In 2009 when the Tea Party movement began I was co-hosting a radio show in the Chicago area and two of my co-hosts and I were very vocal in encouraging the new activists to help improve the organization with the ballot line: the Republican Party. We not only talked about it, we wrote about it for months. After all, if you want to truly make an impact on the electoral process the best way to do that is through direct contact — not just hoping you will through indirect means.
Some people heard us, others figured it out on their own, and we witnessed some increased participation in the Illinois GOP. However, most of those new activists steered clear of the state Republican Party and it’s not difficult to understand why. The party in many places is run by the kind of people reformers don’t want to have anything to do with.
Five years later the tension between the Tea Party and the Republican Party is well known coast to coast. The group that holds the upper hand, however, is still the one with the ballot line.
Despite the fact that too many new activists preferred not to engage in actual party politics, there was always the chance they could impact public opinion in a positive way. For the most part, that “chance” hasn’t materialized. The Tea Partiers have done no better than old line Republicans when it comes to genuine outreach to the uninformed and misinformed.
Don’t get me wrong — many of these new Tea Party people are my friends. Those of us who were “Tea Partiers” long before 2009 feel a great affinity with those who affiliated with this new grassroots movement. The problem is the same, unfortunately, inside and outside the party: little serious work is being accomplished to lower the number of low information voters.
Can I put it in plain, harsh terms? Too much of what constitutes Tea Party activity is list-building, event-holding, and territory-mapping. Many Tea Party leaders think that the more email addresses you have the stronger you are. The more times you gather the choir together to hear speakers or to commiserate the more effective you are. The larger geographic area you draw members from proves you’re on the march. Except none of what I just wrote in the previous three sentences is true.
Everything I’ve written about the failures of Republicans and conservatives to increase the number of people they reach applies as well to the Tea Party and patriot groups. I’m not saying no one at all is being reached. Even in lowly Illinois, Republicans still score in the 40s the percentage of people voting their way. We will only get to governing majorities, though, when everyone on our side gets into outreach mode. We all have to learn mass communications.
I realize many Tea Party groups sponsor door to door campaigning efforts to support good candidates. Every time they do so they are advancing the ball. Many Tea Party groups attempt to attract attention or try to advertise their meetings that are open to the public. Every time their energies are spent along these lines they’re doing God’s work. I think the evidence is clear, however, that as a whole the tea party is failing to accomplish what it was set up to do.
How many non-Tea Party members are actually getting the message? How many people are being won over and influenced to get out and vote or to change which candidates they support? I’d say the answers to those two questions are “not nearly enough.”
As I noted last time, the Tea Party can’t even protect its own brand. Five years after the rise of the Tea Party the work of big time and sustained outreach to the uninformed — in my view — has yet to begin in earnest. Saying this might make some of my friends angry — and that’s fine.
In fact, let’s talk about the problems with being new to politics in the next column.
(Updated version. First published October 2013)