I’m a Ralph Nader fan. The man who almost single-handedly changed the way Americans think about auto safety has been on the public policy scene for more than four decades, and has not lost his edge. He’s the unpleasant, uncompromising gadfly he was from the beginning. He’s as sure of his beliefs now as he was then. His consistent and stubborn commitment to his principles has guaranteed he will never hold high public office. It also means he probably sleeps well.
In one sense, Nader’s sometimes lonely public life reminds me of the nascent Tea Party movement. The obvious difference, of course, is that Tea Partiers don’t have an enigmatic leader or as focused a purpose as Naderites did early in their auto safety campaign. Tea Partiers can’t claim a figure of Nader’s intellectual stature or a foundational bible, such as Nader’s 1965 “Unsafe at Any Speed.”
So unlike the Nader movement, the Tea Party phenomenon rose up among angry and fearful Americans without relying on a Pied Piper. Think Ross Perot during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton years. Think George Wallace or John Anderson or Theodore Roosevelt. Political and social movements coalesced around those men and their ideas. They created third political parties. Ultimate impacts varied, but eventually the movements were either melded into the two major parties or became historical footnotes.
The genuinely grass-roots Tea Party movement is vulnerable to the machinations of political operatives and opportunists. The covert campaign to convert Tea Partiers into shills for the Republican Party or some other cause is under way in several states. In Washington, D.C., professional political manipulators are hatching schemes to harness Tea Party energy for their own purposes. It is beginning to work as some Tea Partiers fall for the siren song of grievance queen Sarah Palin and conspiracy nut Rand Paul of Kentucky, son of Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
The power of the Tea Party phenomenon is its unaligned spontaneity. That’s its weakness, too, because the movement has attracted a boatload of goofballs ranging from “birthers,” who question Barack Obama’s citizenship, to 9/11 “truthers,” who believe the U.S. CIA brought down the Twin Towers. If fringe factors begin to define “Tea Party,” the movement will lose its grass-roots legitimacy.
The Tea Party parallel with Nader’s sustained auto safety and consumer protection success is not perfect. But Tea Partiers can learn from his self-imposed outsider status. Even when Nader ran for president knowing he would lose, he used the platform to advance his cause. He changed the way we think about product safety in large part because he resisted assimilation by the prevailing political culture.
All manner of special interests, from the Republican Party to the lunatic fringe, are lusting after the Tea Party crowd. It would be wise for sincere, grass-roots Tea Partiers to check the ranks to expose who among them wants to harness the Tea Partiers’ power for old-style partisan agendas.