From punchline to powerhouse: the 'tea party' at one year
The 'tea party' movement still has much to prove. Populist movements often fizzle. But it has reinvigorated the Republican Party and constitutional ideals in an era of fading federalism.
A year ago, few people paid attention to "tea party" activists like Ted Opper. Today, everybody wants a piece of him.Skip to next paragraph
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Pollsters, news organizations, and political scientists are studying Mr. Opper and his fellow tea partyers as a fascinating new, and possibly radical, political subspecies. Oppel simply sees himself as an ordinary American worried about mortgaging their kids' futures to pay for liberal largess.
"A lot of people want to see what they want to see in the tea party movement," says Opper, a military veteran who showed up to an Atlanta rally – one of scores of tea party tax day protests. "The problem for them is, it's not what they think it is."
However political scientists measure its demographics and impact, one thing the tea party has done in one short year is undeniable: thoroughly shake America's political podium.
Movement has gained grudging respect
Once mostly the butt of late-night jokes, the movement has gained often grudging respect from media and even Democratic lawmakers as it has become a cultural counterweight to Washington's zag to the left under a Democratic president and Democratic Congress – all while giving Republicans, at least for the moment, a spring in their step.
"The tea party movement has achieved a prominence in the conversation in part because of the silence from the traditional elected Republican leadership, and now that leadership has been driven right by tea party rhetoric," says University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin. "That has moved the party in the tea party direction, but it can't help but also bring the tea party a little bit closer to the political mainstream."
Of course, tea party activists weren't transported in from "fly over country" – a.k.a. middle America – via a Star Trek transporter. In the 1992 election, many voted for Ross Perot. Some, like tea party activist Clark Jokl at the Atlanta event, were even disaffected Republicans who voted for Obama. Their earlier reincarnations include the Populist Party, the Know Nothings and the Sagebrush Rebels.
Such populist movements, which usually either fizzle or fold into established parties, are often fueled by "the kind of resentment that comes with powerlessness," says Fordham University political scientist Tom De Luca.
As they gathered across the country Thursday, many tea party activists say they're no longer feeling so powerless.