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Entries in New Patriot Journal (1)


US Politics: The Tea Party and the Dangers of a "Leader" (Haddigan)

Lee Haddigan draws a lessons from this week's primaries for the US Congress:

On Tuesday night Rand Paul, the son of Congressman and former Presidential candidate Ron Paul, won a stunning victory in the Republican Party's primary for a US Senate seat from the state of Kentucky. By Wednesday morning, there were mutterings in the US press that the win marked the emergence of a potential national leader for the Tea Party movement. And by Thursday Paul --- like his father, a staunch libertarian --- was the target of a Democratic-led campaign to discredit him and, by association, the Tea Party.

Paul’s experience, and the example of conservative leaders of the past, are a warning for the Tea Party not to unite behind one "leader".

Paul got into hot water on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show on Wednesday night (part 1 and part 2 of video)  when asked to explain comments he made to a Louisville, Kentucky paper last month. Paul had explained to the Courier-Journal why he would have opposed one of the ten provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, specifically the clause that allows the federal government to enforce anti-discrimination laws on private property.

Paul's position is based on libertarian principles. For most libertarians, private property rights override the rights of any government in all circumstances. Thus in this case, a restaurant owner has the right to serve, or not to serve, any customer.

In a series of interviews Thursday Paul was at pains to insist he is no racist and supported the nine provisions of the Act that enforced anti-discrimination regulations on public property. But, as Paul recognized in an appearance on the Laura Ingraham show, he had made “a poor political decision”. The Democratic National Committee immediately seized upon the mistake by sending out nearly 30 emails on Thursday to the media attacking Paul and, by association, the Tea Party.

Haven’t We Been Here Before?

In 1964, conservatives backed the Presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, a Republican Senator from Arizona. Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act and voted against it.

Like Paul, Goldwater was no racist, and he disagreed with the Act over the principle that anti-discrimination laws were a matter for the individual states to decide. But that principled stand/"poor political decision" allowed the Democrats to flesh out their portrayal of the Senator as the representative of "extremism" in America (The iconic image of that extremism, although it was not seen widely at the time, was the Democrats' commercial of a small girl and a daisy, which linked Goldwater to the use of nuclear weapons.)

For those who don’t know:  Goldwater lost by a landslide to Lyndon Johnson.

The conservative campaign that ended with the defeat of Goldwater shares many similarities with the current Tea Party movement. His candidacy was the result of several years of grassroots campaigning to get a President who supported free markets, less taxes, a limited Constitution, and the prevailing liberal orthodoxy (of both parties) in Washington.

Even the symbol of the tea bag is not new. In January 1959, Willis E. Stone reported in his column, "Organized Tax Protests", that a group in New Orleans, “headed by Kent Courtney, is using the Boston Tea Party theme in their tax protest, sending teabags with their protest to members of Congress and the State Legislatures”.

In the vanguard of that grassroots effort to see conservative values reestablished in government was the John Birch Society, led by Robert Welch. They disavowed any connection to the Republican Party and took no position on partisan issues. Their focus was to educate the public in the reasons why America needed “less government and more responsibility in which to create a better world.” The John Birch Society called for the election of politicians, Democrat or Republican, who believed in those principles. And their primary tactic was the mass mailing of letters and postcards (the ancestor of the Tea Party's faxes and e-mails) to politicians in Washington.

The relevance of the John Birch Society to the Tea Party? Both offer warnings about the dangers of becoming identified with a national leader. In March 1961, Time magazine revealed to the nation that Welch had claimed a few years earlier that President Eisenhower was “ia dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”. It was a revelation (along with some falsehoods in the article) that crippled the effectiveness of the Birchers. It also helped establish the validity of Democrat depictions of conservatives as "paranoid" members of a "lunatic fringe".

(How the letter became public is another caution for Tea Partiers.Welch made his statement about Eisenhower in a private letter to several hundred individuals he wanted to contribute to the John Birch Society. Frederick C. Schwarz of the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, nominally committed to the same principles as the Birchers, made a copy of Welch’s letter available to the press. Welch believed Schwarz did so from resentment at the popularity of the new organization, which continued donations to Schwarz’s Crusade.)

A last consequence of the controversy that erupted as a result of Welch’s indiscretion was the infighting it provoked within the conservative movement. Welch and his Society polarized Goldwater supporters. Many defended him, but many, notably William F. Buckley, attacked him.

Risks of mutating into a unified national organization are widespread within the Tea Party movement. Shelby Blakely, Executive Director of the New Patriot Journal, advised readers in February, "Tea Party Not Interested In Media Appointed Leaders" (especially if that leader was to be Sarah Palin). Blakely’s opposition to a national leader rests on the conviction that from the beginning, “Those opposed to tea party ideas have tried to bait our movement into becoming something they could destroy: a top-down group with a visible (and therefore reachable) leader to focus on.”

The example of Rand Paul –-- and Goldwater and Welch before him –-- suggest that Ms. Blakely was correct.