David Brooks, one of my favorite columnists at the New York Times, has written a piece about the rise of the tea partiers, what they represent in American society, and how they could become a force to be reckoned with during the next decade (see: The Tea Party Teens). I think he will probably prove to be right, unfortunately. The tea party folks represent a loud and dissatisfied element of American society who fear that the country they love is shifting in a different (read: more centrist/leftist) direction. And they are afraid, and letting us all know.
I have a number of problems with the tea party movement. One of these is historical. They are invoking the memory of the Boston Tea Party...but the colonists weren't complaining about taxation. They were protesting taxation without representation. By those standards, only the residents of the city of Washington, DC have any ground to stand on.
My other major problem is that, as Brooks pointed out, the tea partiers are defined by what they are against. And they are against just about anything that the current administration comes up with. Rather than presenting meaningful alternatives of any variety, the movement seems to be all about complaining (often, in my opinion, on the basis of a flawed knowledge of the facts).
This movement is fascinating from an academic perspective, and it will probably wind up being quite important. It could-- and probably will-- cause the Republican Party to splinter, with parts moving to the extreme right and parts clinging to the center. But at the same time, I cannot see it becoming a viable alternative politically until someone starts coming up with ideas beyond the word "No." When that happens-- depending on how it happens-- the tea party could indeed be a force to be reckoned with, and possibly a dangerous one at that.