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Friday, August 7, 2009

The Evolution of the Tea Parties

Introduction: I must admit that I have a fascination with the Tea Parties in large part because I believe that I predicted their creation in this piece. That particular piece was written when the Bush administration was still in power. At the time, I had first discovered just exactly what loan modifications are. I believed that loan modifications would lead to a mortgage class war. Of course, the Tea Party movement grew in large part following a rant by Rick Santelli in which he railed against these very loan modifications.

The first hints of the Tea Parties came in small demonstrations in places like Colorado in the early part of February. There were a handful of them around the country. One prominent early tea party was organized by stay at home mom and blogger, Keli Carender. As these began sprouting, about the only media source that gave them any attention was Michelle Malkin. The initial tea parties were in response to the stimulus that was still being debated. The crowds ranged from a few dozen to a couple hundred at the time. At the time, the MSM didn't mock them, didn't call them tea baggers, in fact they simply ignored them. Then, in mid February, Rick Santelli, of CNBC, went on this rant.

Almost instantaneously, this rant became a viral classic. Santelli's rant was in response to President Obama's mortgage modification plan which was released days before the rant. The rant became classic not merely for the message but mostly for the raw passion and emotion behind the message. Almost immediately, the national Tea Party movement that we have today was born. Suddenly, and within days, web sites, Facebook pages, and twitter threads started popping up all over the place promoting Tea Parties.

The first coordinated Tea Party was held on February 27th. It was held in 18 cities and about 200 people showed up at each party. That coordinated effort was totally ignored by almost all major media. Local media covered the protests though they were usually covered at the end of the news. The protestors, however, were not deterred. Literally, the very next day web sites were created for a much greater show of force and that show was going to be on Tax Day, April 15th.

With several months to organize, the movement grew exponentially. All the same networking tools were used only the power that these tools had was maximized because time was on the side of the movement. Between Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites, grass roots organizing took on a 21st century dynamic. From the beginning though, the movement was entirely de centralized. There was no one person or group that was organizing everyone. Instead, each tea party had a local leader organizing it. For instance, a college student named Corie Whalen organized the Boston Tea Party. Here in Chicago, the Tea Party was organized by Eric Odom.

Between February and April, the only media outlet that gave the Tea Parties any publicity was Fox News (along with conservative blogs and talk radio but they are sympathetic) Then, the tax day Tea Parties occurred. The turnout was so tremendous that the media couldn't ignore them. As such, most of the media simply mocked them. The protestors were referred to by sexual pejorative "tea baggers" by many on MSNBC and CNN. Then, there's this infamous clip of now fomer CNN reporter Susan Roesgen challenging a protestor.

When the media could no longer ignore the movement, it immediately began to mock it in order to marginalize it. The protestors were referred to as Republican shills. Some complained that there were no protests when Bush was overspending. Others complained that the movement only complains and has no ideas. (somewhat ironic) There were even those that suggested that the movement was racists. (most famously by Janeane Garofalo) Still others dismissed the event and said that all the movement will do is protest.

The next major event for the movement was on the Fourth of July when the movement held its third coordinated protest. By now, the organization of the third Tea Party became a self fulfilling process. That's because the media attention from the second one meant that folks were going to be aware of the third one with or without massive social networking. The third tea party on the Fourth was attended by about as many people as the second. Often the local organizers were different. For instance, here in Illinois it was now organized by Christina Tobin of the Free and Equal Coalition. The media attention was also not nearly as fierce as it was for the second one.

While some have tried to paint the Tea Party movement as Republican and conservative, in fact, the movement can't be pigeon holed into an ideology. If anything it is libertarian. That's because libertarians, more than anyone, are viscerally repulsed by all the government intervention. The movement is really for anyone that feels the government has stopped being for all the people and for those with access. It's not a Republican or Democrat thing, but a government thing. For instance, the Fourth of July Chicago protest was organized by members of the Green Party working in conjuction with Republican activists. Of course, the Democrats are in charge and that's why some characterize it as anti Obama.

Make no mistake, the movement is diametrically opposed to the entire Obama agenda, but that doesn't make it some Republican shill.

Still, after the Fourth, the question continued to be asked what next. In fact, the movement was already transforming itself. Thousands of advocacy and watch dog groups had sprouted by people that attended one or all the Tea Parties. Odom, for instance, created the American Liberty Alliance. Other groups like Americans for Prosperity, which helped promote the parties, watched themselves grow from marginal to powerful almost overnight. What the movement created was an electorate that was more active, more involved, and more vocal. That's one reason why politicians began to see more phone calls, faxes, and emails protesting cap and trade, health care reform, and the budget.

Then, throughout the month of July, a media pundit could often be heard alluding to the fact that pols would need to go back and face their constituents over the recess at town halls during the break. That, I believe, was the call to action for many of these new found citizen activist. Regardless of the perception of some, the eruption in numbers and fury of the attendance at the town hall meetings that we have seen over the last few days is NOT some organized and funded event. Instead, it is almost entirely a spontaneous reaction by these new citizen activists who are now motivated to get involved in the process.

