Beginning in 2007, the Tea Party began to make waves within the Republican Party, and though the movement was decidedly political, we can use Mary Bernstein’s strategies outlined in her article Celebration and Suppression: The Strategic Uses of Identity by the Lesbian and Gay Movement to analyze the movement.
The Tea Party stands for personal freedom, economic freedom, and a debt-free future. According to their website, they “envision a nation where personal freedom is cherished and where all Americans are treated equally, assuring our ability to pursue the American Dream.” That is their identity.
Bernstein says that identity deployment in movements can be categorized two ways: identity for education or identity for critique.
Was the tea party’s aim to truly educate the country about their positions and take an internal approach to changing the laws? Or was the tea party’s main aim to make a ruckus and critique parts of American culture?
I would argue, as I believe Bernstein would as well, that the Tea Party used both strategies to pull off their success and that their movement would not have been nearly as successful without utilizing both strategies of identity deployment.
Because the Tea Party was a political movement, not purely a social movement, it would be impossible to argue that the Tea Party did not employ identity for education. They had strong organizational infrastructure and access to the polity, which Bernstein cites as being important parts of a movement that focuses on education. The Tea Party was successful in winning almost 50 seats in Congress in 2010. They clearly succeeded in educating some bit of the American electorate about their identity and what they stand for.
Just by looking at some of the members of the Tea Party, however, we would be remiss to think that they did not deploy their identity for critique. At protests, it is not uncommon to see members of the tea party dressed up as founding fathers or waving gigantic flags alongside people caring signs touting their cause of the day. While the Tea Party has a relatively defined organizational structure, it’s non-hierarchical and the individual chapters can choose to take up any issue that they choose. Tea Partiers have been fiercely critical of the American culture and the current administration.
The Tea Party has a very strong identity that they have worked to cultivate and that identity informs their movement. Their sense of patriotism and ideals about what would make America the best country are both their identity and their movement. There is no way to separate the two. So, to answer the question brought up in class, no, I do not think we can imagine a successful movement that is not doing identity work.