The National Tea Party Convention being held this week in Nashville, sponsored by the Tea Party Nation group run by Tennessee traffic law attorney Judson Phillips, has been calling its 600 convention attendees "delegates." If you've been following media coverage of this event, you may have seen news organizations (outside of Fox) printing the term in scare quotes as I just did, or referring to the Tea Party attendees as "so-called delegates." Why?
As a former delegate to the 2008 Missouri Democratic Convention, I can tell you exactly why.
Here is the Merriam Webster dictionary definition of the verb, to delegate:
1 : to entrust to another <delegate authority>
2 : to appoint as one's representative
At a traditional political convention, whether at the state or national level, the delegates in attendance have been entrusted with the authority to represent other members of the party. Though the selection process for political convention delegates varies from party to party and state to state — some convention delegates (like the Democratic Party's superdelegates) are appointed by party officials at the national, state, or local level; some are actually elected by party members at local meetings held before the convention takes place — the position of delegate is meant to be a representative one. As in, delegates undertake their duties with the explicit understanding that they have been invited to a convention not to represent their own personal interests, but to represent the interests of a group — the interests of their city or township, for example, or, at the national level, the interests of their state.
In fact, the Democratic Party goes one step further than some in selecting its delegates to be representative of its constituency as a whole, by actively encouraging those members of the party who select party delegates to include a proportionate number of women, racial and ethnic minorities, veterans and people with disabilities. So the delegates who wind up attending a Democratic National Convention are meant to fairly represent not only a full spectrum of regional concerns, but also the diverse concerns of various other special groups within the party.
The attendees at the National Tea Party Convention were not selected by local party members or state party leaders to represent a specific region or an interest group. The attendees at the National Tea Party Convention are a self-selected group of people who paid a hefty $549 attendance fee.
The Tea Party "delegates" were not chosen to go to the Tea Party Convention. They chose to go. And only those who could afford the convention ticket price were allowed.
I did not have to pay for a pricey ticket to be a delegate to the Missouri State Democratic Convention. I was chosen at a local Democratic Party meeting to be sent to represent my township at the state convention. Once there, I voted to help elect delegates to represent my state at the Democratic National Convention.
Which brings me to another key difference between the National Tea Party Convention and a traditional political party convention: as a delegate to my state Democratic Party convention, I didn't just have a responsibility to represent fellow Democrats from my neighborhood — I also had power.
I did not spend the entire convention socializing with local political celebrities, purchasing party merchandise and listening to motivational speakers. As I delegate, I had the opportunity not only to help choose my state's delegates to the national convention, but also to vote on matters of state party business. I had to research party issues and candidates for party positions. My decisions, and the decisions of my fellow delegates, had real consequences for the party statewide.
As far as I can tell, the most pressing decision the delegates at the National Tea Party Convention have to make this weekend is what to wear to the Sarah Palin banquet.
So, despite its political-sounding name, the National Tea Party convention is not, in fact, a traditional party convention.
Admittedly, the Tea Party movement has not had a great deal of time to build the sort of national infrastructure required to hold a real political convention. But the convention in Nashville has faced widespread criticism, even from conservative bloggers and the leaders of other Tea Party organizations, for being too tightly controlled by its self-appointed leader, Judson Phillips, too expensive, too explicitly for-profit — too much like a business, and too little like a party.
As many astute political pundits have recently noted, if Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann backs out of speaking at your conservative political event because she thinks your management style is too controversial, your credibility might be in trouble.