I had the good fortune to engage in a dialogue with Stephen Gordon about a wide range of Tea Party-related topics, including what the Tea Party movements are about, where they’re going, what their influence has been and will be, and whether there is the possibility of a right-left alliance under the Tea Party umbrella. There are, frankly, few people as qualified as Gordon to discuss these topics, as he’s been partying with tea since long before it was cool, having helped organize a successful state-level Tea Party in Alabama as early as 2003. Gordon has also been heavily involved in libertarian politics for a number of years, including acting as Communications Director for Michael Badnarik’s 2004 campaign, and e-Campaign manager for Bob Barr’s 2008 campaign. Recently, he’s appeared several times on the Rachel Maddow Show, and contributes to several well-regarded blogs, including the Liberty Papers, the Next Right, and Examiner.com. He is now the Director of Media Relations for the political consulting firm Forward Focus Media.
MT: It’s quite clear that the Tea Party movement is primarily a grassroots-based movement without any clear leaders. Moreover, although the Tea Party movement seems to be primarily focused on government spending, there have been numerous documented Tea Party-affiliated protests focusing on anything from the Democratic health care reform bills to illegal immigration. Is there any kind of coordination of message that takes place within the movement, and if not, what would you say is the common theme that runs through all of the Tea Party organizations?
SG: This is a point I tried to make the other night on Rachel Maddow’s show. If there had been enough time to elaborate, I would have stated because these are grassroots operations led in many places by people with no political experience, they are ripe for takeovers by established political organizations. Obviously, organizations taking over elements of the movement have their own agendas. What I see most often is an attempt to guide the Tea Party movement to do what they initially opposed: re-electing politics-as-normal big-government Republicans.
To me, healthcare is a very relevant topic for Tea Parties. Immigration, abortion, foreign policy or even reform of marijuana laws, not so much. I’ve been vocal about this in the past.
Because of the nature of the movement, top-down coordination of the message can’t be planned by Karl Rove. This also means that each Tea Party event or organization will have a slightly different flavor. If I was in charge of the movement, my message would be one of fiscal responsibility. This encompasses deficit spending, corporate bailouts, stimulus packages, the current health care legislation, etc. To a great degree, this is also the message of my Tea Party groups I’ve encountered. This, in my opinion, is a good thing.
MT: How do the Tea Parties overcome this problem of co-option, which seems to infect grassroots movements of all political stripes? Is some sort of organized – and independent – top-down leadership eventually going to be necessary, or can the Tea Parties maintain their momentum without maintaining a narrow focus on fiscal issues?
SG: I’d offer any Tea Party organization the same general advice. First of all, stick to a single or narrow range of issues. Every time a new, and especially an unrelated, issue is introduced the movement will lose supporters. Second, develop organic lists. Make sure you obtain e-mail addresses, phone numbers, etc. at every event and from as many website visits as possible. Third, don’t let them take you over but make them come to you. Alabama Tea Party activists just held a gubernatorial debate and straw poll and their favorite candidate was made apparent. Had that particular movement been co-opted, I’m sure the result would have been different.
While the laws vary by location, if any local movement becomes large or influential enough, state and federal laws are eventually going to force some legal organizational entity to be formed. This will require a bit more top-down approach in some regard, but hopefully the Tea Party groups will be very mindful of the grassroots activists who made their organizations possible in the first place.
MT:Changing gears slightly, many commentators certainly have questioned where the Tea Partiers’ anger was during the Bush Administration’s spending orgies, not to mention the bank bailouts. This isn’t to say that all of the Tea Partiers can be accused of suddenly discovering their passions when the Democrats took over in Washington – obviously, libertarians like you and your old boss Bob Barr, not to mention Ron Paul’s legions, have been banging this drum for a long while. But why has the rise of the Tea Parties seemingly coincided with the Democrats – and President Obama – obtaining overwhelming power in Washington?
SG: As you’ve stated, most libertarians and some fiscal conservatives have questioned the lack of conservative anger during the Bush years. I’ve pondered the same question and asked it on blogs, Twitter and in person. Tea Partiers generally respond that they were mad, but there was no clear outlet for them to vent their frustration or become involved. I believe one factor is major conservative talk radio programs. When the Republicans were in power, people like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh would gripe momentarily about some Republican spending issue and then quickly shift to foreign or social policy. Now that the Democrats are in control, they spend most of their air time bashing Democrats about fiscal policy. A related issue is the general public perception about third parties. People who don’t believe in the viability of third parties who were upset with what Republicans in power were actually doing had nowhere to turn until the Tea Party movement began. People who do turn to third parties are often the ones shying away from Tea Parties because of astroturfing and “lack of purity” complaints.
