With the Tea Party convention having just ended and with organizers already planning another one for this summer (in Vegas maybe!), it is time to cast judgment on the movement: these guys are old right-wing college activists.
Like remember when a bunch of NYU kids locked themselves in the food court to protest NYU's financial chicanery and also the Israeli occupation of Gaza? And then some more established campus activist groups basically said they didn't have any idea this shit was going to happen and lots of other people who sympathized with them politically found them terribly embarrassing?
That is basically the Teabagger Movement. First they were theoretically against bank bailouts, but now they are opposed to Kenyan Socialists who Hate America. They are not just taking back NYU, they are taking back all of America!
This is a problem with our limited, mediated, comic strip version of "history:" people have decided that the way to seize control of your own life and this crazy world is to go all 1960s, like you have seen in a movie. Many of these Tea Party people are actually old enough to have lived through the '60s, but they weren't on the fun side. Ben McGrath's New Yorker story on the movement had this fascinating little moment with a local Kentucky teabagger:
Don Seely invited me to his house for coffee the day after the rally at the Kentucky fairgrounds, and showed me his Air Force Commendation Medal, awarded for meritorious service from 1967 to 1971. "At this age, I was so ignorant," he said. "Every once in a while, you'd catch a glimpse on TV of Martin Luther King-all that kind of stuff was going on. I graduated college in December of '66. About a year after I left, that's when all the riots happened. I'm thinking, What is going on?" Seely had always wanted to be a pilot, but, because of poor eyesight, he ended up an engineer in a satellite-control facility. The medal was accompanied by a photograph of Seely in his captain's uniform, and he said that Amber, after looking at the image, had proclaimed that he was the only person she knew who'd kept the same hair style for nearly fifty years: short, straight, and parted neatly on the far right.
Yeesh. And guess what: his daughter goes to the New School. The New School!
It is totally fun to be a part of a big movement, and to convince yourself that this big movement you are a part of is not only morally right, but also secretly incredibly popular. You have to be attacked and beset on all sides by shadowy powerful interests—Soros, corporations, the political elite, ACORN—but that just makes you feel even cooler.
And when you're showered with attention for your work, you start to believe your own hype. The ratio of media to tea party convention attendees was like 1 to 3. 200 members of the media arrived to cover a convention half the size of Daily Kos' first convention in 2006. The steep cost of attending made the conventioneers richer, and thus calmer, than the angry folks who showed up for the protests with the crazy signs that we all remember so well.
While some in the movement acknowledge the debt they owe to true '60s radicals (the only reason you hear so much about Obama's supposed affinity for Alinsky on the right is because the activist arm of the movement is explicitly copying his tactics), the majority of the new populist conservstives adopt a '60s protest strategy while claiming to be Tea Partiers (and comparing themselves to the Founders when they are, in fact, a bit more like those white populist Jacksonians)—like a campus activist might compare himself to a Freedom Rider rather than just another sad rich kid.
The great irony is that entitled young Campus Activists tend to "grow up" and get jobs supporting the post-industrial capitalist superstructure, while these are people who've turned to juvenile attention-craving '60s-aping dress-up parties as putative adults.
But let them have their fun! Student protests are always destroyed by forces both outside and, more often, internal. This white populist movement has received far more coverage than its actual size merits (60,000 people on the Mall is, what, the Halloween parade?), and as whatever grassroots, populist elements of the movement that remain are fully co-opted by the actual Republican Party (and the US Chamber of Commerce, the nation's most influential political party) they'll find themselves just as disillusioned with the process as a sophomore who just go this first taste of tear gas.