Way back in 2009, while the American political economy was reeling from the Great Recession and the radical remedies prescribed by the presidents and legislatures based in the nation’s capital, the so-called Tea Party (to be referred to subsequently as TP when feasible for the sake of brevity) movement exploded across the landscape. In every state, concerned citizens, some enlisted by jury-rigged organizations like Tea Party Patriots and Americans for Prosperity (both based in _____) and others organized on the fly by unaffiliated partisans sprang up to join battle with politicians and bureaucrats responsible for the disaster and the unprecedented remedies in response (TARP – Troubled Asset Relief Program; the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms and the bailouts of the automotive companies General Motors and Chrysler.
One group of voters which had just been formed to combat the incessant escalation of spending and taxation under Westchester’s then-county executive, Democrat Andy Spano (Westchester, then, as now, the first or second highest in terms of combined local and county burden in the entire nation) serendipitously joined the cause, seeking to publicize the national issue and identify analogous examples of waste at the state, municipal and county levels of government as well.
An ad hoc Sound Shore Tea Party announced its mission of addressing overspending and administrative neglect in local government. Claiming inspiration from the colonists of 1773 who, disguised as Native Americans in warrior garb, tossed bales of tea into Boston Harbor in protest against the regulatory and fiscal abuses of the British Parliament and unaided by outside Washington consultants or out-of-town angels, a rally was held at the New Rochelle marina. With little notice, a wide cross-section of city politicians and bureaucrats attended and observed an unprecedented airing of views about the quality of local representation and treasury practices.
The reception by the general public was enthusiastic and welcoming, but judging from the gaping mouths of at least one city council member and other random politicos in attendance, the official reaction could only be described as baffled and bewildered. Organizers wished that the sentiments of the crowd could have been conveyed to traditional political parties along the Sound Shore their long term impact proved to be modest.
The existing political structure actually abhorred all the attention and in different ways sought to deflect the challenge to the status quo. The Democrats, mimicking their national leaders subjected the upstarts to ridicule and abuse. Unfamiliar with being noticed at all and having little leadership responsibility for anything of substance, defaulted to damage control mode; but the clear impression left was that the loyal opposition was just a sorry mirror-image of the Democratic model, a powerlessness and irrelevant shell.
So why the the apparent ineffectiveness of the TP and how to explain all the establishment scorn? Perhaps the movement is a victim of its own disorderly success. The initial expressions of the group received unprecedented press play and transfixed a media that had grown used to muted civic activism and widespread apathy. The impact on the political parties was dramatic. Old school Democrats, unaccustomed to the GOP having any sort of street, populist voice were discomfited by new competition for grass roots Americans unaffiliated with the major parties or isolated from political activism. Republicans, accustomed to the traditional party bases of Main Street and Wall Street found the somewhat loosely constituted Tea Party membership difficult to comprehend and ultimately too hot to handle.
To onlookers, the TP may have seemed rather disconcerting; at city hall and Congressional district meetings members were noisy and to-the-point. They could be prickly and impatient; unimpressed with slick political coddling, humoring and glad-handing. Many TPrs were experienced business owners, sales reps and entrepreneurs. According to one regular attendee of White Plains Tea Party events, We see fancy salesmanship and packaging and all the other BS the whole day long. He added, We want to be involved in the community and are willing to devote our nights and weekends to it. But please don’t waste our time with all the PR and formula answers drawn from polling and voter data!
They wanted answers and these were not forthcoming. So, establishment groups of left and right resolved to villainize TP activism and sully its public persona. And, a habitually left-wing, Main Street-averse press corps was only too willing to go along in protecting their usual friendly adversaries in the incumbent class of Democrats and Republicans and magnify the bullying and demonization of the new kid on the block.
Its membership being quite ordinary; its philosophical markers appear quite ordinary also, middle-of-the-road and civic-minded; think Community Chest and United Way, not unlike attendees at a 1950s Kansas Republican district or Chicago Democratic ward meeting.
Their instincts seem to have grown from classic American political traditions: Populist in the real sense of the term, reflecting deep concerns of everyday people. Think of the audience at recent rallies by Donald Trump in his quest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination; Progressive in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, the early 20th Century Republican, reformer and internationalist who viewed American ideals as almost G-d-given but fused his mission with a zeal for social advancement and broadened economic opportunity and welfare; Conservative in the sense of respecting the community value consensus and the consent of the governed and taxed; Libertarian through an abiding reference to the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution comprising our Bill of Rights; Liberal, (in the classical, 19th Century meaning), dedicated to sensible, modest (as opposed to presumptuous and ostentatious) regulation of free markets out of respect for a free people endowed with the ability to judge things for themselves, and finally, at the same time; Radical in temperament, in impatience for hide-bound political formalities and disdain for the prerogatives of official power and the arrogance of bureaucracies.
What is absent from the ideological stockpile of TP groups in the New York-New Jersey area is almost any concern for the so-called social issues that frightened ordinary Republicans find so radioactive. In conversations with officials and members, there is rarely a mention of family planning, rights of gender minorities, divorce and marriage or the criminal law system. Contrary to the misrepresentations of the press and calumnies of their opponents of the left and the right, the modern Tea Party generally eschews interest in the private, spiritual and emotional lives of their neighbors. Individuals interviewed generally accepted leaving such private matters to individual resolution; whether out of a principled dedication to libertarian values or simply a recognition that with all levels of government intruding on all levels of human conduct, there is little time to concern one’s self with the idiosyncracies and peculiarities of one’s neighbor (regardless of what one may think of their behavior and choices privately and personally!).
A complex group indeed, these Tea Party activists certainly deserving of at least a dollop of consideration, even compassion in the local panoply of political activism. And certainly more respect than the threatened local political hierarchy has allowed it.