Don’t call it a movement

DON’T CALL IT A MOVEMENT…. Describing the Tea Party crowd last week, Karl Rove told a reporter, “There have been movements like this before — the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the pro-life movement, the Second Amendment rights movement.”

The observation was based on a dubious premise. As Rove and other Republicans see it, there’s a Tea Party “movement,” somehow distinct-but-not-really from the GOP base, with a set of grievances and priorities that is every bit as clear as those real political movements.

But the reason I put “movement” in quotes every time I write about the Tea Partiers is that it’s an amorphous group of activists with no clear agenda, no leadership, no internal structure, and no real areas of expertise. Its passionate members, while probably well meaning, appear to have no idea what they’re talking about. Genuine political movements — civil rights, women’s suffrage, labor unions — have, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) recently put it, a “coherent vision.” The Tea Party has rage and a cable news network, but that’s not much of a substitute.

With that in mind, the Washington Post did something quite interesting — over the course of months, the paper tried to identify, find, contact, and poll literally every self-identified Tea Party group in the country. It is, to my knowledge, an unprecedented media project.

The result, Amy Gardner reported today, painted a portrait of “a disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings that do surprisingly little to engage in the political process.”

Seventy percent of the grass-roots groups said they have not participated in any political campaigning this year. As a whole, they have no official candidate slates, have not rallied behind any particular national leader, have little money on hand, and remain ambivalent about their goals and the political process in general. […]

The findings suggest that the breadth of the tea party may be inflated. The Atlanta-based Tea Party Patriots, for example, says it has a listing of more than 2,300 local groups, but The Post was unable to identify anywhere near that many, despite help from the organization and independent research.

In all, The Post identified more than 1,400 possible groups and was able to verify and reach 647 of them. Each answered a lengthy questionnaire about their beliefs, members and goals. The Post tried calling the others as many as six times.

There can be little doubt that these activists exist, and that the political world takes them quite seriously. But beyond this, groups and members of this “movement” don’t necessarily even agree with one another about their priorities or beliefs. This even applies to the basics — “less than half” the Tea Party organizations identified “spending and limiting the size of government” as a top concern.

It’s something to keep in mind the next time someone compares these folks to a real political movement. At least for now, that’s not even close to being true.