What happened to the Tea Party?

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As a 22-year-old young man in a denim jacket, with long, dark hair down to the middle of my back, and a big sign that said something against the banks, you might have guessed that I was an Occupy Wall Street protester– but this was the summer of 2009 and the Occupy Wall Street protests wouldn’t happen for another couple years. I was protesting at a Tea Party, and I was proud to be there.

Before Occupy Wall Street, there was the Tea Party, and we didn’t like big Wall Street banks much either. In fact, the Occupy kids are a little late to the game. At the risk of sounding like a “hipster” I have to admit that I’m a little proud that I was out there protesting Wall Street banks before it was cool, nearly three years before many of my peers.  And I’m more than a little amused that their mothers and grandmothers were out there protesting Wall Street with me while they were too doped up on the sugar high from President Obama’s recent inauguration to see the problem.

Despite the unfair media caricature of Tea Party protesters as angry, white partisans and traditional, hard right-wing zealots repackaged and branded by their corporate overlords on Fox News and talk radio, I was there and I can tell you that the Tea Party represented something entirely different than this media narrative. I wrote over and over again, even here at the Independent Voter Network, to defend the Tea Parties as a positive development in American politics. The event that kicked off the Tea Party protests was Rick Santelli’s February 19th, 2009 rant on CNBC against the financial bailout. By February 28th, “Tea Parties” were happening in dozens of cities across the United States. By April 15th and July 4th, these swelled into massive demonstrations and grassroots organizations that took the political world by storm.

Throughout that time, the Tea Party had many grievances– all of them related to its insistence on less spending and more accountability from the Washington regime. These included opposition to the Democrats’ health care bill, cap and trade legislation, and various “stimulus packages” with too many zeroes on the price tag, but there was no issue more central, more emblematic, more emotional for the Tea Party protesters than their opposition to the TARP bailouts of Wall Street banks with taxpayer money. That was the final, intolerable act of brazenness from a Washington establishment united across party lines in its contempt for the American people and willingness to sacrifice our interests to Wall Street’s. Both main parties’ presidential candidates, who were also U.S. Senators at the time, voted for the bill. The Democratic House passed it with bipartisan support, and the Republican President signed it.

The Tea Party hated it. Regardless of what the Tea Party has become today– and we’ll get to that in a moment– regardless of what the Tea Party’s original detractors had to say about it, that Wall Street bailout was the defining issue for this protest movement. I remember watching video footage of Republican Senator John Cornyn blundering into a Tea Party event thinking he could address the conservative faithful there gathered, only to be vigorously booed because he voted for the TARP bailout of Wall Street. He wasn’t the only one. It was open season on all Washington politicians of either party who had dared to stand against the American people for the sake of Wall Street greed.

I attended several Tea Party protests and had never been more proud of my country, nor more hopeful for its future at any other time in my short life. Here, finally, were white, middle-class, middle-aged Americans, standing up en masse to rage against the machine, to protest the financial establishment and its lackeys in government. It boggled my mind to think that any honest liberal could oppose such a thing. In 2004, the hot-button issue for conservatives was defining marriage to exclude homosexuals. In 2010– because of the Tea Parties– the hot-button issue for conservatives was the TARP bailout. In a remarkably tiny period of time, a lot of conservatives went from thinking Perez Hilton was the biggest threat to America to thinking Wall Street banking and K Street lobbying was.

Here’s an illustration of just how toxic the TARP issue was for voters in 2010 because of the Tea Party: U.S. Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) announced his retirement in 2009. His establishment-anointed successor was supposed to be Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who was hand-picked by Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (who is also from Kentucky, so you can imagine the kind of clout he would have in a matter like this). When Grayson went to Washington for a $500/plate fundraiser with 23 Republican senators, his Tea Party opponent, Rand Paul, pointed out that 17 of the 23 senators had voted for the TARP bailout. Rand’s campaign raised an enormous amount of money from grassroots supporters, and with the Tea Party’s blessing, Paul won his primary in a blow out that commentators were calling a “Randslide.” He would go on to win the general election and a seat in the Senate chamber.

That’s the kind of thing that made me so sure that the Tea Party was a positive force in American politics. Finally, party had been subordinated to policy. This was the big contribution of the Tea Party movement to an American conservatism that had become too cozy with the Republican Party establishment.  It energized conservatives to finally see their mission in terms of public policy, not in terms of how many people in Congress have Rs next to their name. Its second big contribution was to move the public policy focus away from the imposition of stifling social rules or the waging of endless foreign wars, and toward the serious malfeasance and corruption of a Wall Street / Washington machine that had run our economy into the ground. This was a message that people could get behind. Unfortunately, the party had to end sometime.

As time passes, the Tea Party is viewed less and less favorably by the general public according to regular surveys. Its name has faded from the headlines. Its supporters have seemed to lose all that energy they had in 2009 and 2010. Its various organizations have put on very little in the way of demonstrations these days. The Occupy protesters seem to have all the momentum right now. So what happened to the Tea Party? They lost their mojo because they lost their focus on principles and policy. The righteous anger of so many people at what the banks and politicians did to us was catching, but the more Tea Party supporters act just like the caricatures their critics have painted of them, the less energy their movement has.

Now we’ve got many of 2010’s big Tea Party stars like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley endorsing Mitt Romney, who actually received his own big bank bailout at taxpayers’ expense when he ran Bain and Co., and whose ads are being paid for by employees of Wall Street banks, with Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Co, and Morgan Stanley comprising the top three. So much for bank bailouts being a toxic issue anymore! What is the most common refrain we hear from so many conservative voices today? “The most important thing is beating President Obama in November.” So much for caring about policy more than party! The Tea Party of 2012, mangled and limp, is entirely unrecognizable from the Tea Party of 2009. Without its principles, it has stagnated. And that should be a lesson to all political movements, parties, and candidates.  In our world today, being principled and fighting on the right side is what gives you energy and nets you victories with the electorate, not compromising, selling out, and playing the tired, old, and soon-to-be-defunct game of partisan politics.