Friday, April 24, 2009

Turning the Tea Parties into a Movement

April 15, 2009 was an interesting day in American politics. Across the nation, tens of thousands of Americans, fed up with high taxes, out of control spending, billions of dollars in bailouts, and a rather dramatic shift in the role of government took to the streets in a good old-fashioned display of First Amendment speech.

Liberals in the media blasted and made fun of these events. Some criticized them as unpatriotic or even racist. In a failure to grasp what they were about, some even said that the party-goers didn't even understand what a tea party meant, calling them "not historically accurate" -- as if all tea parties had to be for the same reason, rather than a symbol of government excess and legislators not doing the right thing. There was a clear disconnect between the outrage of the party goers and those who criticized them. You often wonder how they could be living in the same country.

From our perspective here at Kaw & Border, the Tea Parties were a refreshing display of activism from not only "conservatives", but Americans in general -- particularly after years of asking the question "where's the outrage?" Outrage at the fact that in this economy, we're not talking about massive tax cuts but rather massive tax increases. Outrage at the fact that we've let the federal government essentially take control of such large segements of the economy. As we covered two weeks ago following the pathetically low turnout in local elections, one often wonders if people truly care anymore -- and even if they do, if they will ever find out the true facts about what is going on in politics. So from that perspective, the hundreds of thousands of people speaking up was a very, very good thing.

But, like all political protests, if nothing of substance results from those loud and numerous voices -- the events were nothing more than a bunch of people holding up signs complaining -- but not doing anything action-oriented to right the wrongs they are upset about.

Anyone involved in the grassroots of politics (particularly Kansas politics) can testify to the frustration of the lack of participation in elections. Not simply voting, as a lot of folks do that, but actual participation -- getting involved in campaigns, donating to candidates, organizing precincts, or simply educating one's neighbor -- the true characertistics of not only a successful campaign but of a real movement. The definition of a poltiical movement is one where one passionate and engaged portion of the electorate (as the tea party goers are) moves another interested, but less passionate portion (the public at large) to action as well. A successful political movement is shown in election results -- when a state or the country shifts dramatically in one direction.

Sometimes these movements are slow, as with the Reagan Revolution, which basically started in the mid 60's but did not really take off completely until 1980 with Reagan's election and then again in 1994 with the takeover of Congress. In today's internet age, where information travels so quickly, movements have a chance to grow much quicker, as we saw with this year's tea parties, which were rather spontaneous and true displays of grassroots participation.

The question for the tea parties is whether they will simply be one display in reaction to current events, or a sustained movement -- something that truly moves voters and moves a nation.

It's been said in politics that 1% of the people do the organizing, and then those 1% hope 5% do the work, and then those 5% hope to get the other 94% to just show up. In the case of the tea parties, the 5% have shown up -- the question is whether they will do the long term ground work to get the 94% to one, follow their direction, and two, vote.

As we discussed in our most recent piece covering the controversy at JCCC surrounding Ben Hodge, we found it quite ironic that a tea party being held at JCCC had 10,000 people, yet so many of those very folks didn't know, until Ben Hodge told them, that the very types of things they were protesting were going on at the very school they were holding a rally at. Yet how many of those people voted in the Spring election? Not many, which is why Hodge lost.

Simiarily, how many of those people -- or the tens or even hundreds of thousands that showed up at tea parties nationwide -- will get behind candidates in the next election? Will they donate even $5 to a favorite candidate? Will they even put a a yard sign, or walk door to door, or survey their neighborhood? Think if all 10,000 people at the JCCC rally gave just $5 to favorable candidates running for city council or the state legislature in Johnson County. That would be $50,000 -- more than enough to make a difference between victory and defeat for any candidate who is campaigning on the principles the party goers are striving for.

One potentially troubling thing to us was how many of the tea party goers seemed to hate politicians in general. While that anger indeed may be with good reason, one danger in that is that they will shun all politicians -- even the good ones who are trying their best to stop the outrageous policies they are protesting -- and that in the end, will crush any hopes of achieving the kind of real impact the tea party goers are striving for.

So, what's our message to the tea party-going masses? First, research the candidates and find the ones who talk about principles, not just politics. Second, get involved with their campaigns -- donate to them, walk with them, and talk to your neighbors about them. Third, realize that the problems you are protesting about don't only occur at the federal level -- but at the state and local level as well -- so get involved there too, where your action can make a significant difference.

The Tea Parties have every potential to be the next great revolution in American politics. The consequences of failure are dire -- for if after all these protests, nothing changes in 2010 -- it will be a virtual unrestricted license for Obama's vision of government, and those who oppose it will be further relegated to political obscurity.