So far, the “tea party” phenomenon has ridden waves of witty protest signs – “Don’t tax me, bro” – to surprise and buck the Democratic establishment in Washington on issues from healthcare reform to the federal deficit.
But protest only goes so far. All legitimate movements need a manifesto. So now at least one group of tea partyers is turning directly to “we the people” by using technology in an unprecedented way: build a party platform from the bottom up.
Taking cues from the “Contract with America” that led to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, a group known as Tea Party Patriots used a website to gather ideas for what they're calling the Contract from America.
Thousands of ideas
Among the thousands of ideas submitted by more than 100,000 people so far are “Drill Here, Drill Now,” “Abolish the Department of Education,” and “Congress shall not exempt themselves.” The group will ask Americans this month to start winnowing 20 ideas down to a 10- or 12-point platform. The contract will be unveiled on Tax Day, April 15.
“This is a way of taking this protest movement and turning it into a very strong reform movement,” says Ryan Hecker, a Tea Party Patriots spokesman and activist in Houston, Texas. “And I think, at the end of the day, this document will offer the biggest tent possible and … will be very broad, very bold, but yet also viable.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the architect of the first contract, told a conservative conference in New Hampshire this weekend: “The idea is to go out to the whole country and say, ‘What would you have in a contract with America to politicians?’ It’s a very interesting idea.”
After playing a role in Republican victories in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, the tea party movement still presents a challenge for incumbent Republicans as much as it does for Democrats.
Many tea partyers are politically to the right of the average Republican and most have little party loyalty. As Politico points out, “Republicans who paint tea partyers as a fringe group risk primary challenges, while those who embrace the group risk drifting too far rightward to win a general election.”
Tea party infighting
In that light, the crowd-sourced contract will shed more light on tea party priorities, but it could also play into widening fissures in the movement, evidenced at least in part by infighting over the upcoming Tea Party Convention in Nashville.
“Right now, they’re certainly against Democrats, they’re pretty often against Republicans, but they’re an oppositional force more than a party or organization that’s aiming to do anything constructive with government,” says Martin Johnson, a political scientist at the University of California in Riverside. “The other tension here is they’re going to have to become insiders if whatever they’re proposing here is going to have a deep and sustained effect on policy.”
The emerging contract is also, in many ways, the opposite of the Contract with America, which was written by party operatives in the standard Washington mold – via polls and focus groups.
University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, author of “An Army of Davids,” calls the Contract from America “a crowd-sourced party platform … more in the nature of a contract of employment from the voters, which politicians may choose to accept or look for alternative employment.”
“It’ll be interesting to see what the intellectual differences are between what emerges out of this process and the kinds of things we saw with Contract with America,” says Professor Johnson. “Only time will tell whether this will rise beyond clever political marketing and showmanship.”
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