What does the future hold for the Tea Party? It’s the big question on the minds of every political leader and activist across the country.

How will they respond to the decisions made by Republicans in Washington on the budget, on health care, on debt ceilings and entitlements? Will the populist upsurge of 2009 and 2010 be remembered as a brief outburst of anger which devolved into conspiracy theories and Donald Trump, or a broad based movement which fundamentally alters the course of the country?

Over the past year, the Tea Party has won election cycles—but more importantly, they’ve won the battle over the prioritization of political issues. Fiscal questions of deficits and entitlement reform dominate in Washington today, and insiders concede reform is a more realistic possibility than ever before in modern memory.

Rather than waiting until after the 2012 election, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has bucked conventional insider wisdom and shared a challenging plan for a path out of the crushing deficits in the future—a course still too moderate, in many ways, for the Tea Party faithful. President Barack Obama has been forced to respond with a bizarrely unrealistic tax-and-rationing plan, apparently sketched on the back of a cocktail napkin by political advisor David Plouffe, which infuriated fellow Democrats learned about from Sunday morning television.

This is not what Obama would like to be talking about. Still at his most natural talking about change, he has transformed into a strident defender of the status quo, both from Ryan’s reforms and those suggested by his own bipartisan fiscal commission. The president is clearly frustrated, and it’s easy to see why: driven by the rising opposition to his namesake nationalized health care policy, frustration at the overgenerous entitlements for union and public sector workers, and strong disapproval for enduring anti-growth policies, the Tea Party has stolen the right to set the agenda away from Pennsylvania Avenue, and placed it on Main Street.

Yet all this populism-driven progress—which has made real and necessary entitlement and health care reform a real possibility—could be squandered easily if the disparate forces of the Tea Party do not cooperate to find common cause on policy and politics.

Trump, all bluster and bouffant, apotheosizes the dangers of co-option and conspiratorial irrelevance which could make the Tea Party stumble. For all his outsider claims, the New York celebrity has a great deal in common with the worst visions of sleazy cult-of-personality politicians. Writing amidst the Socialist revolution in France in the mid-1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville warned against a creature, a “half ape, half jackal,” who “remained silent while the majority were making up their minds,” and as soon as he judged a decision made, “rushed to place himself at their head, and often went far beyond them.” More than 150 years later, this species still exists.

There’s a readily available symbol of the choice facing the Tea Party, and it’s one of their own choosing. One option is to continue under the banner of the golden flags ubiquitous to every event they hold—the coiled serpent, wound like a fang-tipped slinky, with the warning text beneath: “Don’t Tread On Me.” It’s a symbol of rebellion against tyranny and an unwillingness to submit, designed by Charleston patriot Christopher Gadsden, the Sam Adams of the South, and it’s been adapted to several states and regiments—one version flies today over American ships as the Navy Jack.

Gadsden's warning today serves as an individualistic warning to others, a warning to would-be tyrants foreign and domestic, that the American spirit dies hard. Yet it is limited as a warning, demanding nothing of those who raise it but a stern and abiding cussedness. It is a flag that yells “stop”, not a symbol of governance or even a unified direction.

That’s why there's another, older flag the Tea Party should heed if it wishes to have a lasting effect on the future of the United States. Designed by Benjamin Franklin in the context of arguments over the French and Indian wars, it shows the colonies as a snake cut into pieces, a mess of factions and disunity. Beneath the serpent, the warning is clear: “Join, or Die.”

Benjamin Domenech is a research fellow at the Heartland Institute and managing editor of Health Care News.