Question of the week: What is the future of the Tea Party? What does the Tea Party need to do in order to remain influential and effective?
Editor of the Free Press opinion page
The tea party movement's roots are simple and unambiguous: In February 2009, CNBC talking head Rick Santelli, in an outburst of frustration, called for a modern day version of the Boston Tea Party in response to the "government promoting bad behavior" by passing out taxpayer-funded bailouts. He was concerned that working Americans would end up carrying the load for bad decisions and bad policies. As it turns out, of course, Santelli was right.
When Santelli's rant went viral, it prompted millions of Americans to join together in tea party groups in every state to protest bailouts and the growth of the federal government.
Since then, tea parties have succeeded in advancing their message of limited, responsible government in city councils, county commissions and state legislatures across America. Even the federal government has felt the impact of the tea party's powerful confederation of small-government advocates.
Despite the tea party's undeniable success, however, its future is uncertain.
The tea party movement was established to unite Americans behind a small, simple set of very, very popular principles: The government should be smaller, spend less and abide by the Constitution.
Since each local tea party group is its own entity, rather than a series of franchises parroting the concerns of a national Tea Party, they differ from place to place. As a result, tea parties have splintered into hundreds of groups with a range of different, even unrelated, concerns. As some tea parties became involved with matters other than reducing wasteful spending and keeping taxes as low as possible, their numbers and influence began to diminish.
The issue began soon after the tea party was founded, when politicians such as Sarah Palin and a number of conservative organizations attempted to co-opt tea parties for their own political ambitions or financial gain, often using socially conservative messaging to draw additional elements of the Christian right into the tea party ranks.
Adding social issues and religion to the tea party was a little like putting a stripper on a golf course. A lot of people enjoyed it, but a lot of people were offended by it, too. It didn't serve much of a purpose, distracted everyone and got in the way of what folks were actually there to accomplish.
Gallup polls routinely find that 60 percent of Americans believe that government is too intrusive and powerful. The tea party movement should be an inviting place to the substantial majority of Americans that believes the government is too large and spends too much -- and it would be if the tea party's focus remained on those issues.
Unfortunately, the tendency of some tea party groups to take controversial stances or embrace obscure topics, ranging from opposing gay marriage and abortion to fighting against Agenda 21 and Sharia law, chases away many, if not most, of the tea party's potential supporters.
Now the tea party movement is at a crossroads. Which way tea party leaders decide to go from here will determine whether the tea party remains a thriving, powerful force that shapes policy decisions and determines electoral outcomes or withers into a historical footnote -- or worse, becomes a social club of like-minded people, powerless to effect change.
By returning the tea party's focus to the low-tax, limited-government issues that unite so many Americans, rather than remaining mired in religious and social issues that divide us all, the most influential grassroots political effort in decades can remain a viable force for generations to come.
— The Free Press
President of the Nashville Tea Party
The potential is there for a very bright future for the Tea Party in general and citizen activism in particular. The tools available to lobby and organize are growing and the cost is minimal. A computer and a little time is enough to turn motivated citizens into effective activists who can change government at all levels.
The tea party is a return to our Revolutionary roots and it feels good. The essential tea party idea is that, ultimately, only the individual citizen can hold government accountable. Only an involved citizenry can effectively limit the power lust of elected officials.
The attempt by the IRS to target tea party groups is serious and must be stopped, but it is only the latest hurdle we have learned to conquer. All the attempts at demonization and marginalization by our opponents have failed. We understand our obligation and our power to make government our servant and to challenge anyone who would make government our master.
President of the Chattanooga Tea Party
The tea party movement burst onto the national scene and in our local community with a big splash in April 2009. Americans stood up to voice their disapproval of government overtaxation and overreach.
Those of us involved had little or no political experience. We simply loved our country and saw it quickly slipping to a point of no return -- burdened under unprecedented debt, skyrocketing spending, bureaucratic incompetence and political corruption.
Four years into our movement have we made a difference and where do we go from here?
There is no doubt that the tea party has impacted Washington. Have we achieved our goals of limiting government, reducing spending and taxes? NO! But are we making a difference? The IRS scandal should prove that a corrupt administration has been exposed for who they are, thanks to the tea party.
Closer to home the Chattanooga Tea Party seeks similar goals for our community: limiting government, reducing spending and exposing corruption.
Ultimately though, the tea party is about grassroots engagement. America has slipped because individually we have forsaken our civic duties. Government is you and me. If we fail to engage, we get what we have today.
So, will the tea party be here four years from now? I'm less concerned with the answer to that question than I am with whether our nation, as we know it, will be here.