Brewing Strong TEA

Although I am not at all attracted to the TEA Party’s principles, I have been fascinated by their organizing success and have been watching it for some time now. The TEA Party (TEA = Taxed Enough Already) did see some success in the mid-term races. At least five of their U.S. Senate candidates won, and perhaps 40 of their U.S. House candidates will be sworn in this January.

The TEA Party Patriots claim that the movement began with Rick Santelli’s Rant in February 2009. A few dozen key organizers met after that event to capitalize on the energy that was sparked by the rant. Santelli gave the TEA Party national recognition and a jumping off point that the organizers could use to mobilize activists.

The TEA Party movement has several key elements that are contributing to its success:

  • Vision – the TEA Party Patriots say they want three things: fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets. They define what each of these things means.
  • Goals – the TEA Party Patriots have clearly defined goals, such as electing specific candidates or repealing health care reform.
  • Call to Action – the TEA Party Patriots have a constant and clear call to action. All actions are meaningful and get them closer to their goals, and they give the activists constant feedback about how their actions made a difference.
  • Discipline – the TEA Party Patriots are very disciplined about their message and their strategy. Although some activists get off message occasionally, the group overall has a very clear, pounding drumbeat: less government, more freedom.
  • Radicals – the movement has some radical actors – Sarah Palin comes to mind. These radical actors serve to fire up the base and anger the opposition to distract them from the real organizing work that is happening on the ground.
  • Doctrine – the TEA Party Patriots have a core set of beliefs. One is that unless you are trying to solve the problem, you are part of the problem. This means that to be part of the TEA Party, you have to be active.
  • Fun – for the members of the TEA Party, there are fun, social events that also build the movement. So far, the TEA Party Express has toured the country 4 times, holding rallies and bringing celebrities to the grassroots activists to help with the day-to-day work of making phone calls and stuffing envelopes. The TEA Party has also held larger gatherings, including national conferences and marches in D.C.
  • Structure – the TEA Party has a clear structure. This structure allows for many small, local groups to take initiative and be creative in their local organizing. However, there is support from the top and clear direction about how to organize and how to be part of the TEA Party Patriots group.
  • Money – the TEA Party is well funded and it shows. The bus tours are on chartered coaches, wrapped with TEA Party branding. The marches have huge banners and branding throughout. The Patriots have all the tools they need to get the work done.

Although some are saying the TEA Party is a short-lived uprising, it does have the potential to be a long-term movement. The question is whether the fact that it is primarily organized from the top will be its downfall. It seems that the decisions about the direction of the movement and the messaging are coming for the most part from the top of the structure. If that is true, the “grassroots” may eventually become dissatisfied with the direction of the movement.