The real Tea Party
Conservative Group Makes Over Image, Goals, After Passing of Health Care Bill
By Ladan Nekoomaram
Jim Casey, a retired grandfather carrying an American flag lawn chair, walked through the doors of the Ronald Reagan building on the morning of April 15 with purpose.
Hundreds of protesters close to his age crowded the great hall like a sea of tourists waiting for the fireworks to begin on the Fourth of July. Fanny packs, oversized flags and glittered hats filled Freedom Plaza that morning, ringing in the Tax Day Tea Party protest that was said to bring hundreds of thousands of conservatives together against government spending and control over the private sector.
Casey greeted his fellow retired comrades in the movement that has been described by FreedomWorks as the biggest grassroots political movement in recent history. But today, unlike a much-publicized Tea Party rally in September, he was also met with the faces of today’s youth, standing alongside their grandmothers and grandfathers, on a school day, to say they’ve had enough.
“I think if I don’t do something now, I’m going to be stuck with these policies throughout my life,” said Riley, a sophomore in college who did not want to give his last name. He and his cousin flew in on a red-eye flight from California to the protest.
“I want the feeling of being part of something and actually taking action and being part of a bigger group,” Riley said.
Casey was once the standard face of the Tea Party, but now, he embodies just a faction of what the movement has come to be in recent months, since the passing of Obama’s health care bill. He brought his sons and grandchildren from Gloucester County, Va., for the protest and made it a family affair. They purchased the signature red “Tea Party Patriots” t-shirts while one of his granddaughters sported a light pink shirt that read, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take everything you have.”
“We want to show that we are concerned … the health bill, that’s the real big one,” he said. His mother’s doctor told her that, “at 92 years old, she probably won’t be able to be seen or have insurance to pay for it.”
Those who attended the rally on Sept. 12 witnessed a largely white, older crowd, primarily from southern or Midwest states, waving anti-Obama signs and screaming that their voices should be heard.
On Tax Day, however, the face of the Tea Party looked different, featuring a larger number of women, students and minorities, united under the message of smaller government and fiscal responsibility.
Most importantly, the new faces of the movement say they have taken it upon themselves to be leaders in their communities and weed out members touting racist, homophobic and fanatical ideas that sour the goals of the movement.
Banners waved through the warm, spring day by Freedom Plaza in the mass of protesters listening to speakers like U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), whose voice rang over the crowd.
“Freedom is my No. 1 issue, and I’m losing it one piece at a time,” said Julie Hall, who flew in from Arizona. She took time off from her business to attend with a friend, Hilary McGee, a teacher who left her family and her students behind. Hall said she has participated in Tea Party events in her state, but that wasn’t enough to enact change.
Many protesters took the overnight flights from across the country, missing work, school and spending hundreds of dollars to protest. While some tea partiers have been active online or in their communities, others felt it was important to be in government’s back yard to spread their message.
“I think the statement of being on the home turf of the people that are not listening to us … do you see us now? What part of ‘no‘ do you not understand?” Hall said. “I don’t want to be rolling over in my grave worrying about this country.”
They came from far and wide for different reasons, but the Tea Party has coalesced around three central beliefs: small government, fewer taxes and less spending. It has also gained momentum from three main goals that have kicked the movement into high gear: Take back Nov, 2, gain a bigger following and weed out those misrepresenting the party.
Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns at FreedomWorks, said 25 percent of Americans associate themselves with the Tea Party, while a New York Times poll says 18 percent of Americans are Tea Partiers.
They form local chapters through the thousands of online and social networking groups that have formed within the past year. After forming these communities, he said it’s important to reach out to other demographics, like those in urban or rural areas and minorities.
“We have to focus on recruitment,” said Steinhauser, encouraging Tea Partiers to network with each other while at the day’s events. “It’s this kind of social connectivity that has made this movement so powerful.”
The movement’s new focus was evident earlier on the day of the protest, when Matt Kibbe, the head of Freedomworks, spoke to hundreds of conservatives, families, senior citizens, mothers and students booed loud enough to fill the room with their frustration.
“Has anyone here given up? Is anyone double the energized,” he said through the echo of cheers. “Now’s the time to turn grassroots action into political accountability for all members of Congress,” he said. “If we can’t turn November 2 into a referendum of Obamacare, then we will have truly lost.”
Kibbe emphasized that at this stage, the movement has become a 50-state strategy.
According to a New York Times and CBS News poll on April 14, Tea partiers tend to be more affluent, educated, male and have families.
But for Andrew Hoffman, a recent graduate from Mary Washington in Virginia, the ideals of the Tea Party, or fiscal conservatism, have been a part of him his whole life. Coming from a mixed political family, Hoffman was raise under a roof of different political ideologies. But he found himself aligning more with his father’s conservative views. He remains a minority of in his age group, but represents the growing number of politically active conservative youths in the country.
Hoffman participated in youth conservative groups throughout high school and college, and he went door-to-door last November during the Virginia gubernatorial elections. He also worked for U.S. Rep. Frank Wolfe (R-Va) in 2008, getting his feet wet with politics on the Hill.
He’s since gotten a non-political job, so he said he hasn’t been as involved in political movements as he’d like to be, but he participates in the online communities.
“I’ve had the opportunity to get active and it kind of lent me a voice in this,” Hoffman said of his campaigning last fall. “I mean, yes, I’m joining the voice of thousands and thousands of others, but it gives me a voice behind just saying, ‘Hey, don’t blame me. I voted for McCain.’ You have this bottled up sense of frustration in the Republican core and this basically gave them a chance to say ‘Hell, no! We don’t like this.’ ”
He urged the public not to assume that Tea Partiers want no health care reform, but rather, they want it executed through the free market.
