Speed Reads


Is it time to retire the 'tea party' label?


Keying off news about "tea party" Rep. Michael Grimm's indictment, the Washington Post's Aaron Blake has penned an interesting piece on "the misappropriation of the tea party label."

As Blake notes:

The question during the election, often asked in this newsroom and (we would presume) others, was, in what situation is the tea party label appropriate?

If a candidate is endorsed by a local tea party group, does that make him or her a "tea party candidate?"

Just because someone is challenging an establishment or more well-known candidate, does that make them a "tea party candidate?"

And do reporters wait for a candidate to define themselves as a "tea party candidate," or can we make that judgment on our own based on their public statements and stances?

The answers to these questions were all too often muddled in the hectic runup to the 2010 midterms. In the end, it became pretty easy to apply the label to all kinds of Republicans who didn't necessarily fit the bill. [Washington Post]

Part of the problem, I think, is that the term makes for convenient shorthand for journalists who are looking to write a short headline, or a clickable 140-character tweet. This leads to convenient, if misleading, classifications.

Let's take, for example, the now-infamous case of Todd Akin, whose comments about "legitimate rape" helped ignite the "war on women" narrative, and likely cost the GOP at least one Senate seat in 2012. Some amorphous entity called the tea party was blamed for Akin's comments. But as Slate's Dave Weigel notes,

The 2012 Missouri primary was a three-way race between Akin, businessman John Brunner, and former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman. "Todd Akin is often called a Tea Party candidate," says Tea Party Express strategist Sal Russo, "but we didn't support him in the primary. [Slate]

Headlining a story "Tea party candidate Todd Akin today..." is much sleeker and simpler than adding all sorts of disclaimers and caveats like: "Todd Akin — who some consider a tea party candidate, but [since he's an incumbent congressman] might be more accurately described as an establishment social conservative..." At a certain point, the caveats become absurd.

And so, the term tea party has become a victim of its own success. It sold out; went mainstream. Just as "alternative music" became a meaningless label after 1992 (once alternative music became mainstream music), the tea party label no longer means much of anything — except nominally conservative.

Now if only I could quit using it in my pithy headlines.