More than 18 months after the Tea Party burst onto the U.S. political scene, liberals in the media still don’t seem to understand what animates the movement.
Take Lesley Stahl of CBS News. She gave voice to media bafflement about the Tea Party on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program shortly before the election. “I wanted to ask all the gurus here why so many of the Tea Partiers are women,” she said in an exasperated voice. “I find that just intriguing and don’t quite understand why that has happened.” All that her fellow panelists could come up with at first was something about the charisma of Sarah Palin. But what’s the real story?
At a recent Tea Party rally in Richmond, Virginia, I noticed just how much the Tea Party is powered by women. A Quinnipiac poll found that 55 percent of Tea Party members are women; the pollster Scott Rasmussen says women make up about 40 percent of voters who say they support the Tea Party. At the organization level, women are clearly very important in the Tea Party. Although it prides itself on not having a central leadership, to the extent the movement does, it’s often female. Six of the eight national coordinators of the Tea Party Patriots, which organizes the efforts of hundreds of individual local groups, are women.
Tammy Bruce, a former liberal who now hosts a nationwide talk show, says, “The liberal feminist movement never imagined that women would take seriously the encouragement to become our own heroes and claim life for ourselves. Pro-choice and pro-life, Christian and not, poor and rich, black, white, gay and straight. It is a dream we all hold dear, and it’s called the Tea Party.”
But even a few liberals are starting to concur with Bruce. Peggy Drexler, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell Medical School, grudgingly acknowledge that Sarah Palin has a point when she says the “Momma Grizzlies” of the Tea Party are the real feminists. “These are women rising up to confront a world they feel threatens their families. They are loud, determined, unafraid and—politically speaking—have very big teeth,” she wrote on the Huffington Post website this fall. And they also have sharp tongues. One of the signs I spotted in Richmond was a protest against President Obama burdening children with future debt: “My kid is not an ATM machine.”
The Tea Party provides women who have often been given short shrift by party establishments a natural home. “For a long time people have seen the parties as good-ole-boy, male-run institutions. In the Tea Party, women have finally found their voice,” says Rebecca Wales of Tea Party Patriots. A new film, Fire from the Heartland, done for the conservative group Citizens United by filmmaker Steve Bannon, interviews only women in exploring the Tea Party movement. The sole male voice comes from a clip of the February 2009 on-air rant of CNBC’s Rick Santelli, whose criticism of home mortgage bailouts touched off the formation of the Tea Parties.
The women interviewed in the film believe their children will be the losers as government pushes a “dependency” agenda and the country loses its competitive edge. “The current administration is promoting T-ball nation,” says Doreen Borelli. “With T-ball, you hit the ball, everyone gets on base, everyone supposedly wins and everyone goes for ice cream after the game. But life isn’t like that.”
“I WAS BORN to a crackhead and grew up in the projects,” says Sonnie Johnson of the Frederick Douglass Foundation. She now supports the Tea Party because she wants local governments to have more autonomy. “How can you make a change locally if your community is run by the federal government?” she asks. Ms. Johnson told me she is irritated by liberal attempts to paint the Tea Party as racist. She notes that such charges are essentially a political strategy and points out that Mary Frances Berry, the former Democratic chairwoman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission under Bill Clinton, acknowledged as much when she said: “Tainting the Tea Party movement with the charge of racism is proving to be an effective strategy for Democrats.…Having one’s opponent rebut charges of racism is far better than discussing joblessness.”
Liberal attempts to smear the Tea Party take many forms. One prominent black professional from Virginia received a phone call warning against attending the Richmond event by falsely saying the crowd would be all white and displaying Confederate flags.
But the Tea Party seems to grow regardless of attempts to pigeonhole or marginalize it. A Washington Post poll in October reported that 43 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans were intensely interested in voting in the November elections. Among Tea Party supporters, the number was 74 percent. Given that a pre-election Rasmussen poll found that three out of 10 Americans consider themselves Tea Party members or have close friends or family members who are, support like that can reshape the political environment.