Mike Hassinger is a political consultant with Landmark Communications in Atlanta, Georgia. These views are his own.
The Tea Party movement has been ignored, mocked, dismissed, and cast as a collection of conspiracy kooks and racists. To become a genuine political force, this fledgling movement must face internal challenges of direction and leadership while under full assault from the statists on the left and their enabling lapdogs in the mainstream media. In one sense the Tea Party’s journey has been a compressed version of libertarianism -it took libertarians decades to become misunderstood and marginalized, whereas the Tea Partiers have done so in less than a year.
The Tea Party, as force in American electoral politics, stands at a crossroads –several crossroads, actually. Do they form their own political party, or back candidates from existing parties who support their views? Will they start small, with state and local races, or swing for the fences and jump into contested races in the house and Senate? The biggest question is going unasked: Will they co-opt, or be co-opted, and if they’re co-opted, who’s going to get them?
Any fledgling political movement that includes people with no prior participation in politics is going to make plenty of beginner’s mistakes, and any movement born of disaffection and distrust is going to attract members of 9-11 Truthers, Birchers, Birthers or Glenn Beck fans. The Tea Party has attracted those, and others, inviting derision from not only conventional journalists like Anderson “hard to talk when you’re teabagging” Cooper, but also some libertarians, for challenging Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) in a primary, for using Sarah Palin as a headliner at their national convention, or for not holding Republicans responsible enough for excess spending and constitutional encroachments under President Bush. Some of this is as unfair as labeling libertarians nothing more than a movement promoting gay marriage and legalized pot, but worse than unfairness is myopia. In criticizing the Tea Party movement for these early stumbles, libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives everywhere miss their once-in-generation opportunity to get fully in the game of American politics.
The glue that holds the Tea Party movement together is anger in three parts: Government spending; high taxes and unsustainable debt levels. Take away any one of these three, the movement begins to collapse; take away all three, and the Tea Partiers will go back home like Cincinattus to the plow, leaving the militias and anti-Bilderbergers to their nattering. In this glue, there is much to unite small government conservatives and at least some libertarians. No, the Tea Partiers are not likely to whole-heartedly back libertarian positions on the War on Drugs, or marriage equality, or an interventionist foreign policy. But by meeting them on their core issues, libertarians could form an alliance, grow their own movement and make progress on those non-fiscal issues down the road. Dismissing them as racist kooks may feel good, especially if you believe what you see on MSNBC, but won’t move the liberty agenda forward in any meaningful way.
The Republicans are already moving to ride the Tea Party tiger. In South Carolina, a movement to share resources between the GOP and the Tea Party coalitions was started, but is now on hold. GOP Chairman Michael Steele is scheduling meetings with some 50 Tea Party organizers. And in Virginia, a conservative group representing different wings of the Republican establishment is explicitly trying to claim Tea Party sentiment as their own. “Signers to the Mount Vernon statement include: former Attorney General Ed Meese, Heritage Foundation President Edwin Feulner, Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, Media Research Center leader Brent Bozell, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie and David Keene, CPAC sponsor and head of the American Conservative Union.”
It’s clear the establishment Republicans are trying to create Tea-publicans. There’s no reason some members of the movement can’t become liber-Tea-rians either.