Several thousand neopatriots – some shouting “Give me liberty or give me death!” – took to the streets in over 30 US cities Friday, representing what some of them call the beginning of a new conservative counterculture in America.
“The spark has been lit,” says Ben Mihalski, a “house husband” from Cobb County, Ga., one of at least 300 protesters who gathered in a hefty downpour outside the Georgia Capitol on Friday to protest what they see as profligate spending by Washington.
Protesters with sign-slogans like “Pillage and plunder: At least the Vikings did it openly” fanned out across capitols and courthouses in cities from Nashville, Tenn., to Los Angeles, objecting to bailouts and policy changes since the inauguration of President Obama.
Critics call the protests a predictably partisan, ill-informed and unhelpful development in the midst of a deep-sink US recession.
But the largely grassroots show of force hints at a sharpening thorn for Democrats and a potential powder keg that could threaten to blow ahead of the 2010 congressional elections.
“It’s worth remembering that the rise of the New Right and the Christian Right, one after the other, were both spurred by tax issues, the whole idea of paying for things they don’t believe in,” says sociologist Eugenia Deerman at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston who studies conservative social movements.
To be sure, the federal spending package includes tax cuts for most Americans, and Obama has promised to eventually halve a US deficit the Democrats have largely blamed on the Bush administration.
But protesters like Kevin Tanner of South Dakota said deficit spending by both parties has unnerved Americans.
“The Republicans have their own problems because we elected them and they didn’t do what we wanted,” says Mr. Tanner.
Many protesters expressed a sense that basic American freedoms of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are threatened by new Washington policies seen by many as more socialistic than capitalistic. The proposed taxpayer bailout of homeowners who may have inflated their earnings in order to secure mortgages is one example, says Jeff Crawford, a protester from Dacula, Ga.
“The first year after the Mayflower arrived, the colonists tried a communal method of storing and sharing food and it failed miserably,” says Mr. Crawford. “Why are things any different now?”
Eighteenth-century symbolism was rife at the Atlanta event as speakers drew comparisons with the Boston patriots who dumped the King’s tea in Boston Harbor to protest taxation without representation, an act that began the American Revolution and the founding of the United States.
Some kids at the Atlanta protest wore tri-cornered hats, and one held a sign that said, “When I grow up I want to be free.”
In Tampa, two dozen protesters held handwritten signs with slogans like “Keep Your Bailout; I’ll Keep My Freedom.” About 300 people showed up in 25-degree weather in Wichita, Kansas, and someone brought a pig.
In St. Louis, local media expected about 50 people to show up while actual turnout surged to over 1,000 people.
Sparked in part by the unity of House Republicans in saying no to the $787 billion stimulus package and a well-publicized rant against a proposed mortgage bailout by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the protests represent the largest turnout of conservative activists since the anti-gun control rallies of the early 1990s, says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform.
“Fiscal responsibility is the new counterculture, and that’s what we’re seeing here,” says conservative columnist and blogger Michelle Malkin. “People were so mad about how the bill was passed, not just what was in it, and the lack of deliberation that preceded the signing.”
“It’s given voice to a fledgling grassroots movement ... a ragtag bunch of homeschooling moms and little bloggers and a lot of people who are really deciding to get into grassroots activism for the first time,” she says.
How grassroots the movement really is, is debatable, says Ms. Deerman at Eastern Illinois University. “I’m suspicious only because ... the conservative movement has repeatedly used this tactic of creating an appearance of grassroots activism when they’re actually very well orchestrated,” she says. “It allows them to mask this ongoing ideological battle that’s super-invested in small government, low taxes, and a free market.”
The protests have happened with remarkable speed, spread by Twitter and Facebook groups and the now famous TV rant by Mr. Santelli, who yelled “It’s lunacy!” as he complained about the spending package. The White House has fueled the fire, protesters say, by taking on conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh and even Mr. Santelli by name. Some rallies that took place Friday were organized in less than 48 hours and had a raw, unrehearsed edge to them.
“One of the challenges the Bush administration had when they decided to invade Iraq ... was they took the MoveOn.org institution from a sleepy group apologizing for Clinton’s personal behavior and turned it into a juggernaut,” says Mr. Norquist. He says a similar phenomenon is happening now with the tea party movement. “When you do things that poke the other team, they react.”
The tea party phenomenon has largely been derided by progressives who say it’s fueled by big-money Republican interests opposed to the philosophical shift in Washington that they say will benefit working class Americans.
“Something tells me ... that the Republican leadership has a lot more tea parties to throw – and a long way down the rabbit hole to fall – before they see what really concerns Americans nowadays,” writes Huffington Post blogger Jeffrey Feldman.
But Mr. Crawford, one of the protesters, says it’s not easy to get conservatives to take to the streets. The protests, he say, speak to a deepening concern about the direction of the country, especially future tax obligations.
He says the $13-a-week tax cut for individual Americans included in the stimulus bill is small change when it comes to the tax implications of the country’s growing deficit, now tagged at $1.75 trillion. In a recent study, the Rockefeller Institute estimates that states will have to raise at least an extra $100 billion in revenue to cover new obligations once the stimulus bill monies run out in 2012.
Calls to roll back the spending bill are farfetched, protesters agreed, but said the real prize is the 2010 Congressional elections.
“These protests remind people that there’s opposition to taxpayer-funded bailouts, and people in the streets means that Americans will be asking, ‘Why are they objecting? Tell me what’s happening here,’” says Norquist.
Given the dramatic circumstances of the Boston Tea Party, tax revolts are actually quite unusual in the US.
“The most interesting thing about the American people is that we are generally compliant in paying taxes, and tax revolts that seem surprising here are fairly common in a country like France where those farmers, if they get upset, they simply don’t pay,” says Mary Segers, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. “Americans are a strange people with respect to taxes, so this revolt is very interesting for that reason alone.”