January 13, 2012


The Tea Party's Not-So-Civil War (MATT BAI, 1/15/12, NY Times Magazine)

I met Karen Martin, a few days before New Year's, at a cafe in Greenville, the hub of conservative politics in South Carolina. A 54-year-old refugee from the North Shore of Massachusetts, Martin is the lead organizer of the nearby Spartanburg Tea Party. Another Tea Party leader described her to me as a grown-up, and in fact, Martin turned out to be the kind of activist -- ideology notwithstanding -- who makes you feel hopeful about the new age of political uprising. She recounted how she burst into tears at the moment she realized, watching the news in 2008, that children growing up today wouldn't have the economic opportunities that she did. She talked about how the Tea Party would need to mature and become more politically sophisticated in the years ahead. "I think the movement is just too young and too emotional," she said.

Then our conversation turned to Mitt Romney, and Martin's sunny countenance darkened. "I don't know a single Tea Party person," she said, slowly drawing out her words, "who does not despise Mitt Romney to the very core of their being." I searched her face for levity or compassion, but found neither.

Discussions about the Tea Party often miss the extent to which the movement is loose and leaderless, a disjointed collection of local chapters and agendas. But if the phenomenon has an epicenter, that place is South Carolina. The state's junior senator, Jim DeMint, is generally seen as the ideological forefather of the Tea Party, at least among elected officials. Tea Party activism propelled South Carolina's 39-year-old governor, Nikki Haley, into office in 2010, along with four new Republican congressmen. There are, by some estimates, more than 50 autonomous Tea Party groups operating throughout the state, and according to a recent Winthrop University poll, 61 percent of South Carolinians say they approve of the movement -- more than double the national figure, according to data from the Pew Research Center. [...]

The Capitol in Columbia was closed the week after Christmas, but I found Curtis Loftis, South Carolina's treasurer, puttering around his office in a blue oxford shirt and khakis. The 53-year-old Loftis, heir to a local pest-control business, never ran for office before 2010, when he decided to take on the incumbent treasurer and caught the same Tea Party wave that swept Haley into the more august office across the hall. He's now serving as Romney's campaign chairman in the state. That both officials endorsed Romney would seem to signal some kind of coordinated decision at the highest levels of the Tea Party leadership in South Carolina, but such is the danger of thinking about the Tea Party as a single, cohesive entity. It's well known in Columbia that Haley and Loftis are disinclined to stand in the same room together, much less coordinate their political decisions.

As we sat in leather armchairs on either side of a coffee table, Loftis explained to me that, now that he was actually serving in elective office, he had come to understand how important it was to choose a candidate who could actually do the job in question, rather than one who said all the right things about slashing government and all of that.

"Before, when I was strictly looking at it as a partisan from the outside, I could understand exactly why people are working themselves up over these other candidates," Loftis said. "And these people who are actively engaged in such heated debates -- they're my brothers and sisters, you know? I get them, and I understand them, and I appreciate them." But, he added, "I'm just not interested in this ongoing conversation about first principles and this heated rhetoric."

Movements exist to be used.
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Posted by at January 13, 2012 10:35 PM

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