Tea Party Convention Woes

Perhaps unsurprisingly for the still-nascent and spread-out grassroots movement, some infighting has arisen surrounding the first ever Tea Party convention, slated to be held in Nashville starting Feb. 4: Politico's Kenneth Vogel chronicles how activists have shown misgivings over the for-profit status of the event's organizing group, the high ticket prices, and a financial backer's plan to mention a business venture to Sarah Palin when she speaks there.

Those are the voices of discontent surrounding the convention; those criticized, namely the convention's main organizer and one of its financial backers, defend themselves, and have their defenders as well.

The idea of the Tea Party convention has seemed ambitious and, maybe, incongruous from the start: everyone involved in the movement insists on its "grassroots" credibility--that it has no top-down organization or leadership, and that it's entirely comprised of organic energy from ordinary citizens, with events coming together by word of mouth and the leadership of local citizen-activists--so the idea of centralizing the movement, even if to provide activist training and an exchange of ideas, and perhaps to provide a level of coordination and direction that the movement may need, looked edgy when it first came about. They're charging $550 for tickets and paying Sarah Palin $100,000 to speak there--all to the end of advancing economic populism--and that's what's drawn fire for possibly betraying the ethos of the movement.

As Vogel notes, the event lacks the imprimatur and sponsorship of FreedomWorks, the DC-based, Dick-Armey-led group that has been most prominently associated with the movement--although it has been careful not to be seen as a leader of the movement, for fear of usurping or corrupting its organic credibility. Given FreedomWorks' eagerness to help out with anything Tea Party related, and its shared interest with the Tea Party activism, the group's absence from the list of sponsors and organizers was certainly noticeable.

It remains to be seen what exactly will happen at the convention; Vogel reports that some discontent Tea Partiers may protest outside it--which would look pretty bad.

The disjointed nature of the Tea Party movement has been both a strength and weakness: it has allowed the energized conservative grassroots to express themselves free of party and nationally sponsored political interests, and to disown, to some extent, the corporate associations that have fed conservatism in America, allowing a genuine sentiment of anti-spending, anti-bank, and somehow at the same time anti-regulation, populist sentiment to arise.

It has also meant that the movement lacks some leadership and coordination; if it is to affect elections in this country, it may need that.

The Tea Party convention has been an attempt to bring the disjointed movement together, if not under a single leadership, at least to get them in the same place. We'll soon find out whether or not it works, though, if the activists in attendance walk away with ambiguous feelings about the Nashville event, the Tea Party movement could come away from even a strong showing with some dissonance about its state.