I've never participated in a Tea Party rally. My natural habitat is a classroom or behind a keyboard. That said, I've had a lot of contact with Tea Party people, and, of course, I hear the angry charges from those doing their worst to discredit the movement. For what it's worth, here are some personal experiences and observations:
The first time I was contacted for a Tea Party event was by a Pittsburgh woman named Patti. She called last spring. I asked: Who's behind this Tea Party business? Is the Republican Party running this?
I learned no one was ordering Patti but herself. A mother of three daughters, wife of a physician, and a Harvard MBA, Patti calmly explained that she was so concerned about her country that she got involved. "This is completely grassroots," she assured me.
Indeed, at that moment, President Obama and the Democratic Congress had taken a record budget deficit from George W. Bush and exploded it in one fell swoop with an enormously destructive $800-billion "stimulus package." Liberals attacking the Tea Party must understand that it was such extremist policies by their own politicians that sent the likes of Patti into the streets.
Not long after that conversation, I watched in awe as such unceasing fiscal insanity drove a huge swath of concerned citizens to Washington on September 12, 2009. In response to this massive "9/12" march, liberals were apoplectic. They exhibit an intense emotional attachment to Obama, lashing out at anyone who criticizes him. That reaction is particularly pronounced in their fits of rage at Tea Party people, who they denounce with ugly epithets: Nazi, racist, hate-monger.
The hysterics have only gotten worse. Smear groups like "CrashTheTeaParty.org" are infiltrating the Tea Party. The goal, according to Jason Levin, who spearheads the group, is to "act on behalf of the Tea Party in ways which exaggerate their least appealing qualities," in order to "damage the public's opinion of them."
Alas, I don't think the saboteurs and demonizers realize how this may backfire. Those within the Tea Party don't seem to care about the nasty names. This is a movement with no single leader wedded to a political future or with politically sensitive ambitions. There's no one face fearful of being maligned by the New York Times, NPR, and Keith Olbermann. Few movements are so huge and yet so anonymous.
Most significant, many Tea Party people, not to mention those who agree with them–even if they never attend rallies–are independents and Democrats. A recent Gallup poll found that 50 percent of "Tea Party identifiers" are Republicans while 43 percent are independents and 7 percent are Democrats. That's a remarkably high number of non-Republicans.
Another telling survey was released by Rasmussen in March. It found that by an overwhelming margin, 62 percent to 12 percent, "Mainstream Americans" believe the Tea Party is "closer to their views" than Congress. By a margin of 68 percent to 16 percent, they deemed Tea Party members "better informed" than members of Congress.
Anecdotally, I find much of this confirmed. My first question to anyone who has attended a Tea Party rally is the breakdown of independents and Democrats. The reports I get are that there are many, upwards of one-third or more. I'm told this by people I trust, who are more interested in ascertaining truth than flailing about, hurling invectives at anyone who dares to disagree with Obama.
Speaking of whom, these numbers are a major threat to President Obama. Bear in mind that it was the huge swing group of independents and moderates who in November 2008 went for Obama by 52 to 44 percent (MSNBC exit poll data), and thereby elected the most left-wing presidential candidate in American history.
According to consistent polling by Zogby, independents now approve of Obama by only around 40 percent.
Thus, all of this adds up to an uncomfortable thought I pose to the Obama acolytes: If independents, moderates, and Democrats are a notable element of the Tea Party movement, or sympathize with it, do you really want to inflame them, especially as November 2010 approaches?
This is a multifaceted movement, but one thing seems certain: Those taking pleasure assailing Tea Partiers may enliven the very movement they endeavor to destroy. I'm reminded of a quote from an early Church father (Tertullian): "We multiply wherever we are mown down by you." The "blood" of the faithful is "seed."
Needless to say, I'm not equating the Tea Party with the early Church, even as I've found an undeniably strong (and hardly irrelevant) Christian element within the movement. Yet, there's a parallel in that the persecution of the movement–by an aggressively secular, militant left, mind you–may backfire, big time.
And that's surely not the intention of the anti-Tea Party crusaders.
– Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision Values at Grove City College. His coming book is "Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century."