The Death of the “Tea Party,” as a Charismatic Movement

Routinization.

Even by the standards that’ve defined her almost quantum career, Friday was a counterintuitive night for Sarah Palin, but more so for her latest project, the “tea party movement.” To date, we’ve been told that “tea party” groups are grassroots, bipartisan organizations, built out of a common desire to eliminate wasteful spending and put over-hyped politicians in their place. If that’s their message, offering Sarah Palin $100,000 to address guests at a $350-a-head shrimp & steak dinner might send the wrong message.

In fact, choosing Palin as a speaker itself sends the wrong message, and the proof is everywhere. Post-event, the National Tea Party Convention now provides Palin, and Palin alone, with a campaign-style headline bio, one that struggles to provide her with meaningful context (note the lack of any mention of her future with Fox News, and the stilted main-page description of her title: “Governor of Alaska, 2006-2009”).

Similarly, perhaps the group could be forgiven for taking fringe endorsements, and for its more, ah, subversive elements, but the focus on Palin functions to put divisive culture issues front and center (“If there’s hope in Massachusetts, there’s hope anywhere!”), subordinating and ignoring the economic message upon which the movement is allegedly based. If for nothing else, Friday should be remembered as the day the tea party movement’s leaders forfeited their populist bona fides for a listless star, visibly out of depth even in her preparation, and a string of birthers.

There’s a place in this country for a group of honest budget hawks cum libertarians, concerned with personal (not economic) liberty. Last week’s National Tea Party Convention just proves that the “tea party movement” isn’t it. It’s a tale as old as human history: a charismatic movement, built out of true believers (for so they may be), gets co-opted by the mainstream, causing the original idea to fizzle for lack of a guiding force. The media may continue to credit tea party groups as grassroots organizations, but we’ll be dealing with a hollow movement, and should so note.

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