Tea Party, where are you?
Shortly after Barack Obama took office in 2009, CNBC editor Rick Santelli called for a "tea party" protest against the new administration's destructive economic policies. People listened. And on Tax Day, April 15, 2009, rallies in cities across the nation launched the grassroots conservative political movement known as the Tea Party.
Recently, a HuffPost article claimed that Joe Biden is doing many of the same things as Obama but, because Biden is an old white guy, there is no opposition as in 2009, thus confirming a major motivation of the Tea Party: racism.
But there are a dozen years separating the launching of the Obama and Biden administrations. That's a long time in the world of politics. Things have changed, but the principles of the Tea Party have not gone away. Indeed, the agonies of the current Republican establishment over their party's identity have their roots in the Tax Day rallies of 2009. It can be argued that, directly and indirectly, the Tea Party's efforts culminated in Donald Trump's 2016 election.
Even though some tried to hijack it and leftists claimed it was Astroturf or receiving massive right-wing or libertarian funding, the Tea Party was a true grassroots movement. Given the classic life cycles of organizations, the Tea Party was destined either to dissolve from a lack of momentum or formally organize and probably calcify.
It did neither. As radicals of the 1960s realized they needed to cut their hair and put on suits to infiltrate Western institutions, many Tea Partiers set aside their Gadsden flags and NRA bumper stickers to become became active in local Republican committees, campaign for candidates, and run for office. Some Tea Partiers said their goal was to take over the Republican Party. Why not? No one was using it anyway.
At the Tax Day launching of the Tea Party movement, estimates are that, at one time or another, 2,000 people came to the town square in Fayetteville, Arkansas, near where I live. Although the legacy media downplayed them, rallies were simultaneously going on around the country, perhaps drawing millions. It was more than just a feel-good get-together. After the rallies, people organized locally. And things happened.
One of the speakers at that first rally in Fayetteville eventually became a deputy secretary of state. He later was elected as our county's chief executive; his wife is seeking a major office in the state Republican Party. Another speaker now owns her own lobbying firm. After organizing, our local Tea Party had a chairman, but he left to run for office, eventually serving a term as a state legislator. Another former Tea Partier is now a GOP state committeeman.
Other local Tea Partiers developed influential watchdog and lobbying organizations that ranked legislators on their votes on economic issues. They watch for fidelity to our state party's very conservative platform and promote "platform Republicans." Their organizations even included a radio program broadcast in several markets in our state, and, for a time, our county Tea Party had its own radio broadcast in our community. In its prime, our local Tea Party regularly hosted political candidates, and its leadership and other state Tea Party leaders spent part of a Saturday morning meeting with one of our U.S. senators.
The Tea Party reached deeper than what was visible. There was the silent Tea Party: people who considered themselves part of the movement, even though they never attended a Tea Party meeting or rally. Through the efforts of all these like-minded individuals, Arkansas turned in the last decade from blue to red, the last Southern state to do so. For the first time since the post–Civil War Reconstruction era, all seven of what we call "constitutional offices" — governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, auditor, and land commissioner — are Republican.
Today, there's no need for a Tea Party movement. Many of its principles are engrained in the efforts of the Republican base. While the base was resistant to the Republican establishment long before 2009 and Barack Obama, it was the effort of what became the Tea Party that helped translate the base's beliefs into direct political action. Given the train wreck that was the 2020 election, coupled with the leftist insanity that has captured the Democratic Party, there's a new cadre of conservatives who have stopped yelling at their televisions and, like the Tea Partiers of a decade ago, are getting off their couches to become political activists. Unlike Republican suspicions when those weird Tea Partiers tried to join them in 2009, newly hatched politicos are being welcomed into local GOP committees.
Despite Donald Trump's would-be banishment, establishment Republicans are discovering they can't resume their party dominance. There are too many Tea Partiers and those of a like mind controlling the grassroots mechanisms of the GOP.
While there's a long way to go, and today's challenges are greater than those of 2009, the legacy of yesterday's Tea Party brings to mind Ronald Reagan's description of the accomplishments of his administration: "Not bad. Not bad at all."
A retired marketing professor, broadcaster, and journalist, Mike Landry is a freelance writer in Northwest Arkansas. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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