October 24, 2010; Source: Washington Post | Having just completed a three-part series on the Tea Party as a social movement (read Part I, Part II, and Part III), we were struck by the Washington Post‘s article based on interviews with hundreds of local voluntary Tea Party groups that the Tea Party “is not so much a movement as a disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings that do surprisingly little to engage in the electoral process.”

The Post discovered that the Tea Party groups may be much smaller in number than the 2,300 listed by the Tea Party Patriots—more in the order of 1,400—and most are tiny, without money, and not particularly engaged in the political process. We aren’t surprised that the Post wasn’t able to scrounge up hundreds of the Tea Party groups listed by the Patriots. If you check the Patriots website, many of the groups are listed with their membership totals—scads of them in the low end of single digits.

The Tea Party reality is that a handful of people having a coffee or drink and complaining about “socialist” Obama and Pelosi could decide, “Hey, let’s call ourselves a Tea Party organization!” (Or a 912 group or any of the other typical nomenclature that the various Tea Party Patriots groups use.) The money behind the Tea Party isn’t in these coffee (or tea) klatsch gatherings, but in the national organizations such as FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Express, which can capitalize on the Tea Party sentiment even if many of the actual organizations don’t have a lot of juice.

Does the disparate nature of their political and social beliefs and their lack of a leader relegate them to less than a movement? No. In this hyper-connected Internet age, political life is speeded up. The Tea Party, such as it is, only popped up less than two years ago, originating in a televised rant against the government’s attempts to help people brought low by the subprime mortgage crisis. To have reached the stage of the infrastructure that we described in our review of the headless, leaderless Tea Party movement in such a short period of time is not to be sniffed at, even if some of the Tea Party groups don’t have much oomph.

Watch what happens after the elections. As it always happens, as the nation gets closer to Election Day, the polling gaps are narrowing. If the Tea Party candidates in the end fail to upend as many “Obama socialists” as they imagine they could have, let’s see what the next stage of evolution might be for the unorthodox, speeded up political movement.—Rick Cohen