Keeping it going
Q: The tea-party movement doesn't want a single leader. After all, the last thing it wants is to become part of the "establishment." But in recent primaries, tea-party candidates ended up battling each other, enabling some incumbents to win. Does a successful organization need a leader to steer the boat? Or is it enough for the upstarts to oppose the "old guard" on principle and to agree on some key ideas?
Organizations can be astoundingly successful without a clearly defined set of goals or a well-designed governance structure. But not for long.
In the beginning, lack of definition is a part of the appeal. It creates a sense of possibilities. Everyone can project onto the group whatever they want it to be. But that leaves it only two alternatives. They can move forward to create an explicit set of platform positions and goals and risk losing substantial portions of their membership because people will disagree. Or, they can perpetuate their current vague approach to issues and risk losing substantial portions of their membership because their members will be frustrated. They can move forward to create an organization with leaders and membership lists and fund-raising and risk losing substantial portions of their membership because people do not want to make that kind of commitment or because they don't want to be bossed around. Or, they can keep things loose and unorganized and risk losing substantial portions of their membership because they cannot keep track of anyone or keep the momentum going.
It is easy to create a group by standing in opposition to something. You can always find people who are unhappy and angry. But it is very hard to make a group like that effective or even active over a sustained period because those groups tend to agree more on what they do not stand for than on what they do stand for. Some of the tea party's "contract" principles received barely over 50 percent support from their own membership.
The tea party is good television. But if they want to be more than a sideshow they will need to do more than wave signs around. They will have to find a way to appeal to a broader range of voters. They will need to check their facts. They will need to explain why their approach will benefit more people for less money.
They need to show that they have something more than anger and frustration, that they are willing to engage in serious, responsible, constructive discussion about how to improve our political system. Or else they will be a footnote in political history like the Bucktails and the Know-Nothings.
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