At least since the Harvard scholar Robert Putnam turned “bowling alone” into a social malady, the philanthropic world has been encouraging Americans to become more involved in the nation’s civic life, and especially in elections. It has supported efforts to increase voting, develop “social media” and other types of grass-roots communications, and participate in a wide range of community-service activities, including “service learning” classes at all levels of education.
How much impact those efforts have had remains debatable. But many of their advocates saw the election of Barack Obama as president two years ago as a sign they were working and that American politics was becoming more enlightened as a result.
Although the outcome of Tuesday’s elections was also driven by a grass-roots movement that brought many Americans who had been on the sidelines into the political process, no such reaction is likely this time. Part of the reason is that the philanthropic world had little to do with this effort. But also, many nonprofit leaders have reacted with dismay to it—though they are misguided in doing so.
The movement consists of a number of organizations collectively known as Tea Party groups. As Kate Zernike, a New York Times reporter, noted in her book Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, it is the latest in a long line of populist movements that have arisen throughout American history, rooted in concerns that government has grown too powerful and threatens individual liberties.
According to an April New York Times/CBS News poll, over half of Tea Party members had never been involved in political campaigns before. Although a majority said they were Republicans, most saw their efforts as separate from—and in some cases, opposed to—those of GOP regulars. In some cases, the tensions were so strong that Tea Party members challenged the candidates put forward by the Republican establishment. Tea Party members mostly regarded themselves as middle- and working-class, in good or very good shape financially. Few of them were members of minority groups.
Not all the candidates the Tea Party members backed won, but enough did to give conservatives, who were all but pronounced dead two years ago, an overwhelming victory.
Tea Party groups supplied the energy that enabled the Republican Party to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives by a comfortable margin and cut substantially into the Democratic majority in the Senate. They also helped it capture legislative bodies in 19 states (at last count), including some places where Republicans had not been dominant for more than a century. With Congressional redistricting about to occur, these statehouse gains could have long-term political significance.
Despite accusations by their opponents, money from wealthy donors and businesses played only a small role in these triumphs. To be sure, conservative and libertarian donors supported organizations, such as FreedomWorks, a Washington advocacy group headed by the former Republican Rep. Dick Armey, that gave considerable assistance to Tea Party chapters.
However, most of this help took the form of supportive services, such as training in running meetings or understanding election laws. The impetus for, as well as the goals and direction of the Tea Party movement, came from the ground up, not the top down.
Nor was election-oriented corporate money, made possible by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a big factor. This was partly because such support is usually directed toward political committees with few, if any, members—in many ways, the opposite of the Tea Party groups.
In any event, as a share of the $4-billion spent in this year’s elections, these “independent” expenditures are not likely to exceed 10 to 15 percent when complete figures become available. Moreover, the spending includes a considerable amount of money from labor unions, liberal advocacy groups, and others that do not share the Tea Party movement’s objections to government and often weighed in against its preferred candidates.
A more convincing explanation for the Tea Party’s success may be its embrace of the kinds of methods that community organizers have long championed. Beginning with a call-to-action on a television news show, Tea Party members, in little more than a year, built integrated networks of groups, operating in communities across the United States.
To do so, they relied heavily on television and the Internet to acquire information, recruit members, schedule meetings and rallies, and coordinate tactics. They also built on ties established through non-political organizations, such as religious and business ones. Some even adopted techniques promoted by the liberal organizer Saul Alinsky, just as the groups that helped elect Barack Obama did.
The rise of the Tea Party movement, in short, suggests that fears of civic disengagement in the United States may have been exaggerated. When motivated by a compelling set of issues, it seems that Americans can still put together an impressive campaign, spontaneously, swiftly, and with little professional leadership or guidance. Whatever their inclination toward “bowling alone,” they are capable of working together when necessary. For that reason alone, the philanthropic world should find at least some comfort in the Tea Party’s accomplishments.
But unlike the Obama campaign, Tea Party members take a far more skeptical view toward government—and indeed, toward the President himself. It is a rare example of a grass-roots effort that seeks to reduce the influence of government, rather than expand it, to solve the problems that led its members to get involved. That is what has caused so many leaders in the philanthropic world—who often see government as an important ally—to be apprehensive about it.
That outlook is unfortunate for at least two reasons. First, it too easily dismisses the value of civic engagement in strengthening society by encouraging the public to take responsibility for what it considers important problems.
In addition, it fails to appreciate that by becoming more involved, those with strongly felt concerns will face pressure to reconcile them with the views of others. Though not inevitable, out of such interactions may come resolutions that are mutually beneficial and consensual.
For all the alarm it has occasioned, the advent of the Tea Party movement is actually a welcome development, not only because of what it reveals about the social health of the United States, but also because it potentially opens the door to dealing with issues that affect philanthropic groups and their allies too.
Leslie Lenkowsky is professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University and a regular contributor to these pages. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.