The Empty Contrarianism of Tea Party 'Leaders'

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The movement once had real policy goals, but its self-appointed bosses now preach opposition for opposition's sake.

There were two really impressive facts about the Tea Party. One was the way it managed to convince tens of thousands of Americans to care about the very dry matters of budget policy. That didn't always mean that the level of discourse was on par with the Krugmans and Mankiws of the world, but it was fundamentally a movement that had a real policy goal: lowering taxes, slashing the budget and lowering the deficit. Its second great strength was its leaderlessness. Yes, groups like FreedomWorks and benefactors like the Koch brothers gave it monetary and organizational muscle, but the movement's behavior -- feuding over who was really a Tea Party candidate, or managing to nominate candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell -- pointed to its genuine grassroots constituency.

As has been much remarked, a lot of the Tea Party's energy and centrality in politics seems to have dissipated, and the likely nomination of the moderate Mitt Romney further serves to emphasize the point. What's interesting is how those who tried to position themselves as "leaders" of the supposedly leaderless movement have reacted by adopting a sort of nihilist politics, in which bashing the establishment simply for the sake of bashing it replaces bashing the establishment for the sake of removing entrenched interests and cutting spending.

Here's Newt Gingrich, for example, at a rally in Florida last week: "Remember, the Republican establishment is just as much as an establishment as the Democratic establishment and they are just as determined to stop us." In other words, it's not that the Republican establishment is problematic because it's tied to big finance, or addicted to spending, or willing to compromise with liberals -- it's evil simply because it is an establishment.

With Palin, it's more contrarian still. Set aside, if you can, the oddness of Sarah Palin decrying the politics of personal destruction in the service of boosting Newt Gingrich. She has avoided endorsing the former speaker, but she said she would have voted for him in both South Carolina and Florida. When Fox News' Megyn Kelly pressed her on whether she'd also pull the lever for Newt in Nevada, she gave a strange answer (see the video above). "Whomever it is to allow the process to continue. I still say competition breeds success for the U.S., and that's what we need in this debate," she said. "I would continue to vote for whomever it is to allow the process. Continue to even the playing field with your vote."

It's a nonsensical approach to voting -- how can you ever choose a nominee, which is the purpose of voting, if you're always trying to level the playing field? -- but it's also a caricatured version of what the Tea Party claimed to stand for.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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