Tea Party protests: Could they rally change in government?

Protests against Washington spending took place in more than 700 US cities Wednesday.

By , Staff writer

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    Though he didn't support the cause, AmeriCorps volunteer C.J. Greene (foreground) checked out Wednesday's Tea Party in Atlanta. 'I expected the crowds to be bigger – and more diverse,' he said.
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Two months ago, 300 people showed up in a cold, pouring rain at Georgia’s State Capitol as part of the first stirrings of a modern-day Tea Party movement, protesting Washington’s expanding reach and a ballooning federal deficit.

Wednesday night, Edward Johnson, in a tricorn hat and Paul Revere coat, watched Act II: The capitol square here filled up with more than 10,000 protesters waving signs that said, among other things, “Welcome to Sweden” and “Don’t tax me, bro!”

The burgeoning Tea (Taxed Enough Already) Party movement is outwardly nonpartisan but has been dominated, at least at the Atlanta event, by Republican stalwarts like former Rep. Dick Armey. When asked whether it could achieve its goal of returning America to small-government roots, Mr. Johnson looked grim under the brim of his hat.

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“On the one hand, I feel optimistic to see so many people coming out,” he said, gripping his 4-month-old daughter, Sophie, on the fringe of a rowdy crowd. “But I’m also pessimistic because I think it’s too late. I think both parties in this country are bent on repressing the individual rights the Founders worked so hard to craft into the Constitution.”

With protests in more than 700 US cities Wednesday, and perhaps over 100,000 Americans taking part, it’s clear that a populist counterpoint is expanding to protest what they see as Washington profligacy. They’re zeroing in on corporate bailouts, a historic stimulus package, and a budget that could add trillions of dollars to the already massive US deficit.

Critics call tea partiers an irrational minority, their movement a sign of a conservative power vacuum.

Yet the impressive organizing effort – styled in many ways like the Democratic social-networking playbook that worked so well last fall – does indicate to some experts that the Tea Parties could have an effect on the body politic.

“These grass-roots movements can make a big difference. We saw that with the suffrage movement, where you had to get people picketing the White House in addition to folks who were lobbying state by state for ratification,” says Elizabeth Bennion, a professor who studies voter mobilization at Indiana University at South Bend. At the Tea Parties now, she says, “These are people – liberal, conservative, moderate and unidentified – who are genuinely concerned about the debt that we’re passing onto our children and grandchildren.”

From Hartford, Conn., to San Antonio, from San Francisco to Punta Gorda, Fla., organizers saw the seeds of the protests sprout in a way that few of them could have foreseen. They were sparked in part by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli’s much-publicized antispending rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

The vast majority of the protests were orderly and respectful, with very few counterprotests. The only notable incident came in Washington, when someone threw a box of tea bags over the White House fence, forcing police to disperse the crowd and bring out a robotic bomb-sniffer.

The tea-bag incident notwithstanding, the White House pointed out Wednesday that 95 percent of Americans will enjoy a federal tax cut under President Obama’s plan. But protesters say that future tax increases are inevitable, as Mr. Obama looks to expand the government’s role and reach.

Atlanta protester Dwight Alcala says that both his parents are Filipino but he came to the protest because “I’m an American first.” His main concern is that free-for-all government spending leads to a freeloader mind-set that’s antithetical to the Constitution’s guarantees of individual rights. “We’re fed up, and we think there’s a better way,” he says.

Some protests eschewed party politics: One event in Chicago refused an entreaty from GOP head Michael Steele to speak. Others, such as the one here in Atlanta, were high-tech affairs, with huge TV screens, bands, and a recitation by “Paul Revere” (“The taxes are coming!”) – as well as appearances by state politicians like John Oxendine, Mr. Armey, and Fox News TV personality Sean Hannity, who aired his show last night from the scene.

Some have raised questions about how grass-roots the efforts really are, but even critics who attended the events or have talked to protesters say they are sincere.

“These are all average Americans in leadership roles,” insists Michael Patrick Leahy, a Nashville blogger and organizer of the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition. “These are people who are mad at the fiscal profligacy of the last years of the Bush administration, and Republicans as well as Democrats.”

The movement has already had an impact on Jeremy Kata, a 20-something grad student at Indiana University at South Bend, who helped organize a protest there. A former plant manager, Mr. Kata is now determined to enter politics, though at what level and where he’s not sure.

Ultimately, the impact of the Tea Party movement at the local level may be what’s most important, he says.

“This idea of what we are willing to pay in taxes and what do we need in terms of services, it’s even more visible at the local level,” he says. “These are issues being debated in almost every town and state in the union.”

Influencing state and congressional races is the movement’s ultimate goal, says Mr. Leahy, but there’s a more immediate priority: the upcoming budget vote.

“Policymakers will be following these protests in the news,” Professor Bennion says. “Republicans might feel emboldened as a protest party, and ‘blue dog’ or moderate Democrats may also feel empowered to speak out against the Democratic leadership, meaning that the majority party will have to look much more carefully at their concerns regarding spending and how they’re going to pay for things.”

Marc Cooper, director of Annenberg Digital News at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and a Huffington Post contributor, disagrees. For Republicans especially, he says, the Tea Party movement is an unwelcome charge by “the angriest, most rogue, extreme – not in a dangerous way – voices that I think do a lot of damage to Republicans.”

He adds: “These protests are really off the wall because they’re completely out of sync with a historic moment ... [where] people are now looking to government, much as they did in the 1930s, for solutions. There’s a minority that’s going to oppose that, but that’s not where the center of the gravity is in the country.”

In fact, a study from the Pew Research Center released Wednesday found that 56 percent of Americans support Obama’s stimulus plan.

Standing back from the crowds at the Atlanta rally, J.C. Greene, an AmeriCorps volunteer, said he expected the crowds to be much larger – and more diverse. “They’re trying to build some momentum,” he says, “but I think it just mostly shows the state of our country right now.”

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