This week marks the first anniversary of the emergence of the Tea Party phenomenon into a national movement. Tax Day 2009 saw 1,000 or more anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-big government demonstrations crop up spontaneously all over America, most of them adopting some variation of the title Tea Party.
Democratic pollster and pundit Pat Caddell recently referred to the Tea Parties as the "strongest grassroots movement since the anti-Vietnam war movement." The questions for 2010 are will the Tea Party movement endure, and how is it likely to affect the elections this fall?
The worst misunderstanding of the Tea Party phenomenon was the dismissive comment by Nancy Pelosi and others on the political left that the Tea Partiers were not truly grassroots, but rather were "Astroturf." That clever pun tries to suggest that although they may look natural and organic, actually they're artificial, the product of dark and evil corporate interests. This should be laughable to anyone who has observed the irrespressible independence of those in the Tea Party movement. You couldn't organize them even if you wanted to. They don't fit into organizations or structures. Some of them have voluntarily affiliated with umbrella groups like Tea Party Patriots, which now claims over 1,200 member groups, but that's precisely because they are loose, voluntary and organizational flat, not hierarchical. They are more of a communications, coordination and idea-sharing venue than a command and control operation.
Pelosi and friends might like to think that they're not real people expressing real sentiments on a vast scale, but they are. They're ordinary citizens, trying to reclaim the ideals of our nation's Founders. They're not overwhelming young, or old, or rich or poor, educated or uneducated, and anyone who attempts to belittle them is engaging in wishful thinking. Their political affiliation is surprisingly broad for such an inherently conservative value set, with roughly 40% either registered as Independents or Democrats. They are largely white, but that is gradually and healthily changing as blacks and Hispanics increasingly see past the inherent racism of identity politics and realize that the path to opportunity points towards the free market and entrepreneurialism, not the permanent dependency of government subsidy programs.
In short, the Tea Parties look like America because they are America — an America that is rediscovering the virtues of limited government, personal responsibility and the timeless allure of freedom. They are repelled by what they see as the arrogance of many of those in political office, whether elected or appointed. They are repelled by the arrogance of legislators who vote on bills without reading them, who cut deals behind closed doors, who won't meet with their constituents or who talk down to them when they do meet, who prescribe one set of rules and programs for us, but give themselves a better deal at our expense. In short, they are repelled by the everyday tactics of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Rahm Emanuel and their ilk.
So … as a conservative, I'm actually glad that the left misunderstands the Tea Partiers and want to dismiss them as the mindless tools of corporate interests. Their misunderstanding in April will be the basis of their undoing in November.
As to the future of the Tea Party movement, will they take over the Republican Party, or perhaps be taken over by the Republican Party? I for one hope not. They need to stay just outside the party structure, in a position where they wield enough power to keep the party honest. They should oppose what my friend Morton Blackwell of the Leadership Institute calls "content-free Republicans" when that's what the party offers up in primaries, but they'll probably support most Republicans in general elections, although principled and strategic leaders will get more enthusiastic backing than career politicians who are tactical opportunists with their wet fingers to the wind.
Happy Birthday, Tea Parties. You're a source of renewal and reinvigoration at a time when America faces unprecedented challenges. Stay close to your principles and to the vision of national government envisioned by the Constitution, and you just might save this great country and the freedom which lies at its core for another generation.