When is a Tea Party not a Tea Party? When is a political event not a political event?
"I haven’t the slightest idea," the Mad Hatter would reply.
The Hatter of this event, of course, would be Glenn Beck, the Fox News rhetorician who has built his career on controversy. On Saturday, August 28th, he descended upon the Nation’s capital with an estimated 87,000 of his supporters in tow, spearheading an event called “The Rally to Restore Honor.”
Despite claiming to be an apolitical event and lacking official affiliation with any Tea Party movements, the rally was unmistakably targeted at mobilizing and energizing Tea Party constituencies politically.
On the one hand, many facets of the rally were as expected. The crowd was a mostly-white, largely rural population, representing the finest of Sarah Palin’s “Real America.” But surprises abounded around every corner as well, adding an unexpected madness to the Tea Party.
Most striking about the rally participants was the marked difference between their reputation and their demeanor. The rally felt more like a giant Fourth of July picnic, complete with lawn chairs and wistful Americana, than a gathering storm of political revolution.
The much vaunted anger that supposedly fueled Tea Party activists had either been checked at the door, ebbed, or was not their primary driver to begin with. A pair of participants from North Carolina (who refused to give their names) insisted that their motivation was “not anger,” but rather “love for our country.” Karen Freeman, a 26-year old activist from Philadelphia (and one of the few African Americans in the crowd) insisted that the media, which gets a better story from highlighting the angriest and most offensive people, was to blame for such misconceptions. “You’ll always have those hateful people in there. Just like any group. You’ll always have the bad egg to spoil the batch.” But Freeman, who has traveled with the Tea Party from California to the District selling merchandise, believed that “the policy itself is good.”
However, the inflammatory rhetoric of Mr. Beck and other Tea Party pundits and politicians was not so easily brushed aside by all. Among the crowd, armed with her trusty signs, stood Lori Thomas, the teacher from Rochester who spent July Schooling the White House on education. This time, she came to urge people in both the Glenn Beck rally and the Al Sharpton “Reclaim The Dream" counter-rally across the way to converse constructively. “We have in this country one of the greatest constitutions in the world and that constitution guarantees us freedom of speech, and we have to respect that in one another. Everyone has the right to come out and say how they feel. But not in hate," said Thomas, eliciting approving nods from nearby ralliers.
Interestingly, Thomas found herself in agreement with some of the Tea Party’s principles as well. “The message of the Tea Party is a good one. We do have to change our government, we have to find people of integrity to lead our nation. We can’t keep going status quo. But you don’t put people in who are just as bad as the people who are in.”
Finally, the political diversity of the rallying hoards was, within conservative limits, fairly broad. Throughout the crowd, political organizations of remarkably different stripes sought an audience. Members of DCVote, a group advocating full voting rights for residents of the District of Columbia, attempted to capitalize on the Tea Party imagery. Their slogan, “No Taxation Without Representation,” is borrowed from the original Boston Tea Party, and drew mixed responses from the passersby, eliciting everything from smiling approval to contempt. Another organization, called GOOOH (pronounced “go”), sought to gather support for a new political system, free of special interests. An ultra-conservative group claiming to defend “Tradition, Family, and Property" distributed pamphlets outlining 10 reasons to reject socialism. A libertarian from New Jersey lamented the struggle for the Tea Party’s soul, represented by the socially conservative Sarah Palin and the traditional "small government" views of Ron Paul. “We’re not republican, we’re not democrats, we’re constitutionalists. That’s all we care about,” affirmed Michaelina and Guy Miconi, Italian immigrants who moved to New Jersey in the 1950’s.
While people clearly took issue with President Obama and his policies, few pointed to him or his administration as the cause of the “lost honor” the rally claimed to restore. “It started during Bush, maybe even before that, some of Clinton,” the anonymous North Carolinians said of the country’s downward trajectory. The Miconi couple saw the problems extending even further back. “We have veered off incrementally from the Roosevelt Era,” said Michaelina. “We’re trying to restore our country back to what it was: constitutional government, fiscal responsibility, and we the people rule.”
Appropriately, this Mad Tea party recalls another scene from Alice in Wonderland. Standing at a crossroads, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat for directions, but admits she is not sure where she wants to arrive. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” replies the Cat.
Given that the movement is based upon vague and lofty principals that do not easily translate into one particular policy or another, the attendant political diversity makes sense. But the only clear thing about which path the Tea Party will end up choosing is that it will lead Rightward.
(Special Thanks to Thomas Sanchez for the first and fourth photos)