Perhaps it is the runaway vilification that speaks loudest to the Tea Party movement’s amassing power.
Although not centrally organized, with no figurehead leader for scowling pundits to bash a la Joe the Plumber, the hurling of vitriol from opposition groups shows the intensity many are investing in taking Tea Partiers down.
Former ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis last week used the word “bowel” to describe the Tea Party movement, warning a young Socialists group that “they are coming after you.”
Others, watching with fear as the group’s potent grassroots activism grows around the nation, have invoked the “r” word, dubbing the Tea Party protestors as racists – not only for their skin color or white, middle-class male demographic, but for their vocal opposition for the expansion of government – including programs benefitting minorities.
Wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich: “Those who are threatened and enraged by the new Obama order are volatile. Conservative politicians are taking a walk on the wild side by coddling and encouraging them, whatever the short-term political gain.
No matter their detractors or their assertion that protecting freedom, rather than party politics, is their driving force, Tea Partiers are gaining traction among mainstream voters. A recent Rasmussen poll found a shocking 24% of Americans identifying with the Tea Party, a gain of eight percentage points in the past month.
Such a statistic should make both Republicans and Democrats pause as the 2010 election cycle heats up. Whispers of “one-term” drift across the Beltway with President Obama shifting ever more to the left while he still has support among high-beam liberals for his rapidly waning agenda.
Surging American anti-government angst has been reflected in recent poll data. A new study from the Pew Research Center found that just 22% of Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing most or almost all of the time. That figure is the lowest recorded since 1994. “Trust in government rarely get this low, “ Pew’s research President Andrew Kohut told the Associated Press.
On Friday, adding gas on an already simmering proletariat fire, an SEC inspector general’s probe found that staffers at the federal agency regularly abused their time on the clock viewing porn on government-issued computers – even as the economy was tanking.
Nearly half of those surveyed in April by Pew said the government negatively affects their daily lives, reflecting a Tea Party plank that government has far outpaced the Founder’s intentions in its scope of power. This, they challenge heatedly, must stop.
“One thing that unites these people overall is they are for limited government – they feel like something is wrong in the country,” said Scott Hagerstrom, director of the group Americans for Prosperity-Michigan.
He has trained Tea Party activists on how to calmly comport themselves publicly and not be goaded into angry tirades that opponents seek to film and distribute as proof that party members folk are ill-informed right-wing kooks. He believes Tea Party member engagement is a positive sign that democracy is alive and well – and public displays of federal opposition are not something evil to be squelched.
“What I find with most of these people is they have never been involved in politics before,” Mr. Hagerstrom said of the surge in Tea Party interest. “I think they are really concerned about the amount of debt, the lack of control and they just want to be left alone to live their lives and provide for their families. They love their country but they don’t trust government.”
Between April 9 and April 15, he said, there were 50 Tea Party rallies around the state, which he describes as a positive sea change in civic engagement as more regular citizens step up to say their leaders are no longer listening to the will of the people. Many of these political neophytes are now angry enough to step up and be heard.
“I think the old model is that people pay attention to the issues during an election and they elect people and they go on with their lives. Now I think they have learned that the real work starts the day after the election. And even the best of people with the best of intentions can go bad. I would say that what you are seeing now is a renaissance and a reaction to the swiftness that this administration has moved to promote a Socialist, big government agenda,” Mr. Hagerstrom says of the movement’s impressive growth.
“American people like change a little bit at a time. And I think what this movement has done is brought a lot of people together to say hey, wait a minute, slow down these big changes. They fear their standard of living is going to be slipping away, he said.”
Just who wins politically the sphere of influence of the Tea Party movement is a crapshoot, for now – even as opponents generalize members as far right.
“The Tea Party could be a Republican dream — or a GOP nightmare, noted Peter A. Brown, an assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in announcing the results of a Tea Party movement poll in March.
“Members could be a boon to the GOP if they are energized to support Republican candidates. But if the Tea Party were to run its own candidates for office, any votes its candidate received would to a very great extent be coming from the GOP column.”
Though the Quinnipiac poll found a majority of Tea Party members to be Republicans, both parties should take note come election time, says Wilfred McClay, a historian and political scholar who serves as the William E. Simon Distinguished Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy.
“I think it’s increasingly clear that the Tea Party movement is a force to be reckoned with, by both the Democratic and Republican parties,” he said, noting that many members “absolutely don’t trust Republicans, at least not yet.”
“I think the Tea Partiers are much more immediately dangerous to Democrats, whose policies under Obama have so vastly expanded the size and the scope of national government and done so with massive bills that no on has even read,” he said. “The Democrats are playing a very dangerous and destructive game in trying to dismiss and demonize the Tea Partiers as racist. They are resorting to a tactic that has worked for them in the past but is unlikely to work in this instance. Many mainstream Americans share Tea Party sentiments, even if they don’t join the movement, and by disparaging the latter, Democrats disparage the former. This only has the effect of heightening the mainstream’s distrust of the political class.”
Jason Hoyt, an accountant and Tea Party movement supporter in Orlando, who hosts a weekend radio show for activists, says he views his role as more educational than political. He wants more Americans to understand the Constitution and the intention of those who conceived it — rather than be told what government is supposed to do from Washington politicos hot for personal power.
“Nobody is saying let’s all create a third party and take over,” he said, noting that most Tea Party rallies have been respectful and welcoming and attended by families who simply want to protect the fiscal future for their children and new generations.
The Tea Party movement is a forum for all people – Democrats, Independents, Republicans, Libertarians – who want reform, Hoyt defends.
“We’re saying politicians, listen to us. We need change,” he adds of their mission. “The Tea Party movement is not about a party … it’s about finding candidates who are constitutionally minded and fiscally responsible … and helping them win.”
He adds: “We’ve got to get back to what our founders intended, to understand what makes us so exceptional, why our Constitution is so powerful… We need to stop relying on the media and endorsements from others. We need to get involved and do our own research and make up our own minds.”