The Tea Party movement, with its loud crowds and explicit signage, has been an intriguing force for months. Their rallies, protests, and town hall appearances have created a storm seldom seen in American history.
Those outside the movement have had a difficult time understanding the motivation behind the passion. The ideals of small government and lower taxes are clearly evident - but why are those goals manifesting themselves in this way?
Understanding the people behind the Tea Party is what drove my employer, Media Matters, to send me to the first Tea Party Convention. Instead of attending as a member of the media, I was to experience the convention as a member, a Tea Partier, a conservative.
It was fascinating.
Let me make something very clear: I did not attend the Tea Party Convention with the intention of embarrassing or ridiculing the attendees. While I wholeheartedly disagree with their politics, these people were genuine in their beliefs.
Without fail, my fellow conventioneers were affable and welcoming. I became friendly with a few people and sat with them during sessions and meals. One older man and I bonded over our love of books and our Baptist upbringing. He saved me seats and pulled me into sessions he thought I would enjoy. I hated lying to him, even though they were little lies about my job and where I live. I spoke honestly of my family, my interests, and my college degree. I hate that he and the other people I met will feel betrayed if they ever read this account.
Everyone was happy to be there. More than one person commented that they felt safe - that they even felt as though they could leave their purse or wallet somewhere and return to its full contents. A nice surprise was the lack of violent language. I didn't hear anyone call for violence against the Obama family or any elected official - just a hope for their eviction from office. There were, of course, references to Obama's Marxist-Communist-Muslim "beliefs" and doubts as to his citizenry. I didn't see one sign equating him with Hitler or the Joker.
I stood out like a sore thumb. The vast majority of Tea Partiers were white Baby Boomers. While I too am white and may not have been the youngest woman in attendance, people seemed to assume I was in my early twenties. Reporters frequently approached me to get "a young person" to diversify their videos. I counted five non-white attendees: two speakers, a local candidate, a man who tried to get in but didn't have a ticket, and a child in a wheelchair brought by his parents.
At times, the convention felt like a church retreat or camp. It began with the distribution of a lanyard and t-shirt, then a welcome statement by the convention head, a guest speaker (Tom Tancredo) warmed up the crowd, then music, a sermon, a large group prayer (on our knees) followed by small group prayers (hand holding), and then a movie. That schedule could have easily been opening night at a retreat, if only there had been a call to the altar.
Many, if not most, of the Tea Partiers were strong Christians to whom this sort of schedule would be familiar, safe, and welcomed. Being led in prayer, asked to kneel, and holding hands with strangers is scary to many without that background. But to those of us who grew up following someone else's lead along a spiritual path it is second nature. To start a weekend that was to be filled with lofty ideas and rousing speeches by holding what amounted to a revival was a smart, strategic decision. For the evangelical Christian, those experiences bond you with the group and create unity and cohesion.
We would pray several times throughout the weekend, mostly in small groups or over meals. People talked openly about their faith and their knowledge that God's hand was over the movement and was the reason for its success.
As far as events go, the convention was well organized. The inevitable scheduling problems were dealt with seamlessly and they adapted to problems well. An extra session was put together when attendees expressed an interest for an additional lesson from one of the speakers. Every meal was provided, with the exception of lunch on the last day. Lunch and dinner were three course, plated meals. Water, iced tea (obviously), and coffee were available.
There were a few tables with sponsors' literature, speakers' books, merchandise, and t-shirts. My t-shirt says "Annoy a Liberal: Use Facts & Logic."
I was assured there were 1,400 people at the conference by one woman. The reports have all said there were 600 people there. If there were 600, I didn't see them all in one room (like at meal time) at once.
The Tea Party Convention speakers' words have been widely broadcast and are available for review. I will not waste time by rehashing their comments here. What I can do, however, is go over some of what I heard from the conference attendees.
• You've seen how Obama looks to the side after he's made a point? That's proof he is a follower of Marx.
• He wasn't born in Hawaii!
• I'm disgusted with him.
• He stole the election with ACORN.
• He's a Moslem (yes, that's with an "o") and an Arab.
On the Second Amendment:
• We carry our weapons to every rally and protest, because "they're not doing us any good at home."
• Everyone should carry a pocketknife or switchblade. You never know when you might need to protect yourself.
