Round 2 of Tea Party protests: a political powerhouse in the making?

Protests against taxes and red ink are set for this weekend. Their potential to form a formidable national movement is unclear.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
At a Tea Party in Atlanta in April, Dwight Alcala of Kennesaw, Ga., protested government taxation and spending. The event was one of as many as 700 such protests around the US this year.

Concerned about taxes, bailouts, government "pork," and rising deficits, thousands of Americans will spill out in cities from Atlanta to San Francisco this weekend, as part of a "Tea Party" movement that began earlier this year in protest of the economic stimulus bill.

The July 4 event will be the second major Taxed Enough Already (TEA) Party protest, following an April 15 event that drew as many as half a million people to over 800 separate protests across the country. This weekend's protests – sure to feature Colonial garb, witty signs ("Don't tax me, bro!"), and references to the Declaration of Independence – come amid rising concerns among Americans that the $787 billion stimulus package isn't doing much to restore the economy.

The movement has been panned by liberals and praised by conservatives. Libertarian blogger and law professor Glenn Reynolds says the protests represent "an energy that our politics hasn't seen lately."

The holiday weekend and the absence of Republican stars may reduce the size of the protests this time around. But the movement faces a bigger challenge – knitting a viable political coalition out of a geographically and ideologically dispersed community.

When did Tea Parties start?

The movement did not begin, as is often thought, with MSNBC reporter Rick Santelli's famous on-air rant against government bailouts at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Feb. 19, but several weeks earlier, when blogger Keli Carender organized a small protest against the stimulus bill in Seattle and homeschooling mom Amanda Grosserode organized a similar one in Overland Park, Kan. The cause was subsequently taken up by conservative bloggers such as Michelle Malkin.

The protests gained nationwide attention when Fox cable news network heavily covered the April 15 events.

Though supported by Republican think tanks, it is a grass-roots movement comprised of independents, conservatives, and libertarians, many say. Few attending these events have protested before, says Donalsonville, Ga., organizer Becky Worsham, adding, "A common joke at our first one was, 'Gosh, I've never protested anything in my life, and this feels pretty good.' "

The protesters' concern, she says, is that Washington "will really bring our country down to where we'll no longer be a superpower."

The April 15 protests

As many as half a million people attended the April 15 protests, according to the conservative Pajamas TV network. Events ranged from amateurish to professional: One in Atlanta featured massive TV screens and professional bands, while another in Lake City, Wash., drew only two dozen protesters.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry made news when he said at a Tea Party protest that if Washington didn't change its profligate ways, Texas would consider secession.

What the critics say

From early on, critics have said the movement is a Republican "astroturf" phenomenon.

"It's hard to see these as grass-roots, nonpartisan events when you've got [former GOP House leader] Dick Armey headlining one, [conservative talk-show host] Glenn Beck is headlining one with Ted Nugent, and the rest of the headliners are Republican officials," says Erikka Knuti, communications director at Media Matters for America.

Marc Cooper, a journalist and professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, has called them "out of touch with the historical moment," saying "the center of gravity in the country" backs a more progressive agenda.

President Obama addressed the issues raised by protesters at an April 29 town hall event in Missouri, saying that while belt-tightening was necessary, he would not cut programs that "help ordinary people and give more tax cuts to the wealthy. We tried that formula for eight years, it did not work, and I don't intend to go back to it."

Where do Tea Partiers go from here?

While several Republican Party stars spoke at the April 15 events, many organizers have since distanced themselves from the GOP, which they see as having contributed to deficit spending.

There are two strands of thought on the way forward. One is to focus on alerting state and national politicians that they are being watched. "We are going to be electorally involved and support candidates who are in favor of fiscal responsibility," says Nashville organizer Michael Patrick Leahy.

The other is to create a national coalition, perhaps to be introduced by a march on Washington this fall. Crafting a cogent national agenda won't be easy, says Gene Sweeney, a Tea Party coordinator in Sarasota, Fla. Ideological rifts in the movement – over, for example, whether to invite Republicans to speak at events – and general public apathy could slow its momentum, he says.

But he's not discouraged. "We, the people, are coming," says Mr. Sweeney.

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