With the Tea Partiers

Whither the Tea Party?

When rallies are no longer enough -- that's when things get serious.

By From the July/August 2011 issue

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Following the Tax Day tea party rallies this past April, people began wondering if the Tea Party movement had peaked: the number of rallies was down, and the crowd sizes were in many places a fraction of what they’d been in 2009. Of course, since April 16, 2009, the left has been predicting the demise of the Tea Party movement, more believing its own press clippings than the actual reality of what was, and is, taking place. Almost as much as the left, establishment Republicans have also been wondering when the “crazies with pitchforks” will go away and let them return to the status quo of capitulating to the latest Democrat bill in between finding very little to cut from bloated government budgets.

So I asked Tea Party leaders from various parts of the country to share their thoughts about the current state of the Tea Party movement. Jason Hoyt, of the Florida Alliance (a statewide coalition of a 100-plus tea parties), told me, “In the beginning, rallies were necessary to let everyone know we’re here and announce to the rest of America that you’re not alone in your frustration. In the summer of 2009 we attended town halls, and by the beginning of 2010 we began engaging candidates. And as the amazing results from the November election suggest, we had learned and actively participated in GOTV [get out the vote] activities by the summer of 2010.”

Ken Emanuelson, of the Dallas Tea Party, had many of the same sentiments. “Listen, there’s a reason the 2011 rallies were smaller: rally fatigue. The large rallies of 2009–2010 represented the outpouring of decades of frustration. People had a need to vent, and they vented with a vengeance. Soon enough, however, most tea partiers realized that rallies, by themselves, would change nothing,” he said. “Further, there’s only so many ways you can say ‘We’re screwed’ before it gets tiresome. Yeah, we’re screwed. And? Starting in 2010, the true ‘movers and shakers’ of the movement (maybe 20 percent) went to work figuring out how to pull the access panels off ‘the machine’ and find its vulnerabilities. They were the same people who were organizing and promoting rallies a year earlier. Come 2011, most of the core activists simply had too much on their plate to worry about political circuses.”

It’s becoming evident tea partiers are demonstrating political savvy: rallies fundamentally change nothing, so they’ve begun asking what does cause change, and then going out and doing those things that bring it about. Tim Dake, of the Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty, laid out what he and the other allied Tea Party leaders are doing in their state: “In Wisconsin we are currently evolving from helping the legislators’ bills to writing and pushing our own. Some legislator leadership still tries to screw us over but we are finding ways to resolve that too. Next up will be trying to figure out how to rewrite the legislative rules.”

Dake and the other leaders in Wisconsin, though they helped promote and organize the February 20 rally in Madison with American Majority in support of Governor Walker’s Budget Repair Bill, are not focused on rallies. They played an instrumental role in the recent state supreme court race, touching tens of thousands of doors on behalf of Justice Prosser, and also drove much of the successful signature collecting for the recall efforts against Democratic state senators. So what Dake and other leaders across the country have really done is asked—and resoundingly answered—their own question: “Why do meaningless rallies when there’s real political work to be done?”

Lesley Hollywood of the Northern Colorado Tea Party perhaps put it best. “The outlet of activism has shifted, just as it would with any movement. Hosting and attending rallies served its purpose at one time: it built relationships, engaged the public, grew the movement, and gave interested individuals a place to get connected. But after two years and numerous rallies, members are ready for something different and they are putting their energy into more effective outlets,” she said. “Here in Colorado we are fighting redistricting, we are focusing on municipal elections and issues, and we’re watching the state legislature and gearing up for 2012.”

As to where they plan on going in 2011 and 2012, Jason Hoyt noted, “The level of participation at monthly meetings is staying steady while we’re gearing up for a very big and creative summer of recruiting and educating the public. As we see it, November 2010 was a mere practice run for 2012. Just wait till you see what happens when we implement what we’ve learned.” Ken Emanuelson, demonstrating how truly effective leaders are going local to bring national change, said, “We’re busy at the City Hall fighting against the crony corporatist ‘sustainable development.’ We’re busy at the County Commissioner’s Court making local commissioners famous for their thuggery. We’re busy at the state capitol working to pry the dirty fingers of the crony corporatist old-boy network off the levers of power.”

Perhaps even more intriguingly, Ken added, “I’m confident that the Tea Party’s best days are still ahead, whether it calls itself the Tea Party, or something else. If you want to see a true revolution, just wait until the center-right grassroots finally succeed in making common cause with the center-left and minority grassroots against the public/private crony corporatist establishment. If and when that happens, game over. I think the proper term is, ‘sea change.’ ”

Jason related that he speaks at many non-Tea Party events, and will ask the audience to raise their hands if they consider themselves part of the Tea Party. In one women’s Republican group, only three or four raised their hands. Then Jason asked one of them what her definition of “being a part of the Tea Party” was. She stated the core principles of the Tea Party movement (limited government, fiscal responsibility, and free enterprise) perfectly. Jason then asked, “Based on that definition, who here believes they are part of the Tea Party?” Everyone present raised her hand. And contrary to what many on the left or the Republican establishment hope for in the next few years, I believe more and more Americans will be raising their hands and saying, “I am the Tea Party movement.” 

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About the Author

Ned Ryun is the founder and president of American Majority, a political training institution. His "With the Tea Partiers" column run each month in the The American Spectator's print edition. You can follow him on Twitter @nedryun.