What had been booked as a major "tea party" event has been canceled. But does that mean the political insurgency that’s got both major parties rattled is somehow slipping?
Not at all. If anything, it may indicate the strength and vastness of a diverse movement that has a strong grass-roots element while also enjoying the financial backing of special interests, conservative billionaires, and longtime GOP operatives. Like Democrats and Republicans, tea partyers are numerous enough to justify infighting.
The “National Tea Party Unity Convention” was supposed to be held next month in Las Vegas – a follow-up to last February’s convention in Nashville, where Sarah Palin wowed a crowd willing to pay $349 to hear her (or $549 for the full three-day event). But this week, supporters were told by e-mail that “the convention is just not going to happen.”
Both conventions were organized by the Tea Party Nation, a social networking site for conservative political activists started in 2009 by Judson Phillips, a former assistant district attorney in Tennessee.
That first convention was controversial within the tea party movement. Several tea party-related organizations pulled out over the event’s questionable for-profit financing. At the time, Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of RedState.com and a conservative contributor to CNN, wrote that it “smells scammy.”
A few months later, the Tea Party Nation squabbled with the Tea Party Express over Nevada’s GOP primary race for the US Senate, which eventually went to Sharron Angle. Ms. Angle was supposed to be featured at the October “unity convention” along with conservative celebrities Lou Dobbs, Joseph Farah, and Andrew Breitbart.
Other recent tea-party-related events have failed to live up to expectations as well, including the “LibertyXPO” in Washington earlier this month. The second “9/12 Taxpayer March on Washington” had a smaller turnout than last year.
Writing in the Washington Monthly, Steve Benen suggests that a movement with no formal leadership, structure, agenda, or membership is likely to have a hard time gathering a crowd for such an event as the National Tea Party Unity Convention – particularly when tea-party rallies are held somewhere in the country just about every weekend.
“Is it any wonder that gathering fatigue has set in?” he writes. “I've never even heard of a movement trying to organize so many national events in such close proximity to one another, and actually expecting folks to show up.”
For their part, liberals say the size and potential political impact of the tea party movement are overblown.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. asserts that “the Tea Party constitutes a sliver of opinion on the extreme end of politics receiving attention out of all proportion with its numbers.”
As evidence, he points to recent GOP Senate primary elections in which tea-party favorites such as Christine O’Donnell in Delaware “were built on small shares of the electorate” – winning by just a fraction of their state’s overall voting population. He also notes recent polls showing that a relatively small percentage of Americans consider themselves tea partyers.
“Last April, a New York Times-CBS News poll found that 18 percent of Americans identified as supporters of the Tea Party movement, but slightly less than a fifth of these sympathizers said they had attended a Tea Party rally or meeting,” he writes. “That means just over 3 percent of Americans can be characterized as Tea Party activists. A more recent poll by Democracy Corps, just before Labor Day, found that 6 percent of voters said they had attended a Tea Party rally or meeting.”
But 6 percent (or even just 3 percent) probably is more than the percentage of Americans who have ever gone door-to-door for a candidate, manned a phone bank, or even put up a yard sign. Millions of tea partyers have showed up, and not just out of curiosity. According to recent polls, millions more are ready to “throw the bums out,” be they Republican or Democrat.
Despite what he says is a “tempest in a very small teapot,” Dionne notes that “the Tea Party is not the only small group in history to wield more power than you'd expect from its numbers.” And here, he sees a clear warning for political progressives like himself.
“Sulking is not an alternative to organizing, and weary resignation is the first step toward capitulation,” he writes. “The Tea Party may be pulling a fast one on the country and the media. But if it has more audacity than everyone else, it will, I am sorry to say, deserve to get away with it.”