MT: You mention public pessimism about third parties – what does that pessimism mean for the sustainability of the movement’s momentum? Put another way – how will the movement best be able to achieve its goals in the long run if organizing a viable third party is likely off the table?
SG: We are all aware of recent polling showing the popularity of the Tea party movement. Currently, a Tea Party party polls better than the GOP . However, Tea Party folks weren’t quite organized enough to pull of a victory in NY-23. This said, they are already a significant factor in the Crist-Rubio battle down in Florida. Jon Henke added some critical insight when he wrote: “‘Be principled’ is not a strategy.”
It’s unlikely that all of the movement’s goals will be met in the immediate future. However, the Tea Party voice is clearly being heard across America. While most of us are aware of how the topic hits the national media and the Internets, there is an impact which receives little media coverage and is harder to measure — but equally important: Tea Party folks now have a place at a growing number of political tables.
For example, I’ve been treated as persona non grata by Republicans for the last eight years at the national level because of my criticism of Bush and his big-spending Congress and at the state level because of my efforts to kill a Republican-proposed billion dollar tax increase. Today, not only am I invited to the table, but I’m writing policy pieces, campaign statements and press releases for viable Republican candidates and my finger prints are on quite a few pieces of legislation. This plays out in a different way, too. I’ve got Tea Party personalities asking the campaigns my consulting firm represents for specific policy proposals which concern them. Previously, such requests might well have been ignored by major campaigns. Today, they are taken quite seriously.
Henke is right. The Tea Party movement would be more effective if some sort of coherent strategy is adopted. However, dismissing gains made already by the movement would be political folly.
MT: You understandably emphasize the way in which the Tea Party movement has influenced the GOP, and seems set to continue to do so. Does the movement hold out much hope for influencing the Democrats as well? What, if any, influence could the recent expressions of, in effect, solidarity with some of the Tea Party themes emanating from the likes of Jane Hamsher have on the movement?
SG: While I often disagree with Hamsher’s ideology and sometimes with her tactics, I respect anyone who acts in consistent manner in the political arena. She’s not afraid to take on the Democratic establishment. She’s even teamed up with Grover Norquist and Phyllis Schlafly before. While I doubt most of the left will ever get behind most of the agenda of the Tea Party crowd, many will be sympathetic regarding corporatism and even an audit of the Federal Reserve. Additionally, I’ve not been at any major Tea Party event where I didn’t speak with Democrats in attendance. Likewise, some of my friends and candidates (i.e. Dave Weigel, Ron Paul, Bob Barr) and I spend time on Rachel Maddow’s show. Obviously, we disagree with Maddow regarding a host of issues. The common thread between both sides seems to be a very healthy dose of mutual respect. We’ve all spent significant time fighting the establishment in both major parties.
Barr wrote a piece at the AJC which I saw on Drudge, Politico, MSNBC and other locations. In it, he accused establishment Republicans of “irresponsible behavior” and he’s taking a lot of partisan criticism in the comments section for it. Weigel went through the same when he covered racism within the Ron Paul ranks. There are some people, on the left and the right, who consistently do what they perceive as being the principled thing to do – no matter the immediate political consequences.
Aside from the couple of aforementioned issues, I don’t see any serious solidarity potential between populists on the left and right now. For such a relationship to occur, the principled players on both sides of the aisle will have to work together to build the bridge necessary for both sides to connect.
MT: One final question, along those same lines. Both the Tea Partiers and principled liberals seem to share a similar sense of alienation from Washington. To what extent is ultimately necessary for the causes of that alienation to be at least partially overcome before either group can meaningfully begin to achieve their ideological goals?
SG: It’s my belief that, to some degree, Tea Partiers are beginning to achieve some ideological goals. Some elected officials in Washington embrace them while others at least pay lip service to them. They are a significant enough force to determine the outcome in many elections. I don’t see this happening as much for the principled liberals right now, though. Obama’s actions with regard to issues ranging from gay rights to foreign policy to detaining terrorists has a lot of them upset at the moment. Shortly, we’ll know how much impact the progressives will have on health care legislation. It seems clear at this moment that they won’t be getting single payer.
It’s not that I find establishment Republicans more ideological than their Democratic counterparts; they are simply the party-not-in-power at the moment. The only way real change will ever occur is for principled activists of all political flavors to knock the old-school politicians out of power.