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Friday, October 29, 2010

Who Is The Tea Party?

The mystery of the Tea Party movements continues.

The "Tea Party" is not one movement.  It is merely a phrase, a moniker, used by disparate groups to attract somewhat like-minded reformers to advocate for reform -- however that is defined.  Usually, there is a central theme of restoring government accountability to the people, in the form of fiscal responsibility.  That term, in turn, is generally assumed to mean a visceral distaste for almost all types of government spending and, to a lesser extent, a disdain for taxes.   As for non-fiscal issues, some Tea Party organizations stay far away from the issues which could splinter their groups and concentrate solely on economic and legislative responsibility (like this incorporated organization in New York), while others do not hesitate to embrace positions typically held by paleo-conservatives, neo-conservatives, traditional Ayn Rand conservatives, libertarians, reactionaries and so-called constitutionalists.

There is no licensing body, no organization which gets to "approve" who is a Tea Party or even who can use the phrase.  Anyone can be in a Tea Party, and as democratic as that concept is, the openness is also an invitation for every political mischief-maker, infiltrator or quick-buck fraudster to come on in. Therefore, the Tea Parties risk having their name, image and mission compromised by hostile outsiders and a mainstream press whose members mainly think that Tea Party activists are the great, unwashed, stinking masses, the rubes of the early 21st Century.

That is why the efforts by "the mainstream media" to characterize, understand and label the "Tea Party" are hilarious.  If media members have a preordained opinion and are looking for someone, anyone, to quote or videotape in order to validate their storyline, it is real easy to find marks for the task.

But all of these perceptions miss the point.  In my opinion, the Tea Party movement is a strong reaction to the erosion of the belief that we are considered equals under our social, political and economic systems.  The beliefs in fairness and justice were freshly eroded in 2008 -- incidentally, before President Obama took office -- when the massive government bailouts and regulatory creations began rolling out.  It is as if people finally realized that the mirage of a level playing field had been revealed for the fraud that it was.

In short, the Tea Party movement can be viewed as nothing less than a manifestation of a massive crisis of confidence in the very institutions that shape our nation.   This destruction of confidence goes hand in hand with a loss of faith in the belief that average people can assume they will be treated fairly.  It is as if millions of people woke up one day about two years ago and realized they were playing a rigged game.

If American institutions are indeed suffering from a crisis of legitimacy, then one ought not to think that one mid-term election and any shift in power in either house of Congress will do anything to assuage this popular discontent.  It is a serious mistake to view politics as a larger version of the conflict in "West Side Story."  This is not the Jets versus the Sharks.  This is not Democrats versus Republicans, donkeys versus elephants.  This is about a much larger struggle, one which may ultimately transcend race, economic strata, educational background and any conventional ideology.

If that is the case, the Tea Party movements may just be getting started.

Eric Dixon is a world-class strategist and the president of Eric Dixon LLC.  Mr. Dixon has been a practicing lawyer in New York City since graduating from Yale Law School in 1994.  Mr. Dixon may be reached for comment or consultation at 917-696-2442 or at

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