JONATHAN CHAIT MARCH 25, 2010
And speaking of, Politico has a good story today about the friction between Armey, a key force behind the Tea Parties, and grassroots Tea Party activists. The Tea Party complaints against Armey run along biographical and ideological lines. The biography: Armey is a former member of the Republican leadership and a corporate lobbyist. The ideological: Armey has used his influence to steer the Tea Parties exclusively toward economic issues, and away from social issues -- especially immigration, where Armey's libertarian beliefs clash with a large chunk of the movement's.
The connecting tissue here is that Armey runs "Freedomworks," a corporate-funded astroturf lobbying organization that advocates for the conservative economic agenda, and which has has played a crucial role in organizing the Tea Party rallies. Now, it's obviously true that the Tea Party phenomenon has a major organic component -- even with a big budget and the committed support of Fox News, you can't just whip up sentiment like this without some popular basis. And it's somewhat natural that the movement would focus on economics, as the Obama administration is doing little to change the status quo on social or foreign policy.
Still, it's not entirely coincidental that the Tea Party agenda has dovetailed so closely with the economic agenda of the corporations that fund Freedomworks. Immigration is the most potent flashpoint. It was the issue that spurred a rightwing grassroots uprising against the Bush administration and a huge source of conservative angst; it's also an issue where conservative economic elites hold decidedly libertarian views that happen to dovetail with their own economic interests. Politico has one email circulating among Tea Party types:
“Dick Armey of FreedomWorks (The group trying to take control of the tea party movement) supports AMNESTY for illegal aliens,” charged an e-mail that circulated widely in tea party circles this month from ALIPAC, a political action committee supporting mostly Republican candidates who advocate tighter immigration restrictions. “Does this explain why the D.C. insiders are trying to keep the illegal immigration issue out of the tea party movement?”
Obviously, conservative elites steering the grassroots toward an agenda focused on advancing the economic interests of the very rich is not a new phenomenon. The Armey/Tea Party spat is simply a rare episode of the split opening up in public.