For decades, conservatives watched large rallies in Washington for gay rights, opposition to Middle Eastern wars, the Million Man March, gun control, and dozens of other trendy lefty causes, and consoled themselves with the idea that the grassroots of the Right just weren't the kind of folks who attended big rallies. (Pro-lifers, with their annual March for Life held in bitter January weather, made a striking exception.) Unions often secure the day off for their members; college students and professors find it all too easy to skip or cancel class. If you didn't see the demographics that make up the GOP base -- small businessmen, parents, members of the military -- marching and waving signs, it's because they were too busy working for a living.
The libertarian magazine Reason has noted that Americans who subscribe to a socially liberal, fiscally conservative philosophy are the ideological demographic most likely to own jacuzzis and hot tubs. Couple this with a preference for individualism over broad-based group action, and one can quickly understand why you don't often see giant libertarian rallies: They're mostly at home having fun in their hot tubs. In fact, it takes a dire threat to their liberties to get them out of their hot tubs.
Enter the Obama administration.
Like most successes, at least a thousand figures are claiming fatherhood of the Tea Party phenomenon, but certainly a key moment came Feb. 19, 2009, from an unlikely source: CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli, who launched into an off-the-cuff rant when asked to evaluate the initial moves from the Obama administration to deal with a housing market that had plummeted. "The government is promoting bad behavior!" Santelli shouted, accusing the administration of a plan that amounted to "subsidizing the losers' mortgages."
"This is America!" Santelli shouted. "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors' mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills? . . . President Obama, are you listening?"
He articulated the concern that drove welfare reform, the most significant policy achievement of Bill Clinton's presidency: Government was taking from the responsible in order to save the irresponsible from the consequences of their own bad decisions. Americans are a charitable people, but they quickly anger when they suspect they're being played for a sucker.
The first national "Tea Party" day, held April 16, 2009, ran into the usual trouble; if you're trying to rally big crowds of squeezed and harried taxpayers, it's probably a mistake to hold the rally the day that federal taxes are due. But a Tea Party skeptic, liberal blogger Nate Silver, went through accounts of crowds from Denver (5,000) to Bound Brook, New Jersey (20) and came up with a minimum number of estimated attendees nationwide: 111,899, a number he granted was "reasonably impressive."
Listen to a discussion of the debt and deficit at a Tea Party meeting, and you won't hear a lot of numbers; instead, it is articulated as a moral issue, and a national moral failure. The spending spree of TARP and the stimulus -- and a deficit exacerbated by plummeting tax revenues -- is spurring Americans to look at the debt as a great horror inflicted upon their children and grandchildren. Occasionally, you'll hear a bit of denunciation of the Chinese holding American debt, but by and large this is seen as an American failure to practice thrift, impulse control, and responsibility -- or more specifically, American lawmakers' failure to do so.
It's fairly standard for a conservative lawmaker to encounter angry liberal crowds. But during the summer of 2009, as Congress took up a massive health-care bill after passing massive spending bills, Democrat lawmakers returned to their districts to find huge angry crowds turning out at their public meetings. Democrats had never seen anything like it: overflow crowds, angry chants, and in one case, a lawmaker hung in effigy. Inside-the-Beltway veterans like David Broder of the Washington Post predicted a backlash, but none arrived. Americans concluded if you want to enjoy the relatively pampered life of a congressman, you had better be ready to listen to a constituent tell you why you're doing such a lousy job. Democrats largely responded to the challenge by refusing to hold additional public meetings.
Coverage of the Tea Parties mostly focused on the inevitable odd character who dressed up in Revolutionary garb, or signs misspelled, or worse. Gather a large enough crowd, and some yahoo will express their opposition to the president in a distasteful or racist manner. Much more ubiquitous was the Gadsden flag, one of the first flags of the United States, which depicts a rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike with the legend "Don't Tread on Me."
While the Tea Parties were being mocked, dismissed, and demonized, the ill omens for Obama piled up to an almost comical level: Republicans won two big governor's races in 2009; Scott Brown, a Republican, won the Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy; higher turnout in Republican primaries through 2010, for the first time in 80 years; the Gallup poll showing the largest enthusiasm gap between the parties they had ever recorded.
Their impact is decisive, but not overwhelming. Democrats hung on in a few key Senate and governor's races, and a few traditional Democratic strongholds resisted the Republican wave. But even President Obama called the results "a shellacking."
"The impact of the Tea Party movement cannot be understated. The energy harnessed by the movement helped mobilize Americans to support Republican candidates, and more importantly go to the polls to vote against the higher-tax, big-government, anti-business Obama agenda," said a Washington Republican helping coordinate strategy for the lower house of Congress. "Their energy and support helped push the number of competitive races from the usual 30 or 40 to well past 100 and turned a wave election into a tsunami."
As Obama stumbles, liberals are beginning to realize that he is the last hope for their movement; they will not elect a more progressive, more popular, more charismatic president by a wider margin anytime soon, and they will never enjoy a more perfect political environment than they did in autumn 2008. By contrast, the Tea Parties are asymmetrical warfare applied to the political realm. Sarah Palin, Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann, and Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky are all key figures in the Tea Party movement, but none are irreplaceable. Unlike most powerful organizations in Washington, there is no one main phone number for the Tea Parties, an incomprehensible development to many Washington reporters. There are quite a few groups claiming to speak for the Tea Party movement -- FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express -- but in the end they're simply event organizers rather than directors. The whole point of this movement is that these people hate being told what to do.
Unlike the usual angry crowds of striking workers in France or pensioners in Greece, the Tea Party is the strange phenomenon of citizens demanding government spend less instead of more. For all of our flaws, Americans are waking up to the hard fact that when their government spends, they end up paying every cent, sooner or later.