How much Tea does Tennessee drink?

I prefer my tea, whether iced or hot, to be unsweetened and served with fresh lemon. That is neither here nor there; it’s just my View from Somewhere. I really came here to write about the Tea Party movement and its influence to date in Tennessee politics. I am not the first to do this.

Erik Schelzig narrated an assessment that the Tea Party didn’t accomplish much in the 2010 Tennessee election cycle.

In the most recent example, Rep. Beth Harwell of Nashville won the House GOP speaker’s nomination last week despite vocal opposition from outside tea party and gun rights groups.

That followed Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam’s easy win in a three-way GOP primary in August that featured two opponents who pilloried the eventual governor-elect as an “establishment moderate.” Also, Stephen Fincher cruised to the GOP nomination and was later elected to Congress despite tea party movement howling over the millions he had received in federal farm subsidies.

Schelzig’s reporting is accurate, but an underlying assumption therein seems to be that the Tea Party and the conservative wing of the Republican Party are more or less interchangeable. This is indeed an argument made by many; but an opposing view—that the Tea Party movement transcends traditional political parties and has little love for the GOP overall—puts in relief a schism among the tea-throwers. (That’s what the original “tea party” was about, remember? A group of unhappy economic activists destroyed the property of an infamously unfair “public-private partnership” as a means of protest. Like bricks through a Starbucks window, only different.)

David Oatney picked up on the difference, and argues that while conservative Republicans really do have power in the state government and in the state party despite the election of moderates, it is with no thanks to the Tea Party.

Despite Tea Party support for Glen Casada, the Tea Party played a very large role in botching Casada’s chances, largely because the movement in Tennessee lacks the leadership necessary to prevent it from showing its political hand (thus allowing its perceived opponents to win in the end), which is something not to be done in an internal caucus vote. This is in contrast to the more organized and cohesive Tea Party leadership in Kentucky which led to the nomination and election of Rand Paul to the U.S. Senate.

“We’re not gonna take it anymore,” sang Dee Snider, at Tipper Gore. Would Snider be considered a “Tea Party member”? “Just fed up” stands as a unifying theme found in all its factions; but the urgent, single-note plea for fiscal responsibility by some gets muted by the overtones from more complex protests. Pick a hot-button issue: gays serving in the military, illegal immigration, Sarah Palin’s 2012 presidential run—and note that there’s reported widespread disagreement among those who call themselves “Tea Party members” or something similar.

In the linked story above, CNN’s Paul Steinhauser writes about two groups battling over the authority to speak for the Tea Party movement as a whole. One group’s leader is Tennessee’s own Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation and organizer of the movement’s first national convention. But this isn’t Phillips’ first skirmish for titular legitimacy. During the Nashville event, Tea Party members angry with how Phillips was running things stormed out and began planning their own convention. It took place a few months later in Gatlinburg.

Or take the Third Congressional District election, per esempio. During the primary, “constitutionalist” candidate Van Irion attracted the support of many Tea Party and “small-l libertarian” voters. Meanwhile, Chattanooga Tea Party president Mark West backed Robin Smith, who is fairly described as conservative, including fiscally so, but whose leadership experience in the local and state party branded her to some as “too ‘establishment.'” In the general, West went with Savas Kyriakidis, while some of the former Irion supporters rallied behind businessman Mark DeVol. And, well, Chuck Fleischmann, while he gave the Tea Party lip service, won both elections without any Tea Party help.

Here’s an interesting thing: tea, with its unique combination of tannins, acids, and alkaloids, is one of a very few liquids that can fool a litmus test. OK, I totally made that up. But I don’t need the actual beverage’s properties to make the point: it’s not entirely easy to tell just what “Tea Party” means. And with that vague a definition, it’s even more difficult to assess a movement’s true political clout (which, it bears pointing out, does not equate to time devoted by the mainstream media). The other famous tea party in our cultural memory involved a somnolent rodent, a mad hatter, and a girl nursing a bit of a mushroom hangover. I’m afraid that doesn’t help solve the current puzzle either.