And therein lies the truth of the problem. We can't easily define it, because in a way that is eerily reminiscent of the vast coalition of smaller groups that dominated the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the Tea Party Movement is everything and none of the above. It is comprised of widely varying groups as well as lone citizens joining others for the first time. It is anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation, pro-white, pro-Christian, anti-Federal reserve, and pro or anti ALMOST anything you can imagine...plus a few more things besides.
You can't easily lump them all as bigots or racists...because a vast many of them are not racist at all. One of the heads of the hydra bellows the N-word...and the other heads disagree and drown it out, sheepishly embarrassed by one of their own number. Another head shouts out for the belief that America is a purely Christian nation chosen by God to dominate the world...and the other heads roll their eyes and facepalm themselves while trying to quiet things back down. Likewise the conspiracy theorists, the Birthers, the 9/11 Truthers and more more more.
For every diverse little face in the crowd, there is someone outside of the Tea Party who equates that person with the totality of the movement itself. If a person hates Fundamentalist Christians, then Fundamentalists become the aspect of the Tea Party that he despises most and perceives as the dominant characteristic of the Tea Party. If a person despises racism, then the fringe of white power activists in the Tea Party becomes the powerhouse of the movement, defining it utterly as a racist organization.
This is neither truthful or productive...and by micro focusing an attack against a tiny portion of the Tea Party (even if you believe that its not tiny) it becomes like struggling in quicksand. The tiny grains cannot be dealt with...but the whole is the greater problem. Insulting a large number of people who may be very genuinely opposed to the taxes they pay and the general corruption of federal government isn't the answer. Being clear and concise in criticism of the worst elements is more effective than attempting to brand the whole with a label that won't stick...because people, despite their faults and foibles, generally trust personal experience over simple labeling.
I've been as guilty as others...sometimes venting my frustration at the general ignorance of Tea enthusiasts by blasting them with broad strokes...and I have to admit that after giving due consideration to the matter, I was wrong. I may have been right about the individual I was dealing with, but I was wrong about their relevance to the whole movement. In the future, I will try to aim my criticism with precision, because I would appreciate and admire the same courtesy being shown by others, and even if they don't do this it would still set my mind at ease and prevent hypocrisy on my part.
What do I see the Tea Party as now? They're new, largely white and Christian, fast forming into a national brand, and concerned with a wide variety of different issues...but focusing broadly on the reduction of taxes and the curtailing of federal authority.
And unfortunately, despite the degree to which I agree with those two concepts, they are massively underwritten by powerful conservative groups who are channeling that general dissatisfaction into a movement that will vote alongside the neo-conservative bloc of the GOP. There is no question in my mind on this single issue. Despite some bucking at the reins and complaints from within, the Tea Party as a whole is completely co-opted at the national level, and is being manipulated to help coalesce support for the party and policies that treat government's task as the facilitation of ease for business interests...not service to the people of the nation that elected them. This is worse in principle than even "big government liberalism" at its most onerous.
Government's role is not to facilitate the creation of an atmosphere conducive to easy money for the top percent of citizens. Government may serve best when it serves least, but it should be a duly elected body that serves all of its people, equally, not just a few...and its ability to act should be supreme when necessary. If you want an example of weak central authority and free markets...look no further than Haiti. It isn't pretty, but it's an honest picture of how those principles fare in the real world. Government is a necessary evil...but one which should be kept in check by various balances of power...and if I could encourage Tea Party enthusiasts to adopt one single platform it would be the restoration of the checks and balances originally framed in the Constitution and Bill Of Rights of the United States.
One helpful side note for them as well...if you undertake anything as radical as a call for real and effective change to make the government the servant of citizens and not vice versa...neither FreedomWorks nor the Koch Bros. will be there for you with free buses and pickets...there will be no website developers leaping to your aid on the house, and there will be no media firestorm beating its path to your office doors...because the minute you no longer serve the interests of the supremely wealthy individuals who are footing the bill and seem so sympathetic now, you will be on your own. If power welcomes you to speak truth and hands you a microphone to do it...it must not be dangerous to them...and if it doesn't meet that criteria, you are just an quiet ally to entrenched power and a fart in the wind tunnel of public discourse.
But if they should need advice on how to cope with that sudden loss of support and the distance suddenly placed between them and access to media and influence...they can always talk to the real Left. The genuine Left (which is to be distinguished from the DNC...a completely separate being with nearly no relationship, political, philosophical or otherwise to the political Left) have been experiencing exactly that for generations now, and they already know its the price they pay for threatening the flow of money between powerful people with interruption and expecting government to serve rather than represent those who expect service from all.
In the end, even if the Tea Party's members can't acknowledge that every single member doesn't share their personal branch's beliefs...and that some of those members' beliefs are so radical as to be horrifying and even downright evil, they will splinter and fragment, remaining a vocal new minority...but they'll never have national relevance as they collapse in on themselves.
At some point the 'big house' times must come to an end, and an honest appraisal of what they expect from members will have to come. At that point, honesty about the fringes in their ranks will take hold and the worst elements will have to be chased off. The militant Christian brigades, the Aryan Nation spin offs, and others will have to be toned down or ejected. In all likelihood, as this happens, they will also form a coherent platform that pretty much represents the best interests of corporations and wealthy individuals, and vote as one alongside the bought and paid for politicians they despise, and with the same results...stagnant corruption in our leadership and financial duress for most Americans. It isn't really going out on a limb to predict this, since they're lined up eagerly, with representatives who have spelled out most of what they support, ready for election time in just a few weeks...and I don't see that trend changing until after the November dust settles.
I hope that, in the aftermath of this time of chaos and uncertainty, the rancor isn't so great that common ground is impossible to find. There are core principles in the Tea Party that I find admirable...in principle...but I see a great rush to apply them in a way that will only diminish both our personal rights and prosperity. I actually feel great regret that a movement that emerged partly as a response to genuine frustration with corrupt government has become the fighting arm of that which it theoretically opposed. If the Kool Aid wears off and the desire to fight for justice and the rule of law over corporations and people alike ever kicks in, I will welcome them with open arms as brothers and sisters in the fight to leave something better for our children, but for now, however much sympathy I may have for the principles, they are effectively little more than well meaning dupes for the enemies of all who value freedom and democracy.
And lest anyone think I am painting with too broad a brush stroke: they are not all racists, they are not all Fundamentalists, and they are not all crazy or stupid...but they're still just working for the wrong side, and because that's a terrible thing to understand and live with, they just don't want to know it.