You may not know it, but even after George Washington and the Continental Congress had raised an army to fight against the English Crown, the American Colonists weren’t exactly sure what they were fighting for. It was for this reason that Thomas Paine published his famous pamphlet, Common Sense, which was at that time, the top selling work in American history.
In it, he argued that the Americans were fighting for their independence from England, that they should be self-ruled, not taxed, ruled, and regulated by one little king on one little island thousands of miles away. General Washington himself was so pleased by the tract- because it gave focus to the character and ultimate goals of the little movement that had been brewing on this side of the pond ever since the Tea Party in Boston- that he purchased hundreds of them for his soldiers.
The second “Tea Party Movement” in American history seems to be faced with a similar dilemma. What are its goals? What are its principles? Who are its leaders? Why does it exist? Is it primarily a Republican movement, or a non-partisan one? Is it a grassroots movement, or does it take its cue from major news organizations and powerful talking heads in the media? The Tea Party protesters that turned out in droves last year to rankle with the Democrats’ proposed reforms, now seem to be at war with each other.
The controversies and conflicts surrounding the first National Tea Party Convention less than a week away, only serve to highlight the internal struggle to define the Tea Party movement. Grassroots activists, wary of what they perceive as an establishment-run event are demanding refunds of their (over $500) tickets to the convention. Two key speakers, Congresswomen Michelle Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn have both canceled their speeches at the convention. Sponsors are pulling their support, there are growing concerns that keynote speaker, Sarah Palin will end up speaking to a half empty room, and convention organizers are facing charges of labor law violations.
Without a unifying cause and underlying set of principles to guide it, the Tea Party or any organization will necessarily devolve into petty disputes, general disarray, and emphasis on profits over principles. Tea Partiers thought that unifying cause was dissatisfaction with the status quo- a Washington D.C. that seemed out of touch and overbearing. The infighting and controversy over next week’s Tea Party convention could very well be a sign that these same people have the same beef with the Tea Party Convention’s organizers and speakers- that they too are out of touch.
For someone who has made a successful political career out of her down-to-earth, average American appeal, Sarah Palin and her advisers have made a terrible miscalculation in allowing her to charge $100,000 for her speech at the nation’s first Tea Party Convention, while simultaneously stumping for Senator John McCain’s reelection in Arizona, after he voted for bailouts in his previous term. In addition, Palin recently called for an overt merger between the GOP and Tea Party movement, fueling critics who have long claimed that the grassroots effort is simply an extension of the Republican party. And for a movement fed up with corporate elitism and profits over principle, allowing Tea Party Nation, a for-profit business to organize the first Tea Party Convention was a miscalculation equally as grave.
Only time will tell if Tea Partiers find the principles and common identity they are seeking, but if Tom Paine were here, he would tell them that common sense dictates that their budgets, their insurance, their doctors, and their lives are their own private business, and should be independent from the caprice of a few legislators in one tiny city that may be hundreds of miles away.