Arguing the size of the "tea party" protest
In any case, experts see it as democracy in action, and that's a good thing.
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Statistics blogger Nate Silver, who trumped many organizations with his polling data during last year's election, pegged the turnout at 240,000. But that count included only about half the locations. The largest events drew close to 20,000 people, but some drew only dozens. A protest in Washington included about 1,500 people in a heavy rain.Skip to next paragraph
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In comparison, the biggest of the Vietnam era protests took place on Oct. 15, 1969, and brought out several million Americans in big cities and small towns across the country. Detailed photographic analysis of the crowd indicated that about 800,000 people participated in the Million Man March on Washington on Oct. 16, 1995.
Yet organizers said this week's protests were different, not just in the profile of the protesters – older, mostly white, and libertarian versus the young, more diverse, and liberal stereotype of the average activist – but in their message and geographical breadth.
"The role of the protester has not been to fix things, but to complain about what's going on, and that's where these tea party protests are different from the average protest," says J.M. Kata, a Tea Party attendee in South Bend, Ind. "We want these problems to be fixed, and we know how to fix them: be responsible in the way you levy taxes and be responsible in how you mortgage our children's futures. Those aren't the cries of a lunatic or the criminal insane, those are common-sense everyday values held by Americans in this country."
Critics of the movement said the numbers aren't really that impressive, especially given the air time given to the topic by, among other conservative organizations, Fox News, which seemed at times to be promoting the events more than covering them.
On the other hand, the backlash against Washington's bailouts and stimulus bills targeted by the Tea Party crowd has also not been the subject of the kind of intense, nightly news that surrounded the immigration debate in 2006 and the run-up to the Iraq War, coverage which certainly fueled those protests.
Jeffrey Kimball, a professor emeritus of history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, says the protesters seemed to represent the most extreme adherents of American conservatism, hardly representative of the average American.
"We may have just seen the whole movement" at these protests, says Mr. Kimball. "I don't see it as a groundswell, but a manifestation by those people who form the core of ... the extreme right reacting both to the condition of our time and President Obama – he's black and he's liberal."
Whether the final tally represents a victory or defeat for the Tea Party movement will be determined by where the idea goes from here, and to what extent it can shape this year's budget debate and next year's congressional elections. More protests are planned for the Fourth of July weekend.
But the more fascinating part, says Mr. Suri, is not whether the protesters represent the tip of an iceberg, but that the sizable numbers indicate that the American right is regaining a foothold on the public debate over America's economic future.
"I think these protests are part of a larger politicization of American society, in a good way," says Suri. "People are feeling more engaged in the process, they're voicing their opinions and feeling that it matters. This is democracy in action, and those on the right have learned something from the Obama movement in that sense."