When you ask someone what they think of when they hear the term “Tea Party”, you’re likely to invoke a variety of responses, largely based on the perceptions of the person answering. Ask a Democrat and you might here terms like “extreme” or “racist”. Ask a Republican and you’re more likely to hear talk of repealing Obamacare, ending bailouts and battling socialism. That’s the thing about labels in the political spectrum: they are designed to oversimplify complex issues, and they are quite effective at doing so.
The earliest origins of the Tea Party can be traced back to a fundraising event held for Texas Republican Congressman Ron Paul on December 17, 2007 in Boston, MA, with a corresponding “money bomb” raising over $6 million online in one day, shattering the previous record set in 2004 by John Kerry. The phrase next arose after the election of Barack Obama, in which advocates of smaller government started to organize rallies aimed against the Wall Street Bailouts and the subsequent “Stimulus” package under the Tea Party banner. Like many grassroots movements, many power brokers of the Old Guard swooped in to claim a stake to this new movement, as establishment Republicans such as Dick Armey quickly moved to associate themselves with the Tea Party.
So is the Tea Party a truly grassroots movement aimed at a reduction in the size and scope of government? Or is it merely a sub sect of the same old Republican Party? The answer, I imagine, isn’t as simple as those political label-makers might hope. And there probably isn’t one uniform answer either, as the “Tea Party” is not a centrally run, top-down organization. Rather, it’s merely a banner which activists are largely using to organize on a much smaller, more local level. At least when it comes to organization, Tea Partiers seem to practice what they preach.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a Tea Party event, hosted by TeaPac, a Tea Party Political Action Committee based in Pasadena, CA, that being a fundraising speech by Republican (and self-labeled “Tea Party”) Candidate for President, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. The speech itself was fairly standard as far as Republican speeches go, hitting key issues such as national security, tax reform and repealing Obamacare.
Several of her points, however, reflected some of the newer concerns arising within the Tea Party movement, such as the Federal Reserve and the value of the dollar, over extension of the military overseas, and the spiraling debt. “We can’t borrow 43 cents on the dollar that we’re spending to pay for their defense,” she told the supportive crowd. While the overall basis of her platform seems clearly set within the standard Republican mold, there is no doubt she is incorporating some of the newer ideas being pushed by the grassroots. And regardless of what one thinks of Ms. Bachmann, it’s certainly refreshing to see these things being openly discussed in a civil manner, unlike in the farcical excuses for debates we’ve seen recently from the Mainstream Media.
Aside from Congresswoman Bachmann’s appearance, I found many interesting observations in speaking with and overhearing conversations between the attendees of the event. First and foremost, what struck me immediately was just how nice the people are. And not in any sort of remotely phony way. The word “extreme” is the last way I would describe anyone I spoke with. In speaking with them, you get the sense that these are sincere people, who truly care about their country and the problems we are facing. Not only that, but not once did I feel like anyone was preaching, whether to the choir or not. Rather, people were engaged in true conversation – not just talking but listening; asking questions instead of just answering their own.
There were certainly some common themes amongst the crowd. There is pretty much universal agreement that 1) Obama has gotta go, 2) ObamaCare must be repealed and 3) Any Republican candidate running right now would be better. There is also a strong sense that people don’t like the debates, and don’t like feeling that candidates are being shoved down their throats. As a result it’s no surprise that the candidates with the most negative perceptions by far were Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, the two who got the most time at recent debates, much of it spent bickering about who said what while deflecting criticisms of their questionably conservative credentials. The names brought up most frequently seemed to be ones that aren’t as highly touted by the media – Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Michelle Bachman. Hermain Cain seems to be well-liked as well, though he seems to fall into some sort of middle ground here as he’s seen a recent surge both in polling and media coverage. Still, he is largely seen as a political outsider. The key word to this author is “seen”, as he was once a Federal Reserve Chairman after all, not exactly a position typically granted to “outsiders”.
There is certainly one phrase that sparks an immediate negative reaction in the Tea Party folks: “Occupy”. The mere mention of the movement sparks a rolling of the eyes and an exasperated look. And it’s not surprising, considering media coverage of the “Occupy” movement has painted it as largely socialist and anti-capitalist, not exactly leading Republican platforms. However, in delving deeper into the issues there are certain themes which keep emerging where, if all labels and preconceptions were removed, you might not know if you were talking to a Tea Partier or an Occupier. The Federal Reserve’s money printing – the cause of price inflation and the enabler of the bailouts – is a topic that came up often. This is an area where almost anyone associated with the Tea Party or the Occupy movement can agree on.
And this is also where the Tea Party seems to have come full circle from it’s original inception as a fundraiser for Ron Paul, the man who has been talking about the Federal Reserve and monetary policy for over 30 years. He may not be every Tea Partier’s choice for President, but there is no doubt his ideas have shaped the debate. And ultimately, if there is to be true change in this country, everyone is going to have to worry a lot less about labels, be they “Tea Party/Occupy”, “Republican/Democrat/Libertarian”, “Conservative/Liberal”, etc, and focus on all-encompassing, big picture ideas that most everyone can agree on. Sound money seems like a good place to start.
While I can’t say with any certainty that this Tea Party function was any different than a Republican function, there is no doubt that new ideas and ways of thinking are starting to gain traction, and ultimately that will be the true measure of success in this and every other grassroots movement.
Shaky-Cam Video of the event below, shot by yours truly for The New American Media