The Tea Party's Image Problem
The grass-roots movement has seen its fortunes head downward lately. But if conservatives can learn from recent mistakes, they just might be able to turn things around for the midterm elections.
Throughout 2009 and into the early part of 2010, the Tea Party movement was beginning to prove itself as an electoral force. Election Day results last fall and throughout the primary process this year demonstrated that the party's collective energy and activism were enough to push its preferred candidates past their establishment counterparts to win nominations and elected office.
Much of that success came from the image that the Tea Party movement was able to craft for itself. With the help of right-leaning media entities such as Fox News, grass-roots activists were able to market their "brand" as rooted in middle-American values.
But the wholesome image of genuine grass-roots activism has been tarnished repeatedly over the past year or so, dating back to the explosive opposition hurled at Democratic leaders at health care town hall forums last summer.
Democratic and progressive leaders have worked hard to paint the Tea Party as the dangerous radical right-wing conservative contingency of the Republican Party -- despite the fact that many Tea Party activists are disgusted with the GOP as well. In 2010, controversial incidents (such as the alleged spitting incident during the large Tea Party protest this spring in Washington, D.C.) and obvious blunders from noteworthy Tea Party leaders (like the Rand Paul statement about the Civil Rights Act, and Mark Williams' blog post about slavery) hit the Tea Party brand hard. Now the negatives are outweighing the positives.
In a recent North Carolina Civitas poll, 33 percent of respondents currently have an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party movement; 31 percent have a favorable view. That prompts some questions: Between the select gaffes and bouts of inappropriateness -- coupled with efforts from the left -- has the image of the Tea Party movement been permanently marred? Has the best conservative grass-roots movement in decades been derailed because of a growing image problem over charges of racism and extremism?
The only question for conservatives, however, is whether they have learned from the past or are doomed to repeat it.
For decades, Republican apathy about engaging new voters for general elections (e.g., African Americans, urban voters, young voters) has been condoned through Southern-strategy tactics. The same ideological legacy that burned the Republicans during the 2008 election cycle is capable of doing the same now. Granted, in both instances, conservatives have allowed select leaders in the limelight to use foul imagery and bigotry (see the Willie Horton ad of 1988 or the Mark Williams statement that the NAACP has made more off of racism than any slave trader ever could) without much accountability.