The "tea party" movement is leaderless, disorganized, unruly -- and proud of it. That's part of its self-image as a grassroots phenomenon.
At last weekend's National Tea Party Convention, which was sponsored by Tea Party Nation, one branch of the movement, you could find anti-tax activists, "birthers," libertarians, Republican Party operatives, and religious conservatives. "You don't need a proclaimed leader -- as if we are all just a bunch of sheep and we're looking for a leader -- to progress this movement," former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, told the delegates.
The nation's educated elites are contemptuous of Palin, and she returns their contempt.
There was diversity of views, yes, but not a diversity of much else. Delegates were overwhelmingly white, middle class, and middle age. Former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., even sounded an anti-diversity theme. He condemned "the cult of multiculturalism" and told the delegates, "People who could not even spell the word 'vote' or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House."
The tea party movement is defined mostly by what it is against: President Obama, Big Government, taxes, and the Democratic agenda, especially on health care reform. Those are the same things the Republican Party is against. Many tea party activists are suspicious that the Republican Party is trying to co-opt them. It is.
So is Obama. Tea party activists are hostile to Washington and to Wall Street. Last week in New Hampshire, the president said, "Many good, hardworking people who met their responsibilities are now struggling, in part because folks on Wall Street and people in Washington didn't meet their responsibilities."
But there is one message that the Harvard-educated president can't co-opt: Populism is anti-elitist, and the tea party movement is defiantly opposed to the educated elites who run Washington, Wall Street, and the media. Palin lobbed a zinger directly at the president when she said, "We need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern."
The nation's educated elites are contemptuous of Palin, and she returns their contempt. Supporters of President Franklin D. Roosevelt used to hold up signs saying, "We love him for the enemies he has made." Palin's supporters feel the same way about her. Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart said in introducing her at the convention, "She irks the right people the right way."
Tea party activists want to turn their anger into power. How? They have three choices.
One is to infiltrate and take over the Republican Party. The National Precinct Alliance is getting tea party activists to sign up to be GOP precinct leaders, posts that are vacant in much of the country. That would put them in a position to elect the party's executives and influence its platforms and spending. Advocates also announced the formation of a political action committee to raise money for conservative challengers.
Are they threatening to split the Republican Party? "Contested primaries aren't civil war," Palin said. "They're democracy at work."
Second, the tea party adherents could remain a pure protest movement, staging marches, disrupting town hall meeting, and threatening officeholders. That would be in line with the movement's diverse perspectives, anarchic character, and recalcitrant origins. The tea party movement is a rare example of a genuinely spontaneous grassroots uprising. It was not organized by a party or a politician, or financed by a billionaire like Ross Perot. What sustains it, more than anything else, is the social-networking power of the Internet -- which, it turns out, is not the exclusive preserve of young left-wing activists.
Finally, the tea party phenomena could try to sustain itself as an independent force, sort of a right-wing version of MoveOn.org. Independent movements often don't last long but sometimes achieve a lot. Remember the tax-revolt movement of the 1970s? The term-limits wave of the 1990s? Both were driven by conservative populist uprisings, and their results endure.
The tea party movement already claims a great victory -- in Massachusetts, of all places. Newly elected Republican Sen. Scott Brown does not meet all the tests of conservative purity. But his election had precisely the effect that activists wanted: It stalled the Obama agenda. In her tea party address, Palin gave Brown a shout-out, saying, "In many ways, Scott Brown represents what this beautiful movement is all about." See what happened? The tea party movement co-opted the Republican candidate.
This article appears in the February 13, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.