By Sam Pauken
With the nomination of Rep. Paul Ryan as the Republican candidate for Vice President we find ourselves asking what the Tea Party wants to be. Does it strive to build a stronger voice in our government, allowing it to be a defining political force for years to come, or does it wish to remain an outlier that occasionally rears its head and flexes its muscles? This battle is one that has not been resolved by the Occupy movement, and clearly for a movement to become a party, it needs to first understand what it wants to be.
Ted Cruz’s win in the recent Senate run-off election in Texas and Richard Mourdouk’s victory over Sen Richard Lugar in Indiana shows that the Tea Party is still a powerful force in the Republican Party. The issues that resonate are clear according to David Kirby of the CATO Institute: cutting spending; balancing the budget; reforming the tax and entitlement system; and ending bailouts.
The Tea Party’s successes have not come without significant, if not disturbing, baggage. In May 2010, the Huffington Post reported that during the Obamacare protests, there were numerous reports of racial and sexual-orientation-related slurs. Currently national support for the Tea Party is around 25% (only 9% higher than Occupy Wall Street), and it is now the most hated group in America. More recently, Rep. Michele Bachmann, one of the de facto leaders of the movement, has come under fire for claiming that members of the Muslim Brotherhood have infiltrated the U.S. government. She has even called out the State Department’s Chief of Staff Huma Abedin by name, claiming people in her immediate family are members of the organization. Sen. John McCain vehemently denounced these remarks and such rhetoric garnered significant backlash and rebuke from both sides of the aisle.
The Tea Party’s two recent victories and Gov. Scott Walkers recall victory (the first in American history) show the group’s strength and potential for impact. The negatives are real and the Bachmann comments show the audience exists to support fear and hate mongering. We can only wonder what the Ryan nomination does: will it quell the fringe or empower the mainstream? We know one thing - organizations have their own heart to which they must beat and the Tea Party is no different. We know the nomination will mobilize the movement as a GOTV (get out the vote) effort, but what will it do to the threats and hostility that might ooze from those pores?
If the Tea party hopes to become a powerful and respected voice for change and restraint it will have to distance itself from extremism. The best way for the Tea Party to achieve this is to return to its roots, focusing on economic issues, while leaving social and foreign policy issues aside. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 46% of Americans are conservative on economic issues, while 20% are liberal. Social issues are far more contentious, with 38% of Americans being conservative, as opposed to 28% being liberal. (Moderates make up 32% and 31% of the population on these issues, respectively.) Focusing on economic issues would help the Tea Party avoid much of the controversy that currently besets it, allowing many conservatives who are distancing themselves from the movement to join, in addition to many libertarians, who disagree with the Tea Party’s positions on social and foreign policy issues.
The problem with decentralized movement such as this is that there is no defined leadership to bring order and direction, which is why the Tea Party is currently floundering. Whether they can overcome this hindrance and find a defined, levelheaded voice remains to be seen, but in light of Ted Cruz’s and Scott Walker’s recent victories, they have proven their ability to be powerful intellectual leaders who can achieve results. With proper leadership, the Tea Party can have a defined voice and can regain the powerful momentum it had in American politics.
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