Does 'tea party' populism verge into extremism?

Ties between the tea party movement and the patriot movement could diminish the impact of conservative protesters. But seeing the tea party solely as a fringe movement has already cost the Democrats dearly.

Steve Bloom/The Olympian/AP
Traveling from Seattle, Bill and Kitty Milne cheer near the conclusion of an anti-taxation rally held Monday Feb. 15, on the Capitol steps in Olympia, Wash.

Evidence of growing ties between the quasi-libertarian “tea party” movement and supremacist “patriot” groups has the blogosphere all-a-Twitter after The New York Times ran a long story on the topic Tuesday, datelined rural Idaho.

Judging by scorn heaped on the article from both the right and the left, NYT investigative reporter David Barstow may well have hit the issue pretty squarely on the head.

“The Tea Party movement has become a platform for conservative populist discontent, a force in Republican politics for revival … [b]ut it is also about the profound private transformation of … people who not long ago were not especially interested in politics, yet now say they are bracing for tyranny,” Mr. Barstow wrote.

Hints of racism and extremism

While painting the tea party movement as embodying angst and displeasure at Washington, the story also hints at charges of racism and extremism that trouble – and, frankly, scare – some Americans.

The article gives rise to questions about the true nature of the movement: Is it racist? Violent? Xenophobic?

At the end of the day, the philosophical diversity of the tea party movement makes those questions nearly impossible to pin down, many political experts say.

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly flatly called some tea partiers “nuts,” “crazy” and “just loons,” before putting the number of extremists in the movement at 10 percent.

But, Mr. O’Reilly pointed out, “Every group has that.”

Largely a middle-class movement

The fact is, most of those who have been to actual tea party protests report that it’s largely a decentralized, middle-class movement focused chiefly on taxes, deficits, and the nature of representation in Washington. (A new CNN poll finds that tea party activists tend to be male, rural, upscale, and overwhelmingly conservative.)

“We have traditionally been the people that pay the bills and vote on Election Day but have sat back and been involved in other things rather than politics,” activist Phillip Dennis told the Texas Tribune recently.

To be sure, many in the movement take the bad with the good.

“Yes, the feelings, thoughts, and opinions of Tea Party patriots are all over the place,” writes tea party activist Lloyd Marcus at American Thinker. “What a mess! Well, I say, how wonderful!"

Despite recent successes, the tea party movement is likely to suffer if middle America sees it as a violent rebellion looming in the wings.

Can activists identify rogue elements?

One test is whether tea party activists are willing, or able, to identify rogue elements. That won’t be easy to do given the decentralized nature of the movement.

But reports like Barstow’s in The New York Times also run the risk of making it too easy for Democrats to make the same mistake they made before Scott Brown’s election to the US Senate in Massachusetts: discounting, dismissing, or even ridiculing the power of a populist movement that, though it may be confounding to national observers, is working quietly in local and state elections to vet and support Constitution-minded politicians.

“With ordinary Americans setting out to reclaim the political process, it’s likely to be a bumpy ride for incumbents of both parties,” writes Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds in a recent Wall Street Journal column. “I suspect the Founding Fathers would approve.”


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