These are not your granny’s tea parties. One tea party even panicked Secret Service bodyguards when a foolish tea-sipper threw a harmless tea bag over the White House fence.
“Tea-bag parties” erupted - and “erupted” is the correct verb - across the country on April 15, celebrated by joyous “progressive” taxpayers and loathed by everybody else as the day to report the intimate details of your life, along with cash, to the Internal Revenue Bureau (which the bureau insists that we call not a bureau but a “service”). Bureau or service, it’s run by bureaucrats, not servants, and always the target of April ire.
More than 300, perhaps even 500 such tea parties broke out, at least one in every state, as demonstrations in the spirit of the Boston Tea Party. These were eruptions not only against high taxes but against the way the Obama administration is determined to plunder the nation’s wealth in behalf of mismanaged banks, bankrupt automobile manufacturers, greedy states and cities looking for handouts and anyone else who can think up a reason to tap the public till.
Benjamin Franklin, among others of the founding fathers, warned that the republic would survive until ordinary citizens learned to tap that public till. It looks like we’re there.
The actual numbers are not big enough to frighten most politicians, certainly not a president or even a governor, but what scares the politicians is how the phenomenon seemed to come out of nowhere, with neither sponsoring organizations nor central command that makes tightly scripted demonstrations look spontaneous. Given time to steep, who knows how strong the brew might be.
The tea-baggers seem to be authentically nonpartisan; several tea parties pointedly declined offers by Republican officials, notably Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, to speak at rallies. “We’ve heard enough already from politicians,” one California tea-bagger said. The lowly tea bag threatens to become a weapon of righteous terror.
“So what’s behind the Tax Day tea parties?” asks Glenn Reynolds in the Wall Street Journal. “Ordinary folks, who are using the power of the Internet to organize. For a number of years, techno-geeks have been organizing ‘flash crowds’ - groups of people, co-ordinated by texting or cell phone, who converge on a particular location and then do something silly, like the pillow fights that popped up in 50 cities earlier this month.”
But tea parties are serious, constructive rages against how the government confiscates wealth and, after the bureaucrats take a big bite, regurgitates it back to towns, cities and states with specific and harshly enforced instructions on when and how to spend it.
Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, one of the first governors who “gets it,” calls the tea parties a result of “the genuine frustration, the genuine concern, the genuine angst erupting all across the country” - a revolt against federal arrogance to take it all, spend it all and do it all the government’s way. The tea-baggers are persuaded that “printing money you don’t have” is the recipe for disaster employed by Argentina and the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1920s, even in Zimbabwe this year. That should be a caution for everyone.
Most of the coverage in the mainstream media has been snarky and contemptuous, particularly by the cable-TV networks. The big mainstream newspapers have tried to ignore the tea parties: the Boston Globe finally found a small hole on an inside page to run a wire story about a tea party in Kentucky, ignoring a larger eruption in Boston. The intended implication was that the tea parties are merely the social life of unwashed Bible Belt bumpkins and hayseeds in the nation’s backwoods. CNN’s reporters complain that the tea parties are even “anti-CNN,” though it’s not clear why. CNN’s disappearing audience suggests that being “anti-CNN” is no distinction, since nearly everybody is.
Carefully planned or not, the organizers of the tea parties are learning to focus rage for maximum effect. A thousand or even five thousand demonstrators can get lost on the Mall in Washington, but five hundred angry tea-baggers can terrorize easily frightened aldermen, even in big cities.
Organizers in Tucson, for example, intend to concentrate this fall on city council elections, and officials with edifice complexes in several cities have backed down from grandiose schemes to waste money in the face of angry taxpayers overwhelming council chambers. These are voters who so far constitute no recognizable “movement,” but a popular uprising of people who actually took seriously a certain promise of hope change. They believed it, even if no one now in Washington did.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.