What's the True Face of the Tea Party?

Dave Weigel makes a good point about congressional candidate and now-famous nutball Rick Barber, whose loss in a runoff for a seat from Alabama Jamelle wrote about this morning:

But the tea party's success in boosting some serious candidates, like Scott Brown, has got the nonpartisan and liberal media chasing after any candidate who ostentatiously proclaims himself a tea partier. The "wackier" his appeal, the better. The easier it is to "nail" him on his views in an interview, the better. It's a bit like when a new craze hits (let's say alt rock) and all of a sudden every going-nowhere band can get a record deal (let's say The Verve Pipe, Days of the New, Marcy Playground) simply for acting up.

Fair enough -- Weigel is right that at places like TAP, we take an interest in the wackier corners of the Tea Party movement, both because we want to highlight the evidence that the movement is indeed dominated by extremists, and because people like Rick Barber are highly amusing. To take Weigel's analogy, once the band gets a record deal, and significant numbers of people are showing up to their concerts, they matter -- whether or not they actually suck.

The question at the heart of this is how we should understand the Tea Party movement. Is it best represented by people like Scott Brown, a formerly moderate state senator who, despite his apparently modest gifts, has now become a disturbingly influential U.S. senator, or by people like Rick Barber, who thinks that if they were alive today and saw the abomination that is the income tax, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington would be attempting a violent overthrow of the government?

When a movement is as nebulous as the Tea Party is -- lots of people competing for leadership, the vaguest of agendas -- it can be very hard to pin down, to locate its true heart so you can make a precisely accurate assessment of just how mainstream or extreme it is. ( One thing we shouldn't do, though, is get into any false equivalences, of the liberals-have-their-crazies-too variety. Yes, liberals have their crazies. However, the trustafarian with the "Free Mumia" sign may be just as nutty as Rick Barber, but he isn't running for Congress, and if he did he wouldn't manage to get himself into a runoff.) And after you pile up enough candidates like Barber and Sharron Angle, it becomes hard to say that they're not the true face of the movement.

-- Paul Waldman

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