"I've been to birthday parties that drew more people," DNC Communications Director Brad Woodhouse told Politico's Ben Smith in reference to a March 16 Tea Party rally in DC. "More people attended my wedding than went to the tea party kill the bill rally on the hill." It's true, that particular Tea Party march on Washington had a fairly weak turnout. While the most optimistic organizers of the march estimated as many as 2,000 attendees, the Democratic National Committee counted only 300. But statistics tells us that correlation does not equal causation, and weak attendance on March 18 does not equate to a weakening of the Tea Party movement. In the days following, tens of thousands of Tea Party protesters swarmed the Capitol.
Too easily overlooked is the fact that the majority of the Tea Party movement are everyday Americans. We hear terms like racists, militants, rednecks, birthers, deathers and secessionists applied to the movement; meanwhile television cameras focus on incendiary signs, offensive images, and the occasional semi-automatic weapon. But most are decent, hardworking, practical folk who believe their country is collapsing around them. They are the kind of people who can't afford to take a day off work or fly to DC for a last-minute rally. And they are the people to whom the left ought to pay attention.
A huge number of Americans have become interested in politics, and there are many, many Tea Party rallies. In fact there are hundreds of thousands of Tea Partiers and Tea Party sympathizers out there who are angry. They're angry, they're scared for their country and they are more marginalized and thus more politically motivated with each passing day. The right wing is doing everything it can to harness this motivation.
Bob Cesca recently wrote a two-part piece in HuffPost called "The Tea Party Is All About Race". In the first piece, he writes that the Tea Party movement is motivated by "bigotry, ignorance and racial hatred." These sorts of claims are influenced by people like Mark Williams, a so-called Tea Party leader affiliated with the Tea Party Express. Williams has called President Obama a "half-white racist" and an "Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug." There's also the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, attended by only 600 people. Many of these convention-goers cheered along with incendiary rhetoric from the likes of former Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo and former Alaska demi-governor Sarah Palin. Tancredo went so far as to advocate for "a civics literacy test before people can vote," a tactic used prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to prevent minority groups from voting. But Williams and these people are few, and this does not mean the entire movement is racist, even if it is primarily white. It just means that Tom Tancredo and these particular cheering convention-goers are racists.
When TPE's third installment of nationwide bus tours rolled into the California Republican Party conference on March 13, pundits were left wondering: did this mean the Tea Party is in line with the GOP?
Further complicating the Tea Party's image is the fact that the National Tea Party Convention, sponsor of the Nashville rally, is in no way the official Tea Party convention. A Louisiana DUI lawyer named Judson Phillips simply chose the name, and seemed to fool the media. He even duped Sarah Palin. Now many media outlets simply refer to the event as "the Tea Party convention," when in fact, the majority of the Tea Party views the event as a total joke. The mere 600 attendees were, for the most part, Palin fans. And Palin fans do not necessarily a Tea Party make.
Nor do Glenn Beck fans, who made up the majority of last year's 9/12 March on Washington. Brendan Steinhause, Director of Federal and State Campaigns for Freedomworks told HuffPost that he pulled the permits for the 9/12 march back in March, and that other than promoting the event as it drew nigh, Beck was not involved. However, on March 17, while discussing his 9/12 project, Beck told his listeners,
"But really hope this is a meeting place where you can find solutions and you can present solutions and you can meet together and you can say, look, we're going to do this project, we're going to do a march on Washington and it's going to be on this day, and you can try to put it all together as long as it's all framed with those principles and values, then I'd be with you. I'd be for you."
Bob Cesca's second piece calls on readers to make sure the Tea Party Movement is not "taken more seriously than its backwards and contradictory positions on the issues, its phony Astroturfing, and its Southern Strategy politics." He is wrong. The left must recognize that the core of the Tea Party movement is a group of increasingly angry and desperate Americans who believe their country is collapsing.
And they are powerful. Tea Party Express was known as Our Country Deserves Better PAC up until last year, when Republican-affiliated strategy firm Russo Marsh & Rogers tacked on the new name. In 1996, Russo Marsh was hired as consultants by the CA GOP. Sal Russo, principal of Russo Marsh, has worked on Republican political campaigns since 1966. Similarly, the group FreedomWorks has been involved in promoting and financially supporting Tea Parties since before they were called Tea Parties. He is a former Republican House Majority Leader. People can laugh at the fringe of the Tea Party on the ground, but they should respect the experience, skill, power and connections of those orchestrating the movement.
People in the Tea Party are mostly white, mostly Republican and mostly misinformed, but they are also dangerous. Also, despite appearances of weakness, they are still here and they're not going anywhere soon. And now that we've passed health care reform, they're angrier than ever.
Progressives must recognize the threat posed by the Tea Party movement. We need to stop underestimating them and start preparing to meet their charge. In Clark County, Nevada, a group of "constitutional conservatives" working under the tea party banner was able to elect six of the seven members of the county GOP executive committee. Tea Partiers nationwide are eyeing vacant G.O.P. precinct committee positions. In Florida, Tea Party darling Marco Rubio seems a safe bet to win a Senate seat. In a column in the New York Times, Frank Rich puts it succinctly: "The distinction between the Tea Party movement and the G.O.P. is real, and we ignore it at our peril."