That's the real legacy of the Tea Parties. What it did was got millions to not only engage in the process but to engage with much more ferocity. Some of the attendees were already political junkies, but most were novices or casual political observers. Almost all were moved to take every opportunity to get engaged. They write their Congressman. They attend political events, and thus they attend town hall debates on health care over the summer recess.

So, now a confluence of events have set the stage for the Tea Parties to make their first tangible political contribution. That is to put the final nail in the coffin of President Obama's health care proposal. I'm sure that not all of the folks that show up at the town hall debates are veterans of the Tea Parties, but a large number are. Their visible confrontations with politicians at these events have become a major media story and it's unlikely the story will go away anytime soon. So, these Tea Party participants have an opportunity to define Obama's health care reform effort for the nation. It will be their criticism captured on video that will drive the coverage over the next month.

Now, not surprisingly, the media and the Democrats have taken to marginalizing them again. They're again called Republican shills, plants, and unhinged extremists. That's no matter. This is the same attacks that have been leveled at the Tea Parties since people took notice. Opponents won't define the movement. The movement will define itself. So, over the next month, video clips, interviews, and other videos, will drive the debate to define Obama's health care reform. That debate will be driven by folks that attend these town hall meetings. These protestors got their inspiration at protests held in February, April and July. There they heard speakers rail against run away government spending, government control, unconstitutional usurption of power by the government, and government incompetence. Now, it's their turn to speak and their words will add the last chapter in the health care debate. The Tea Parties have arrived and their first tangible political effort will be to put the final nail in the coffin of Obamacare.


Gail said...

Well said. First we will defeat the Health Care bill, HR 3200, then Cap and Trade. Then we will get the Stimulus repealed and we will demand the Omnibus spending bill be repealed. That legislation was passed in open defiance of the will of the people that Congress is paid to represent. This was treason and must be rectified.

Best regards,
Gail S

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I have yet to see how you've put the FIRST nail in anything, much less the final one.

Last time I checked, health care reform is voted on by Congress, not demonstrators, especially not demonstrators as factually challenged as we've seen so far (40 million illegals? seriously?).

So which Congressmen have you convinced to change their vote, Mike? The liberal ones in safe districts who win 70% of the vote, or the Blue Dogs whom the Republicans haven't even bothered to run against for the past 2 elections?

Your analysis reminds me of the infamous quote attributed to Pauline Kael, where she couldn't believe America voted for Nixon because everybody she knew voted for McGovern. You talk about how the goal is to make the protests themselves the story and then you claim all of America is opposed to health care reform because all you see on television is the protests.

There's a show on Comedy Central called Important Things with Demetri Martin. One of my favorite quotes is when he says that " the next best thing to being right."

Rather insightful, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

What if, amid all their missteps and all the harsh criticism, the people in charge of battling the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression — Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers, Henry Paulson and the rest — basically succeeded?

It is clearly too soon to know for sure. But the evidence is now pointing pretty strongly in one direction: history books may conclude that the financial crisis of 2008 turned out to be far less bad than it could have been and that Washington deserved much of the credit.

mike volpe said...

Yeah, those maybe the same history books that credit FDR with ending the Great Depression.

What were all these folks basically right about? Our budget deficit is now nearly $2 trillion. Do you think that's a good thing? Will the history books really ignore this?

The problem with looking at a narrow set of economic data to determine how things look is that you get excited too early. Jobs and GDP did better than expected in the last three months. That doesn't actually mean that these folks will be proven right.

The budget deficit will become an albatross. There are no two ways about it.

As for not having a first nail in the ooffin, I guess you must have missed the CBO's endless stream of numbers saying this plan is bunk. You also must have missed about how the polls are turning against this plan. You must have missed how they've not passed it in either chamber.

The only bill we have on record is a totaly nightmare and its only now being examined.

Do you really think that the Democrats will pass a bill that will have no more than 30 some percent support because that's what will happen before the end of the month?

Anonymous said...

Every single CBO projection I have seen shows that the only way this bill will save money is if the public option is preserved.

If this bill is going to die, its going to be because Obama moves so far to the right that it will no longer be worth passing.

And in case you haven't noticed, the "polling" still shows that 1) America wants some form of health care reform, and 2) they trust Obama and the Democrats more than they trust the Republicans and the health care industry to deliver that reform. Surely the significance hasn't been lost on you that none of Obama's declining poll numbers have been met with a corresponding increase in Republican numbers.

I've seen plenty of protests before, and I have never seen this kind of unmitigated *RAGE* outside the West Bank and Gaza. These people aren't angry that their voices aren't being heard, they're angry that their voices are no longer *the only ones that matter*.

mike volpe said...

that's funny since there's not one CBO projection that says this plan will save money. How many CBO projections have you seen? Could you cite these CBO projections? The CBO puts everything on line.

Let me let you in on a secret. The bill is already dead. Obama can only save it by scrapping it and starting over. Do you really think that the Dems will pass a bill, on their own, when it gets 30 some percent approval?

Anonymous said...

You didnt answer his questions about there being NO corresponding rise in Republican support.