At one year, a mass political movement, not a conspiracy 

One year later, the Tea Party protests are still the subject of much debate. The labels have shifted from “racist AstroTurfers” and “disenchanted Republicans” to “angry mob” and now, following Scott Brown’s U.S. Senate victory in Massachusetts, “voting bloc.”

How things have changed.  

A recent poll put out by the National Review Institute and Republican pollster McLaughlin found that 60 percent of respondents said the Tea Party is comprised of concerned citizens, compared to the 20 percent who said it’s an “anti-government fringe organization driven by anger.” Fifty-two percent were sympathetic to the goals of the movement, “protesting deficit spending and Washington’s expanded role in the private sector.”

It’s tempting to look at this development with astonishment. Coverage of the protests, outside of Fox News, was scant at first, then critical.

Many in the press asked, leadingly, about protesters holding signs and making comparisons between Obama and Hitler. Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dick Armey’s organization, FreedomWorks, was openly accused of engineering an AstroTurf campaign against Obama. Commentators, including CNN’s Anderson Cooper, snickered at a crude term employed to describe the protesters (a term, ironically, that had been part of a joke initiated by the protesters themselves).

Yet, Americans look at these protests as a legitimate outgrowth of unrest among voters. It’s easier to believe that soccer moms are concerned about a deficit than believe that it was just some cooks gathering on the National Mall on Sept. 12, in what was probably the largest small-government protest in the past half-century.

Profiles attempting to mine the depths of this movement have ranged from the Las Vegas Sun to the New Yorker, to varying degrees of success — the former accuses protesters of paranoia and of bearing a stark similarity to radical conspiracy theorists of the mid-20th century, the latter nearly glorifies the Tea Party’s genuine common-man element.

A Washington Post profile seizes on links with “inside the Beltway” organizations, suggesting hands-on roles in the Tea Party movement for old conservative lions who were looking “to engineer a political comeback, in the weeks following Obama’s election.”

The brick-and-mortar institutions of the conservative movement — a confederacy, if you will, of activist groups (Americans for Prosperity), think tanks (The Heritage Foundation) and political operatives — is always a marvel to behold for journalists eager to show “how it all fits together.”

It’s natural for some to assume that the Tea Party protests are the product of the efforts of these organizations — especially if you’re critical of the message.

Yet given the widespread nature of the protests throughout the country, it’s clear that there’s no way this feat could be managed by an organization, a TV personality or even the most capable conspiracy. And truth be told, this very fact sits at the center of conservative skepticism of government.

The Tea Party protests are the success of everyday citizens clamoring to protect something they feel is endangered by the growth of government. These are not political mavens. They’re better at running a business and a family than they are at developing talking points for prime time (a fact I learned while organizing the first Washington, D.C., Tea Party in front of the White House last February).

So they might not always be on message, but one year after the movement’s inception, they are always on guard. In other words, they’re citizens, and they’re growing in number.

J.P. Freire is associate editorial page editor of The Examiner.

About The Author

J.P. Freire

J.P. Freire is the associate editor of commentary. Previously he was the managing editor of the American Spectator. Freire was named journalist of the year for 2009 by the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). You can follow him on Twitter here. Besides the Spectator, Freire's work has appeared in... more
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