Grand Old Tea Party
The insurgents meet the insiders.
Mar 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 23 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
In the case of the Contract From America, Hecker and California activist Scott Graves seem to have walked a line remarkably well, offering a loosely organized movement some direction without destroying enthusiasm by declaring a list of principles from on high. Thousands of tea party activists submitted policy ideas, the most popular of which could be voted on at the contract website. In the end, the wisdom of crowds created a list of 22 mostly sober and some specific policy ideas, including sunset provisions for regulations, term limits, and rules for greater government transparency. That list will be whittled down to a top 10 in another open, online voting process.
“The process is what’s new,” said Graves, who spent hours programming ContractFromAmerica.org in his spare time. “The right generally has done a . . . horrible job of presenting anything online, but I think some of the right has picked up on the lessons of 2008.”
Indeed, ContractFromAmerica.org is a sophisticated looking site, with the potential to empower rank-and-file tea partiers on matters of substance in a way that even Obama supporters admit his famously people-powered campaign was not able to do. The left-leaning Micah Sifry, cofounder of Personal Democracy Forum, noted that while the Obama campaign marketed itself as “people-centric,” it “shared tasks with its supporters but didn’t share power.” A grassroots movement that is not yoked to a presidential campaign will likely be better suited to do that.
But the independence of the tea party movement, and of individual tea party chapters is important, West Chester, Penn., activist Rich Davis told me, because the tea partiers aren’t all anti-Obama all the time—a point the national news media often miss.
Davis, a Navy veteran wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an eagle, “Limited Government,” and “In God We Trust,” said he’s making change happen in his hometown, where an 8-1 left-leaning majority on the local school board was shrunk to a 5-4 advantage for Democrats in the November elections thanks to tea party activism.
“We’re getting smart,” he said, explaining that knowledge of the local Republican party’s committee and endorsement system had allowed conservatives to pick up dozens of vacant spots within the party organization.
Davis began his political activism as a lone counter-protester to the Chester County Peace Movement about two years ago. Standing on the side of a local intersection, homemade sign in hand, he said he first heard the silent majority.
“We were getting a lot of honks, a lot of support,” he said. “To turn the honks into votes, we needed to get involved.”
Standing alongside a grassroots activist in full tri-cornered patriot regalia, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform echoed Davis’s emphasis on the local.
“These are all ideas that can be done on the national level . . . which is good,” Norquist said of the Contract From America. “But they’re also ideas that can happen at a state legislative level. There are 513,000 local elected officials in this country. This can be a platform for officials to run in 513,000 elections, not just congressional elections.”
Last April 15, when I spoke to North Carolina conservative Ben Hobbs after the first large tea party event, he said what a lot of conservatives were thinking about activism in the wake of Obama’s election.
“I might become a little conservative ACORN,” he said, referring to the network of leftist “community organizers.” “I don’t want to be just like them. We can do it politely, but we’ve got to do more,” Hobbs said.
If the tea partiers at CPAC and the attention they’re garnering are any indication, “newbies” like Hecker and Davis have learned quickly.
Mary Katharine Ham is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.