The Tea Party Protests--Pros and Cons
A lot of conservatives are very excited about the Tea Party movement. The idea behind the tea parties is that conservatives should take a page out of the liberal playbook, and stage sizeable demonstrations to protest high taxes and spending, while waving around tea bags to remind people of the Boston Tea Party. The Tea Party label was chosen, of course, in order that people would identify them with the historical tea party.
The Tea Parties have been reasonably successful, especially considering that the first one the brainchild of lone conservative blogger, and the idea snowballed from there. They’ve gotten decent turnout (though not what your average antiwar protest would get), and they’ve gotten a great deal of coverage in the conservative media, and a significant amount of attention in the media in general. There should be a lot more attention on April 15, on that day, there are over a thousand Tea Parties planned across the country, expected to involve hundreds of thousands of people.
Many, many conservatives consider the Tea Party movement a good thing. But it has some pretty significant weaknesses, which the conservative movement would do well to consider.
First, of course, there is the fact that the modern Tea Parties and the original Tea Party had very different goals. The original Tea Party protested taxation without representation, while the modern Tea Party generally stands against higher taxes. The modern Tea Parties are similar in name only to the original, and their label is merely an attempt to cash in on the Tea Party name. This disconnect makes the Tea Party organizers look calculating and misleading.
Another reason to be wary of such protests is the fact that such protests backfire as often as they succeed. There was a Tea Party in my hometown of Cincinnati. I didn’t go, but it did give me the chance to see local coverage of the protest. According to several local news sources, their reporters felt unsafe at the demonstration. That isn’t exactly the press conservatives need.
(The Tea Party organizer, in a Facebook message, didn’t deny that the reporters concerned might have been threatened, but complained that there wasn’t any proof outside of their unsupported testimony, which makes for a very feeble defense).
And any missteps by Tea Party participants will become known. Most of the mainstream media is hostile to conservatives, and anything negative about these demonstrations will certainly become widely disseminated. And protests tend to be votile places—it is easy to imagine a protest spiraling out of control.
A final reason that conservatives shouldn’t become too attached to the idea of mass protests. Protests are blatant appeals to emotion. During a protest, there is no other message involved other than “look, thousands of other people agree with me.” There is no logic, no reasoning, nothing other than an appeal to emotion.
The conservative movement has had more than enough appeals to emotion in the past months. Joe the Plumber was, initially, a useful archetype of the common man. But his effective shelf life was about a week, and the McCain campaign made him a centerpiece of their campaign far past his expiration date. And by the end of the presidential campaign, Sarah Palin had dropped almost all substance from her stump speech, instead emphasizing that she was a) a hockey mom, b) a maverick, and c) opposed to earmarks.
The Tea Party demonstrations are not without value. They inspire the base, and can serve as a first step into the world of conservative grassroots. And they do inspire media coverage, much of it positive.
But protests are no substitute for ideas and organization. The Tea Parties can be an effective gimmick—but they are only a gimmick. They should play only a very secondary role in the conservative arsenal.