Brown's Tea Party Schism?
By Staff News & Analysis - January 23, 2010

Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, antipathy toward federal government activism and opposition to the Democrats' health-care proposals drove the upset election of Republican Sen.-elect Scott Brown (pictured left) of Massachusetts, according to a new post- election survey of Massachusetts voters. The poll by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University's School of Public Health underscores how significantly voter anger has turned against Democrats in Washington and how dramatically the political landscape has shifted during President Obama's first year in office. Sixty-three percent of Massachusetts special election voters say the country is seriously off track, and Brown captured two-thirds of these voters in his victory over Democrat Martha Coakley. In November 2008, Obama scored a decisive win among the more than eight in 10 Massachusetts voters seeing the country as off course. Nearly two-thirds of Brown's voters say their vote was intended at least in part to express opposition to the Democratic agenda in Washington, but few say the senator-elect should simply work to stop it. Three-quarters of those who voted for Brown say they would like him to work with Democrats to get Republican ideas into legislation in general; nearly half say so specifically about health care legislation. – Washington Post

Dominant Social Theme: Brown encapsulates electorate dissatisfaction.

Free-Market Analysis: Reading this excerpted article in the Washington Post set us thinking. While the Post article (which we won't further analyze since the above excerpt pretty much expresses the standard spin) points out what other articles have pointed out – that Scott Brown's election was somehow a break with business-as-usual – we wondered if the ramifications were possibly far deeper within the Tea Party movement itself.

We've been mulling the effects of the Tea Party movement on American politics for a while now, but this question opened up a new line of examination, and, below, we pursue it. You can see other recent Tea Party articles here:

Did the results of the recent Massachusetts election in a sense presage a growing formal schism between conservatives and libertarians who supported the "real" Tea Party candidate Joe Kennedy? We've written about the schism in the past without being sure of its nature or timing. But perhaps one can see it clearly if one looks closely at this special election. Even locally, some Tea Party groups backed Kennedy who was both anti-war and anti-state while others backed Scott Brown (who is supportive of the military industrial complex and certainly less anti-state than he pretended to be) because he had a chance of winning. And win he did. Kennedy was apparently a non-factor.

Any large post-mortem going on within the Tea Party movement may conclude in our estimation that the Massachusetts election was something of a polarizing event. The Tea Party movement could be factionalizing. Many on the libertarian side may not like Scott Brown's politics and feel he used the movement as way to build momentum without actually subscribing to its values. They might take the position that Brown, with his high profile and success, represents larger forces trying to turn the Tea Party movement into an adjunct of organized politics – and that this effort has been going on for a while.

This is not to say that the Tea Party movement has not already had a greatly positive impact on America's electoral psyche. Or that it is in any sense a spent force (it's likely still growing and will have continued, important impacts). We think it is a significant movement and there is plenty of life left in it. Yes, we think it has accomplished great things and will, in a sense, accomplish much more. We think many of those involved are most sincere and passionate. But certainly for organizers and dedicated participants, life could become more difficult for the Tea Party movement as it becomes less amorphous. Political organizers will move in order to take advantage of the money and enthusiasm of its members.

Think of the Tea Party as a kind of political equivalent of the 1960's countercultural movement – just post Woodstock. That was when it ceased to be a kind of generational expression and became instead a vehicle that could support all sorts of commercialization. There was lots of money to be made. It could be the Tea Party is approaching that point now – a point of exploitation by the powers-that-be. The Tea Party movement is the first big populist movement of the 21st century, and populist movements, being popular, tend to sprawl across the board, meaning different things to different people. Eventually they are ripe for exploitation.

You know, we could tell this past year that something was happening. We sensed that the Tea Party movement was becoming at least partially co-opted because the high profile names suddenly seemed to change from people we'd never heard of to people we had. And we noted that pro-military establishment commentators like Sean Hannity were styling themselves as Tea Party supporters and saw how mainstream political strategists were suddenly proclaiming their fealty to the movement and we began to wonder if a schism was in the offing.

We wrote we didn't "get it." We didn't see how you could support America's military-industrial complex and be pro-freedom and smaller government at the same time. We wrote about these views several times in order to unpack what was and remain a confusing situation because we think the Tea Party now falls into at least three camps. There are those political organizers and commentators who are manipulating the Tea Party movement in order to reap benefits for the Republican party. Then there is the libertarian group that believes in what they perceive as the foundational profile of the Tea Party movement as an anti-tax, pro-freedom movement. Finally, there are likely millions of Tea Party supporters who have a "big tent" approach to the Tea Party's goal and are perhaps satisfied with its anti-government flavor (as it pertains especially to domestic programs) and "give ‘em hell" mentality. Whether "conservative" or not, they may make up the biggest group of all – and are no less sincere or motivated than any others.

Because of this latter group, we are not willing to say that Scott Brown's victory had no larger import – or was not in some sense a triumph. We think there are lots of Tea Party people out there who simply see Brown's victory as proof of a resurgent movement of resentment and irritation unleashed on the full political spectrum. That's why we wrote that in a sense Scott Brown's importance was perhaps more symbolic than realistic. Because so far as we can tell, realism may dictate something approaching business-as-usual. He certainly doesn't have the hallmarks of a radical "change agent." His patron seems to be Mitt Romney.

We have looked into the campaign that Brown waged, understand his platform and his backers and we know why Scott Brown comes off as kind of closed-mouthed about his political stances. If he fully revealed who he was, the very people nationally who look on him as anti-business-as-usual mighty be surprised and even dismayed. But you know what – in the long run it may hardly matter … The MOVEMENT that cast up Scott Brown is only going to get bigger and more powerful. In fact to call it a movement is doing it a disservice. It is a process, sparked by the Internet and fanned by the winds of economic and social discontent.

Perhaps those libertarians who seem upset over what they see as the ongoing hijacking of the Tea Party movement could take a step back. Consider, please: This technology of mass communication – the Internet – is just beginning to bite. History shows us that movements of mass communication like this one can roll forward for decades and even centuries like Tsunamis, leveling social controls and creating more and more space for freer societies.

The Internet has only had about two decades to make a difference. It took the Gutenberg press a hundred years to really have an impact. But everything is speeded up nowadays, so probably in the next 10 to 20 years the Internet will really come into its own. In fact, people will have realized by then how truly manipulated they are by the power elite's dominant social themes, how they have been lied to, impoverished and cowed. There could be coming, in our view, a continual populist resurgence – far more educated about free-market issues than any that has ever come before – that will continue to build on what the Tea Party movement has created, no matter how the movement evolves.

Today, libertarians – some anyway – may be frustrated with the way the Tea Party movement is going. Republican operatives and commentators no doubt feel they have harnessed the Tea Party's populist surge and cleverly got their man elected. Tomorrow, the larger Tea Party membership may start to be at least vaguely disenchanted with Scott Brown, we believe. But just wait.

After Thoughts

When the Gutenberg press really began to make changes, Britain first turned away from monarchy and then, eventually, toward a parliamentary system. It was a substantive and galvanizing shift. (And there were many others in Europe as well.) Those who believe that the sociopolitical systems in America – and even in the West – are merely going to undergo cosmetic changes in the next few decades might want to reexamine their premises.

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