• We have God on our side, that's why we're so successful. And that's why they hate us.
• There are many nonbelievers in the Tea Parties and they resent the inclusion of Christianity. Well they can just get over it.
• The media is out there and keeps asking why we're here. They don't get it because they don't know God. We're here for a little R and R - Revival and Revolt! (directed to the media during a breakout session)
• Our Constitution is based on God's word
• 20 Percent of the 10 Commandments is economics: Do not steal - protection of private property; Do not covet - what others own is theirs
• "I've asked God for His forgiveness for my apathy and not fighting for the freedom He has bestowed."
• Throughout history, Christians have always been the ones on the right side. Slavery was ruined by non-Christian slave holders. The Christians who owned slaves treated them well.
On the media:
• Jeers were aimed at the reporters at every comment regarding the media.
• There was a $500 fee to access the internet in the convention center. One person said the media wanted to keep the bandwidth open in the conference space so had the signal blocked from the Tea Partiers. (Note: the charge was actually from the hotel and had nothing to do with the media)
• We don't have a TV or a computer and just recently got on email - we don't want to hear their lies.
• Are they 'fair and balanced'?
• They should tell the truth!
On the 9/12 Rally:
• 1.7 million
• 2.2 million
(A note on the 9/12 rally: I stood on the Mall for both the inauguration and on 9/12. There was no comparison in the numbers. 60,000 is an incredible number to have show up for any march, and the Tea Partiers should not be upset over that figure.)
On Citizens United:
• "I'm for it. If Obama is against it, then I'm for it."
• It's not that much money.
• Obama got his money from China, so why shouldn't our companies spend their money?
More than one person (speakers and attendees alike) said that the United States didn't need any text not included in the four pages of the Constitution.
Statements like this show pretty clearly the overall mindset of the Tea Partiers: a basic idea without thought to the consequences. They want lower taxes, but don't want to give up the services those taxes pay for. They don't want government-run health care, but many of the convention attendees were on Medicare. And, apparently, they do not think the original Constitution needed any additional review. Among the text contained past page four: the abolishment of slavery, giving women the right to vote, and the Bill of Rights.
The convention was structured into large sessions at meals and smaller breakout sessions. The large group speakers mainly focused on the overarching issues of the Tea Party movement with numerous motivational declarations.
The breakout sessions covered a broader and more detailed range of topics. I attended sessions on Christian involvement in politics, on immigration, and emergency preparedness (a discussion that devolved into an audience-led panic about EMP attacks). These topics stayed within the expected range of Tea Party politics: small government, lower taxes, "traditional" values, and xenophobia.
I attended two sessions on campaign implementation that were almost empty. Both were good, instructional outlines of how to build coalitions in your district and how to contact voters. It struck me as indicative of not only the direction of the Tea Party movement but also its future that these sessions were so sparsely attended.
I heard a lot of lip service given to the need to bring the convention back home and to carry it through to November. Everyone clapped, but so few attended the instructional lessons on how to do that. They were much more interested in the speeches and sessions on how they are flying in the face of the party establishment (both Democrat and Republican), against the mainstream media, and how they are part of something the country hasn't seen since the Revolution.
They are making strategic decisions for the future. Tea Party Nation and other Tea Party groups will be holding events every few weeks between now and November to keep the ball rolling. There are plans to hold another convention in July to provide another round of training.
To experience the convention and learn about the Tea Party movement from the inside unfortunately meant I had to misrepresent myself in order to gain entrance. My personal misgivings aside, I'm glad I went. I gained a new perspective on what they want, how they will proceed, and just how strongly they feel. All without the clamor of another protest.
The Tea Partiers I encountered at the convention are surely a subset of the larger movement. These were individuals with the time and money to attend an event like this. The members who make those horrible signs and make violent and hateful comments either were not in attendance or kept their mouths shut and left their signs at home. But they're both a part of the Tea Party movement. In order to proceed as a cohesive unit, the more peaceful members will have to balance the opinions of those with more extreme positions. I have doubts, however, as to the Tea Party's ability to find a common ground within itself.
As the 2010 election cycle unfolds, it will be interesting to watch the Tea Party act as a campaign beyond a series of rallies and protests - no matter the outcome.