According to Pajamas Media, 700,873 people attended some 883 tea party protests on April 15. It was a remarkable day, a tangible expression of public outrage that I have not experienced in my 25 years of advocacy and grassroots organizing on behalf of free-market principles.
Judging from the left's hysterical reaction, something really big must have happened. But the only way to really understand the left's misinformed and paranoid attacks is to realize that the protests represent tangible proof that basic libertarian values continue to resonate with the American electorate. That, apparently, is a difficult thing for some to accept.
I attended the tea party in Atlanta along with 15,000 other activists, and was struck by the makeup of the crowd. This was not a typical conservative Republican rally, with local GOP activists, Ron Paul enthusiasts, and single-issue obsessives. (Those folks always show up—and they did in Atlanta.) The difference was the new people: Young hipsters, families, angry moms, and retirees alike left their normal routines and work obligations to show up in protest of government policies that they passionately believe will ruin what is unique about America.
What were the tea parties about? Reading the signs and talking to people (unlike CNN's incredibly hostile Susan Roesgen, I actually let folks answer my questions in their own words), the "agenda" was crystal clear. Tea party activists were worried and angry about government bailouts for the irresponsible, about spending that "stimulated" record growth in government and not much else, and about government borrowing that will place unconscionable burdens on future generations of Americans. My favorite sign of the day: "Give Me Liberty, Not Debt."
Some tried to diminish the tea parties as misguided tax protests. In reality, the protestors demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of economics that went well beyond objections to higher tax rates. You can't spend money you don't have, the tea party attendees understood, and government spending above current revenues must be paid for with higher taxes, more borrowing (to be paid for with higher taxes in the future), or artificial government expansion of money and credit, which can only debase the currency and make everyone poorer through inflation.
So how did the media miss the real story? Perhaps the question itself is silly because it assumes that left-of-center reporters were actually trying to "report." Some were, though most simply regurgitated the talking points supplied by partisans in the blogosphere.
But facts can be stubborn things, and no matter how many times those talking points were repeated by reporters, it quickly became clear that a substantial slice of the electorate would not buy into the promise of really big government. Imagine how that must have felt for many leftists: Having dutifully sat through a four hour and 17 minute subtitled movie about Che Guevara that every sane American ignored, many in the Hope and Change Brigade misinterpreted the voting public's rejection of Republican over-spending and gross mismanagement last November as an endorsement of La Revolución!
Wiki-trained psychologists like me immediately recognized their pain. The remarkable ends to which lefty bloggers, Nobel Laureates, bit-part actresses, and even a senior White House official all went to discredit the massive grassroots revolt perfectly matches Elizabeth Kübler-Ross' famous work on how to deal with grief, death, and loss.
Take Janeane Garofalo. Many tea party attendees were understandably offended when she compared them to members of the Ku Klux Klan. "It's not about bashing Democrats, it's not about taxes, they have no idea what the Boston tea party was about, they don't know their history at all," she told Keith Olbermann. "This is about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up. That is nothing but a bunch of teabagging rednecks."
I know what you're probably thinking about Ms. Garofalo, and it's not kind. I thought it too. But look beneath the surface, and at least try to imagine her pain. As Kübler-Ross explains, first comes denial, then comes anger. Hope and Change, for Janeane, was dying. And she couldn't believe it.
This shift from denial to anger is an integral part of the Kübler-Ross healing process for the radical left. Remember that the tea party deniers started their work in the weeks building up to April 15th, first claiming that the grassroots gatherings were really just cleverly manufactured PR events. Paul Krugman best represented this position: "They're AstroTurf (fake grassroots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects. In particular, a key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey, the former House majority leader, and supported by the usual group of right-wing billionaires." The Nobel Laureate economist lifted that story from Think Progress and the Huffington Post. They, in turn, lifted it from a particularly emotional blog post at Playboy.com that described FreedomWorks as a "mega-beast." By repeating the story, Krugman made it the talking point for just about everyone, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said, on cue: "We call it AstroTurf; it's not really a grassroots movement."
Somewhere along the way, this willful denial gave way to ridicule and mockery. Many reporters turned downright hostile. Sometimes their rage morphed into locker room-style double entendres. For instance, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow said teabag 63 times during a 7-minute segment on the protests. CNN's Anderson Cooper, who presumably wants to be taken seriously, opted for dirty jokes rather than his heavily branded expertise in "investigative journalism." Together, they no doubt managed to make teabag the Google word of the day.
Regardless, the transformation was fascinating. Within a week, the storyline went from cries of "AstroTurf" to Senior White House adviser David Axelrod—Obama's very own Karl Rove—declaring the tea parties too real for his comfort. So real that he actually pronounced them "unhealthy." When questioned on CBS's "Face the Nation," Axelrod said: "I think any time you have severe economic conditions there is always an element of disaffection that can mutate into something that's unhealthy." Unhealthy? "Well, this is a country where we value our liberties and our ability to express ourselves, and so far these are expressions."
Call me old school, but I still live in a country where the citizens more than "value" their liberties and their ability to express opposition to government policy. These liberties define us; they bind us as a nation. They are explicitly defined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. So make fun of me. Call me a "teabagger" if you must. But now a senior White House official is suggesting that my freedom of speech and my right to peaceably assemble are "unhealthy" and are only acceptable "so far." Will the White House grow tired of our "unhealthy" expressions and send the First Amendment packing, much like it did to former GM CEO Rick Wagoner? That's far scarier than the somewhat kooky guy who participates in Revolutionary War reenactments on weekends, and wore his full costume—Samuel Adams style—to the Atlanta tea party. (Full disclosure: the kook in question also works as FreedomWorks' press guy, resigning Sam Adams, I fear, to the dustbin of "AstroTurf.")
Did the tea parties matter? One reasonable measure of progress may be the sheer volume of vitriol produced by their critics. This alone is an attractive value proposition. The tea parties also happened to fall smack in the middle of the April "recess" for members of the House and Senate. That's when legislators (at least those in competitive seats) go back home to hear from their constituents. In the short run, the tea parties send a real signal to senators and congressmen who, already uncomfortable with the aggressiveness and speed with which the White House is pushing policy through Congress, will think twice when the president's $3.6 trillion budget blueprint comes back to the floor.
In the long run, the faces I saw in Atlanta represent a potentially potent new constituency for fiscal discipline and government restraint. Compositionally, this is the same voting block that showed up to vote for the very first time in 1994 in reaction to the big government overreaches of the Clinton Administration, throwing House Democrats out after 40 years of policy hegemony.
I don't believe that the official Republican apparatus can effectively organize these voters for 2010. Indeed, the very nature of the tea parties defies top-down direction. The protests, just like the free market process they tacitly espoused, were decentralized and driven by voluntary action. But as Saul Alinsky might tell you, activists need to stay active. Many of the most effective organizations and community leaders that emerged from the tea party movement have already gathered behind a March on Washington on September 12, 2009. Other efforts will add more structure to the tea party communities, and perhaps target some grassroots pressure towards particular politicians during specific legislative battles over socialized health care, higher spending, and other big government schemes.
Who knows, next November those protestors might just show up to vote against the politicians who dismissed the tea party revolt of 2009 as "AstroTurf."
Viva La Revolución!
Matt Kibbe is President of FreedomWorks Foundation.