How far can a grassroots movement go in changing the direction of American politics without becoming a cash-generating machine? Politico asks the question about the Tea Party movement, which thus far has not focused on fundraising as much as it has on organizing and protest events. Could their success become a flash in the pan without building a financial infrastructure?
Some leading tea party activists are concerned that their efforts to reshape American politics, starting with the 2010 elections, are being undermined by a shortage of cash that’s partly the result of a deep ambivalence within the movement’s grassroots over the very idea of fundraising, and partly attributable to an inability to win over the wealthy donors who fund the conservative establishment.
Many tea party organizations have shied away from the heavy-handed solicitations that flood the email boxes of political activists. And the handful of tea party groups that have raised substantial amounts, either by embracing aggressive fundraising or through pre-existing connections to wealthy donors, are viewed suspiciously within the movement.
Local groups have been left to literally pass hats seeking donations at their meetings or rely on their organizers’ bank accounts, while ssome national groups have failed to live up to their bold fundraising predictions.
Part of the Tea Party’s charm has been its eschewing of traditional political forms, including fundraising. The “suspicion” that some cast on elements within the movement is directed towards those who may have intentions of co-opting the grassroots for traditional party power. Its bootstrap quality attracts people to the rallies even if it does leave question about the movement’s ability to survive.
Besides, there is a basic conundrum in this question. While there have been many motivations and provocations that have pushed the movement’s growth, the poor economy and the top-down policies of Democrats that have created stagnation are the most powerful. That leaves people with not much discretionary cash to donate, making it ironically a bad time to launch a massive new political organization based on grassroots fundraising.
Politico’s Kenneth Vogel points out one issue with money that could create problems eventually for the Tea Party. Many of the events get funded out of very few pockets, which will lead to two major issues sooner or later. First, those pockets will dry up at some point, and if none are left to replace them, the events will grind to a halt, and the movement along with them. The other issue is direction. Having only a few people funding events and promotion leaves the movement at the mercy of just those few. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and while that hasn’t been a problem up to this point, the decentralized nature of the movement and the lack of broader sources of funding might create opportunities for embarrassment and misdirection at some point.
For a political movement with such a broad impact, the future seems somewhat murky. Will the Tea Party movement be satisfied with turning out Democrats in the upcoming midterms? Will it continue to gather energy long enough to help make Barack Obama a one-term President and put Republicans back in charge? If so, activists will have to start planning for long-term funding and embrace some of the parts of politics that has until now been distasteful for these grassroots.