“From what best I can tell, there is a general sentiment that there needs to be health care reform within the Tea Party,” he said. “But it’s not that they’re saying, ‘Don’t do any reform whatsoever.’ But rather, they’re saying, ‘This is the wrong reform being done in the entire wrong way.’ ”
Derek Spencer, a senior at the University of Mississippi, has focused his efforts locally, getting conservative representatives elected on the state and federal level in his home state, Missouri. He rounded up supporters by starting his own website for youth in Missouri who believe in the ideals of the Tea Party.
The site, which launches in May of 2010, would include a database of voters, news about local politics and a social media component that will connect conservative students with one another on various campaigns. With a bachelor’s degree in political science and extensive work in grassroots organizing, Spencer said he’s putting his hopes on the 2010 and 2012 elections.
“I would do all kinds of things, like go around to neighborhoods, make phone calls and hold fundraisers,” he said of his experience during the 2008 Presidential election. “For the website, it’ll start as a small, local thing, but I’m going to focus on getting it down and expanding it.”
He said on the Ole Miss campus, he has noticed a growing number of students following Ron Paul and libertarian leaders who align with fiscal conservatism.
“I do see a lot of young people become more liberty-minded,” he said “The more and more these blogs come about, it’s kind of more transparent what’s going on than watching the evening news. There are so many resources, so you can dig down and get all the information you need, and they’re turning to these places for unity and a purpose.”
Youth and older generations formed social groups through FreedomWorks prior to the protest, organizing their local groups on the Mall before the evening speakers presented. At Freedom Plaza, mothers pushing their children in strollers crowded busy intersections, students taking a day off of school and young professionals filled the crowd with new and unexpected faces.
Counter-protest groups like “The Other 95 percent” also came to the protest to debunk some popular myths its members say have spread and become integral to the movement. They yelled, “Thank Obama for your tax cut,” at protesters passing on the street, saying a significant portion of Tea Partiers received tax cuts in 2009.
Alex Nowrasteh, a policy expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said misrepresenters of the party have been discouraged from attending the events, but there is no way to regulate who comes and what they do.
He and his business partner, Drew Tidwell, are working to create a feature- length movie about the different faces of the Tea Party in hopes to create a more holistic depiction of the movement. The film, not related to his work as an immigration expert at CEI, would be a fictional representation of the Tea Party across the country from California to Washington, D.C.
Nowrasteh and Tidwell have attended various Tea Parties around the country, trying to determine who embodies the movement, and along the way, they were surprised with their findings.
“Middle-aged women are basically running the movement. People who were never concerned with politics before,” he said. While this may be the case, they are also highlighting youth initiatives within the movement and how that will come to define the next generation.
“There are a lot of movies about Woodstock—so we want to talk about our generation, the youth, and our movement’s Woodstock.”
His motivation for pursuing such a project was to clear the air on misinformation and stereotyping that occurs in the media with Tea Partiers. He hopes the film would also weed out the more radical members who focus on social or unrelated issues that turn people off to the movement.
“They focus on things like race or religion, and there are some people like that. But a vast majority of them are not like that and we want to portray that accurately.”
In the past, someone attending the protests would see a number of anti-Obama signs that refer to his race, Muslim middle name or identity as a U.S. citizen. On Tax Day, few such groups attended but remained outliers, like Teresa Cao, founder of “Heaven’s Bailout.” Her group believes that the “New World Order,” or a singular governing body, got Obama elected to spread corruption and anti-Christian values. She focused on the birther issue during the protest.
“Every movement has these people,” Nowrasteh said. “I wish they would leave or get kicked out, but you can’t really kick people out. There’s no membership roster and you don’t have to pay dues or fees. But the rest of us can talk about how much we hate them.”
One of the biggest beefs he has with people who dislike the Tea Party is when people associate them with being racist because they oppose a black president. Others who try to associate religion and homosexuality with the rallies harm the movement’s intentions as well, he said.
FreedomWorks held a discussion on Tax Day explaining to Tea Partiers how to best deal with those who misrepresent the movement and how to direct reporters to voices of authority. Voice control is one of their main focuses in the coming months.
Lee Doren, the “crasher in chief” of Bureaucrash, an activist project of the CEI, says the radicals that have come to define the movement in the media are characteristic of most grassroots movements.
“If you go to a football game that has a couple thousand people, and you have some crazy drunk people with their shirts off, would you like people to say that’s a representative of what a football fan looks like?” he said. “Everyone’s upset and embarrassed by them. But at an open event where you’re encouraging the public to come, you can’t ask them to explain why they’re there.”
The media in general, he said, hasn’t done much to counter the radicals in the movement, and have in fact put them in the spotlight. Reports of cut gas lines, rocks thrown through windows, and people with Obama “Joker” masks make the front pages of the news rather than the average protester and their economic argument.
“Because quite frankly, moms with kids in strollers are not a big story if you got somebody with Obama and a Hitler mustache,” he said.
Doren started as a liberal while in undergrad and worked at an environmental lobbying organization until he went to law school, where he was “completely converted.” He joined the Tea Party’s efforts last year and has attended rallies on the local level and gave a speech at the Sept. 12 protest.
While the movement looks to the November elections, its face continues to form from the once-disorganized hodgepodge of Republicans, libertarians, former Democrats, social conservatives and radicals. The youth and the older generation are leading the way in their backyards and in the political sphere, movement organizers say, determined to get the true message across and vote out political supporters of Obama’s economic policy.
“Things have changed dramatically in a year. People now understand what you say when you say ’Tea Party Movement’ now,” Doren said.
“I mean, it’s only been around for a year and look how it has grown. How many other movements in America can you say has had this much influence in less than a year out of nowhere? None, really.”