In reading coverage of the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville I have to wonder if this might be the final nail in the coffin of the Tea Party movement. There's still a lot of legitimate anger and grassroots protest out there, but this event is such a charade and so fundamentally antithetical to the spirit of the Tea Party protests that it's going to leave a lot of people discouraged and disenchanted and feeling betrayed.
The problems with the National Tea Party Convention are many, but three stand out:
The net result of this is a very limited scope to the convention and a very specialized audience. With a cost of $549 for full admission and the additional costs of travel and lodging, the young students and hard-working people who made up the crowds at authentic protests this past year mostly can't afford to attend.
Mainstream Republicans turned against the event and attempted to distance themselves, with Representatives Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) bowing out as guests on short notice because of concern over the corporate, for-profit status of the event and the backlash against it among the grassroots voters with whom they have become very popular for their outspoken criticism of the Obama administration.
Other legitimate grassroots groups involved in the Tea Parties are either ignoring the convention entirely like the Libertarian Party, American Liberty Alliance and Republican Liberty Caucus, or they are actively opposing the convention and even planning protests as the National Precinct Alliance declared it would do when it withdrew from participation. Even the Tea Party Express, which has itself been accused of selling out to corporate interests, dropped out of the convention a couple of weeks ago.
With both mainstream Republicans turning against the event and other legitimate elements of the Tea Party movement generally ignoring it, the environment seems to have turned rather strange. The huge number of press representatives who were invited are being excluded from many of the events and the convention has already attracted national negative attention when opening speaker Joseph Farah launched a birther screed about President Obama's Birth certificate, garnering major negative response from left and right alike.
As a result of all of this, attendance is embarrassingly low, with an official estimate of only 600 paid attendees, which is far less than the left's similar Netroots Nation event which intentionally capped attendance at about three times that size. I've run a lot of conventions, and with that few attendees and paying for Opryland and $100,000 for Sarah Palin's speech, even at $549 a head it seems very unlikely that the organizers will see more than a modest profit, and the new Ensuring Liberty PAC which they are launching out of the convention isn't going to have a lot of cash to throw around as a result.
Now I have to admit that everyone has a right to make a buck, and if turning the Tea Party movement into a circus and inviting the scorn of the left media and genuine grassroots activists is worth enduring to make some money, then Mark Skoda and Justin Phillips of Tea Party Nation have every right to do it. And we can’t blame Sarah Palin for banking another six figures in her bank account. But I think that there is reason to be concerned about what this event will do to the grassroots movement which it represents so poorly.
Obviously an event like this isn't going to put an end to the genuine discontent among working Americans which motivated all of the protests over the past year. Yet it really does highlight the biggest problem that these loosely associated Tea Party groups have, which is their lack of nationwide organization. They are inherently leery of some of the organizations which could provide them with guidance and structure like FreedomWorks and don't want to sell out to the corporate interests they feel those groups represent. But it's clear from this convention that even some from within their own ranks are pretty eager to sell out and turn a profit from the movement without really moving them any closer to unity.
A small, overpriced and not-very-representative convention with most of the Tea Party groups absent isn't going to provide any kind of real or lasting leadership or influence, and the backlash against it is probably going to make future organizing and coordination more difficult as groups look on each other with even more suspicion. While this event could have been an opportunity to unify protesters, it is likely to have the exact opposite effect, and the Tea Party movement will remain a loose alliance with its members even more disaffected and disillusioned than they were before. Some will probably even become discouraged and leave the movement before the 2010 elections give them a chance to have a real influence.
Ironically, if this convention does have a unifying effect, it's more likely to come out of the hostile coverage from the left than from anything done at the convention. As sanctimonious leftists like Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann mock the event and the "Teabaggers" in general, such does more to bring them together despite their differences than any misstep like this convention does to drive them apart. Even those who aren't supporting the convention are going to be offended by the mocking and derision of the left, and that will help them find common ground in common enemies and maybe the next attempt at working together will go better as a result.
So don't write the Tea Party off just because of this sad event in Tennessee. The final chapter in the story of grassroots America rising up and demanding better government has yet to be written and the real test will come at the polls this November.