The Tea Party’s Structual Dilemma

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I have little interest in the shopworn debate about whether or to what extent the Tea Party movement is racist. The impetus for this story–which was written several days ago, before the Shirley Sherrod saga stole its thunder–was an odious blog post written by Mark Williams, and the critical response it prompted from a cohort of Tea Party activists who formed a sub-group essentially dedicated to running damage control on jeremiads like these. But the point of the story is that the movement’s disaggregated structure, which feeds the somewhat romanticized view that it is an entirely grassroots phenomenon, has the potential to handicap its goals. As I write:

Williams’ invective, which came just days after the North Iowa Tea Party erected a billboard likening Obama to Hitler and Stalin, underscores a real organizational dilemma. The movement is bent on retaining the decentralized structure that fostered its growth, but its lack of formal leadership — and its confounding array of overlapping groups — means that when rogue members spout off, they can seem to be speaking for the movement as a whole.

The group that spoke out against Williams, the National Tea Party Federation, has a moniker that belies the bare-bones reality. (The dizzying array of sects within the movement — Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Express, etc etc — is one reason many people still don’t realize there is no single, monolithic Tea Party.) I’d argue that the movement would be well-served by resisting its ideological preference for local autonomy and becoming more centralized–if only to have formal leadership in place to respond to events like this one. That’s partly what the Federation wanted to do, and as Politico notes, their efforts generated no shortage of scorn. It’s a flashpoint, perhaps, of the movement’s internal struggle between pragmatism and purity.

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