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Tea Party movement threatened by internal rifts

By Ed Hornick, CNN
Protesters march through Washington at a Tea Party Express rally on September 12.
Protesters march through Washington at a Tea Party Express rally on September 12.
  • Tea Party movement officially born on April 15 -- tax day
  • A major Tea Party group is set to host its first convention in February
  • There are disagreements and fissures in Tea Party unity
  • Tea Party advocate: "There are certainly divisions that need to be worked out"

Washington (CNN) -- It emerged in anger and it threatens to split in anger.

One major group in the Tea Party movement -- named after the famous Boston Tea Party -- is set to host its first convention in February, with former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin as its keynote speaker.

But there are fractures in the movement that threaten its future. And if history's any guide, such movements tend to flame out.

The Tea Party movement erupted on April 15 -- tax day -- over criticism of President Obama's economic policies and what organizers called big government out of control. The movement, made up of local, state and national groups, continues to protest what it considers fiscally unsound policies.

And the movement is well funded. Action groups like FreedomWorks -- chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey -- helped organize and fund its April 15 rally in Washington.

Other groups, including Americans for Prosperity, Tea Party Nation and Tea Party Patriots, are also vying for the helm of the movement, and it's creating what some are calling "competitive chaos."

Some Tea Partiers have voiced anger and concern over whether the powerful groups are "astroturfing'' what is supposed to be a grass-roots coalition -- the idea that the movement is being organized by old-fashioned GOP bigwigs to promote their agenda.

Donna Klink, of the Golden Triangle Tea Party-Texas, said in a post on the Tea Party Patriots Web site that the chaos needs to be addressed.

"We must craft a simple coalition message that we can all agree on. ... We should all remember the simple principles of 'Strength in Numbers' and 'United We Stand, Divided We Fall,' " she wrote.

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Klink added that individual Tea Party groups can keep their own identity and beliefs while "still reaching out to and working with other groups that share common goals."

"We MUST stop this battle within and fight together," she insists.

The factions, however, have said they are only trying to engage citizens in fiscal conservatism -- and disagreements are inevitable.

"There are disagreements over the exact direction of the movement. There are some big battles between some of the national organizations happening," said Brendan Steinhauser of FreedomWorks. "But ultimately I think 90 percent of the Tea Party movement -- the grassroots members and state and national leaders -- are all moving in the same direction. But there are certainly divisions that need to be worked out."

While anger over economic issues sparked the movement, it has come to represent anger in general -- from anger over health care reform to just anger against politicians, like Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

At rallies over the summer and fall, crowds carried signs portraying Obama as Hitler and likening his policies to those of Nazi Germany. In one case, heavy criticism forced a Tea Party group in Danville, Virginia, to cancel a bonfire in which an effigy of Pelosi was to be burned.

And there's the threat that fringe members will taint the public's perception of the movement.

"The Tea Party combines the best elements of civic activism with some of the worst elements of fringe extremism," said GOP strategist and CNN contributor John Feehery in a commentary. "While most Tea Party activists are genuinely concerned about the future of the country, some others see conspiracies around every corner and use unacceptable rhetoric to communicate their displeasure with the president."

Steinhauser noted that the fringe elements only make up a small part of the movement and should not come to represent the cause.

"If you have 500,000 people at a rally or say you have 10,000 people at a rally, there's always going to be less than one percent or some small percentage of people that are there that have some fringe voice or issue."

That issue is similar to what other populist movements in the U.S. have faced over time.

Jon Avlon, author of "Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics," has said that history shows that Tea Party-esque movements and "demagogues rise when the economy turns south."

"They specialize in blaming others for the troubles with wild accusations. It's a time-honored formulation, a powerful narcotic for the nervous and dispossessed, with violent side effects," he wrote in a commentary.

The populist movement started in the 19th century. The Populist Party later emerged, made up largely of farmers, and coalesced around opposition to the gold standard as currency.

Its ties to the free-silver movement, among other things, failed to resonate with a broader base of Americans -- especially urbanites in populous states.

There's always ... some small percentage of people that are there that have some fringe voice or issue.
--Brendan Steinhauser of FreedomWorks

Later in the 20th century, populist anger rose up during the Great Depression, focused on big business's role in the 1929 stock market crash and its subsequent effect on American society. And in the late 1960s, populist anger was geared against big government.

"But now we've got both -- anger at big business and big government," said Avlon, a columnist for The "It's a perfect political storm, primed for a return to pitchfork politics. ... The fringe is blurring with the base, creating leverage on the party leadership."

Nathan Gonzalez of the Rothenberg Political Report said that in order for Tea Party activism to blossom into a lasting movement, it "has to exhibit some real influence that goes beyond a set of rallies."

He said that while there's the risk of fading away -- based on the divisions within the movement -- it has growth potential.

"There's certainly a risk of dying out [like many populist movements] but there's the potential for having some staying power as well," he said. "If they become larger or more organized there's a potential to have more influence. It depends on how they're able to harness the energy that's there now and translate that into future success."

And part of that organization could come from having a face to associate with the Tea Party name.

Palin, Fox News' Glenn Beck and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, have emerged as Tea Party darlings.

Gonzalez said the Tea Partiers need to have a one person to identify with their message -- much in the way Obama became identified with "change" in the 2008 presidential election.

If the Tea Party movement wants to develop into a political party or force, Gonzalez added, it should take the lessons of the populists and other third-party movements to heart.

"I think if a third party wants to take off, there has to be a face with it. And Ross Perot was a good example of that in 1992 and 1996. It's become more difficult [with this movement]."