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An old (and new) force in United States politics
by Richard Lipner
In December 1773, a band of colonists dressed as Native Americans ran amuck in Boston Harbour. To protest the sad state of British domination, they dumped valuable chests filled with the English’s beloved tea, dumping it into the chilly waters. The rallying call was “no taxation without representation” a war cry, but also a most reasonable demand.
Move to present times and a new battle cry has emerged from a varied bunch; one that gathers beneath a large umbrella and calls themselves “tea partiers.” Tired of what is perceived as an invasive and economically anti-free enterprise position in Washington “tea parties” have sprung up in far-flung places all over the United States.
As the movement grew in momentum and number throughout 2009, it became clear that there was more than one political philosophy involved. There may be a lot of agreement, but the movement must be careful they don’t find a two-headed monster. The central issues of limiting large federal government and its spending, free markets, individual liberty and responsibility are causes near and dear to both the conservatives and the “libertarians” who seemed to have flocked to the tea party movement.
It may well have been Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who as an elected official was instrumental in building the incredible momentum of the tea-parties. It was Paul’s organizing of anti-tax rallies as early as 2007, while George W. Bush was still in the White House, that was at the core the tea party movement. Mr. Paul has seemed to move from a Republican to a libertarian/tea partyist; but this may be at odds many who don’t agree with Mr. Paul and his kind on issues such as the legislating by individual of states of marijuana for medical use, and his lack of support for the war effort in Iraq and for U.S. economic funding of Israel.
The germ of the seemingly spontaneous flowering of followers in the past year took hold when a cable television financial analyst for CNBC, Rick Santelli, launched into a rebuttal of President Barrack Obama’s stimulus package. While speaking from the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange one year ago, Santelli railed, "We're thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists who want to show up at Lake Michigan, I'm going to start organizing."
While there is no national “Tea Party”, there is an increasing number of political parties in various states and they seem to be increasing almost daily. A Florida attorney has just registered the “Tea Party of Florida” as an official party in that state. While the nomenclature “the Tea Party” constitutes a pun – using the word “party” as a political entity, not as celebratory fest -- it does ring as a clever reminder that these people consider themselves revolutionaries. Oddly, much of the tactics and sloganism that as has long been associated with the radical left and the young, has been incorporated by the conservative, and often older, “tea partiers.” The disruptive, shouting, self-proclaimed “patriots,” who appeared at many of the town hall meetings on the subject of health care and economic reform, hearken back to the Yippies and anti-Vietnam War protesters of the 1960s, who reveled in pulling off “spontaneous” demonstrations at venues from the New York Stock Exchange to the offices of university presidents.
Attacks from the liberals and the left tend to pass the movement off by using tired epithets to dismiss the growing movement. They cast doubt on whether the many shouting protesters who disrupted the Obama-sponsored town-hall meetings on the subjects of health care and economic stimulus where genuine activists. Some of the news media criticized this, the claim being that these were people paid by health insurance companies and conservative political interests to disrupt the progress of these intended programs. Focusing on the fringe tea-partiers: the ones who come out dressed in costumes of revolutionary war fighters; those who repeatedly question President Obama’s validity as a United States citizen; and those who carry placards with racist or “red-baiting” slogans, there has been an attempt to make the activists look foolish. There are these types of people at many tea-party gatherings, but their image in the public eye is far surpassed by the larger group of American citizens who have become political activists because they have grown weary of politics as usual.
The current Tea Party isn’t exactly a political party at all. While this seemingly diverse group held its first convention on 5-6 February in Nashville, Tennessee, it faces an identity crisis. The convention showed the conservative-based movement going beyond taking baby steps to becoming a major player in U.S. politics, but cracks in the foundation are also showing. With featured speaker, Sarah Palin, the unsuccessful vice-presidential candidate of the Republican Party, receiving a US0,000 payment for her presence, the organizers charged up to US9 for attending conventioneers. While Ms. Palin stated her fee would “go to the cause”, many sympathetic to the tea party movement felt slighted by the exorbitant pricing. This caused many to feel left out of what is supposedly a “grassroots” movement – in the words of one Tennessee who found the costs prohibitive Tea Party activists are not “the type of people who would gravitate to some expensive hotel to dine on lobster and steak and listen to someone speak.” There is opposition by many tea-parties to placing Palin in such a central spot. Many do not want any traditional Republican becoming a symbol of the new movement. A large group also opposes the more libertarian activists; and Ron Paul now finds himself facing several tea-party candidates vying for his congressional seat in Texas in next November’s election.
Since self-made billionaire, H. Ross Perot’s, attempt to win the U.S. presidency as an independent in 1992, no third-party candidate has posed a significant factor on the national scene to challenge the traditional Democratic vs. Republican party dynamic. Perot ran on a political platform that mixed right, centrist and left ideas, appealing to all segments of the voting population who were disappointed in the politics-as-usual of the two major parties. However; after gathering close to 19% of the vote in the presidential election that saw Bill Clinton win his first term as president, Perot’s popularity diminished and his formation of a new “Reform Party” for the 1996 election didn’t grab the imagination of the American people in the way his previous run did. The Reform Party has since devolved, nominating the conservative Pat Buchannan in 2000 and the left-leaning consumer advocate Ralph Nader in 2004, in a seemingly schizophrenic attempt at finding a viable candidate.
Despite the lack of clarity about exactly who and what constitutes the Tea Party, the various elements do come together representing an estimated 7 million American citizens, with many more becoming sympathetic. They come together as a populist movement, the likes of which haven’t been seen here for a long time. The movement takes credit for being essential to the recent election in Massachusetts of Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate. In the special election held to fill the place held by the late Ted Kennedy, tea-partiers claim it was there involvement and activism that pushed the Republican candidate Brown over the top. Taking away the Democratic Party’s overwhelming majority, it negates President Obama’s veto possibilities – a process that would have made getting legislation such as health care reform much more likely. In Illinois, just weeks ago, two tea-party candidates running against a centrist for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, were soundly defeated. Still, the movement spin on this has been that they made a formidable presence and that politicians both Republican and Democrat, had better not think this Tea Party can be dismissed.
The real challenge will be growing throughout this year, and more so, leading toward the 2012 presidential election. The Tea Party can go the way of others. It can fall to infighting, disarray or simply lose impetus. It can also keep growing and gathering like a coming political storm. There are clearly many in this nation who feel left out and abandoned by the two main parties. Many blame the Republicans for nominating too moderate a candidate in John McCain. Mostly, there are people who see the big government in Washington as moving toward a socialist solution when it comes to economics. The movement’s opposition to the bailout of the major banks may be the most telling sign of their convictions. By not simply supporting the big-money interests that often have been the backbone of the Republicans, but holding to fundamental beliefs that “the people” who work and strive each day, deserve not to be treated as second-class, not to be pushed under the thumb of big government nor big money. The strength of the tea-party movement is in its not deviating from the principles those first revolutionaries who became the authors of the U.S. constitution held so dear.
© 2010 by Richard Lipner
Richard Lipner is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.