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Can The Tea Party Be Controlled?

Jonathan Bernstein touches on an interesting question below: Who, exactly, speaks for the Tea Party movement? Many Tea Partiers would say that no one does. It's a grassroots movement, decentralized, self-organizing, bottom-up—all that jazz. Apart from Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, it doesn't really have any leaders. And yet, there are plenty of groups that would love to channel the Tea Parties' energy (and rage, let's not forget rage) for their own purposes. On top of that, the Tea Party movement may need a bit of centralization and coordination to survive and prosper in the future. But all those competing priorities can create an awful lot of tension.

Case in point: Earlier today, Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots were at the National Press Club to announce that their organization had just received a $1 million donation from an anonymous funder (David Koch, maybe? Who knows?). That's hardly pocket change. But Meckler was careful with his words. He himself wasn't going to direct where the money was going. After all, he was only a national coordinator—not, he stressed, the chairman or leader of the TPP. The Tea Party Patriot's local affiliates, about 2,800 all told, could apply for the money, use it as they see fit, and the only restriction was that they couldn't endorse candidates.

There are two interesting aspects to this. First, TPP seems to have found a way to avoid transparency in campaign-finance laws—as long as they don't work on behalf of specific candidates, their shadowy funders can stay shadowy and anonymous. (At his press conference, Meckler was cagey on campaign finance questions.) Second, Meckler and Martin were at pains to insist that their Tea Party group best represents the spirit of the Tea Parties—decentralized, organic, etc. The implication was that other national Tea Party organizations were hucksters. Indeed, Meckler took a swipe at one rival group, the Tea Party Express, which runs a PAC and endorses specific candidates: "We're not a bunch of Republican consultants handpicking candidates from a small office in Sacramento." (See this New York Times piece yesterday on the GOP consultant behind the Tea Party Express.)

Meckler's point about decentralization may seem pedantic, but it's not. Over the past year, we've seen a number of attempts to centralize the Tea Party movement—and they've always ended disastrously. Earlier this month, for instance, the group Tea Party Nation tried to stage a national convention in Las Vegas, and the whole event ended up disintegrating over infighting. TPMDC's Evan McMorris-Santoro has the story: It seems that a lot of state-level Tea Party groups were boycotting the event because they viewed Tea Party Nation as a fraud, trying to hijack the movement for its own ends and even profit off it. (Tea Party Nation came under criticism back in February when it tried to charge attendees $500 for a conference in Nashville.)

In a lot of ways, there's an interesting parallel here to the Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s. In the early years, the SDS didn't have a strong central bureaucracy (although there was plenty of infighting). Eventually, attempts to centralize the movement caused the whole thing to implode, particularly at the Chicago convention in 1969. It's not hard to imagine similar dangers lurking for the Tea Party movement, and that seems to be a fate that Meckler and Martin are keen to avoid.

(Mark Meckler photo credit: The Gomes Family)

Read here for Jonathan Bernstein's take on whether the Tea Parties make up an amorphous blob or a well-disciplined army--and whether they really matter at all.