Analysis: 'Tea Party' is democracy at work

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Associated Press

Posted on February 7, 2010 at 7:04 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — First, the independent Ross Perot contingent. Then, the liberal "netroots" mobilization. Now, the conservative "tea party" coalition.

No doubt this is democracy at work, a quintessential part of America.

Will the latest political phenomenon become a society-changing movement influencing elections and beyond?

"We are people who understand something wrong is going on in this country, and we want to change it," says Dan Garner, a married 40-year-old sales representative from nearby Carthage who is new to politics. Like so many others, he's had enough. "The core thing is a loss of individual liberty."

Retirees, stay-at-home moms, small-business owners, corporate executives and everyone in between — many political neophytes who aren't hardcore ideologues — are using the latest technology to come together and vent their frustrations about their country and plot to install a new group in charge of the government.

They formed a loose network of grass-roots groups to speak out against President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress. They held their first national "tea party" convention over the weekend. And they're already having some impact on American politics.

The big unknown is whether their power is truly transformative.

What's more certain is, well, the uncertainty.

No one is quite sure what to make of this leaderless morass of people, born not even a year ago in communities from coast to coast.

But everyone seems to want a piece of it.

Republicans are trying to co-opt it. Democrats are trying to marginalize it. And people with personal aspirations — whether financial or political — are trying to take advantage of it.

"America is ready for another revolution, and you are a part of this," Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, told convention attendees Saturday. "You all have the courage to stand up and speak out."

Many "tea party" disciples view the former Alaska governor — also an author, a Fox News analyst and a potential 2012 presidential candidate — as their de facto leader. But she repeatedly dismissed that notion, saying: "The 'tea party' movement is not a top-down operation. It's a ground-up call to action that is forcing both parties to change the way they're doing business, and that's beautiful."

In many ways, the coalition — decidedly conservative and libertarian but otherwise diverse — should have been expected to emerge as power shifted in Washington. This country has a long history of citizens rising up against people in power, particularly in tough times like recession.

That "tea parties" formed in U.S. living rooms morphed into the latest political phenomenon so quickly after Obama took office is a testament to the power of the Internet and the changes in a country that's come to heavily rely on it.

People who once thought no one shared their views now can quickly find out they're part of a mob — and collectively turn their words into action.

"For so many years, I have felt alone," says Carolyn Scott of Nashville, 71, a retired school teacher and a grandmother of six who fears the country's debt will crush the next generation. "Now I see people like me standing up and speaking out."

"We've found each other and we've found our voice and we are determined to fight for our freedoms," says Scott, wearing a white "Freedom Czar" baseball cap at the convention.

In some ways, social networking Web sites in 2010 are akin to a speedier version of the midnight ride that rallied people in 1775 for the American Revolution and the campus protests that spurred the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s.

Both had a monumental effect on the country.

Other political movements have had mixed success.

Disaffected independents, Republicans and Democrats rallied behind presidential contender Ross Perot in 1992, giving him nearly 19 percent of the popular vote. It was well short of what was needed but enough to send a message to victor Bill Clinton to pay attention to these largely moderate voters.

It was just a few years ago that liberals rose up against President George W. Bush and Republican rule on Capitol Hill. The groundbreaking Web site MoveOn.org lead the charge of left-leaning Web sites giving the opposition party a voice and an organization tool.

But the impact of the collective "netroots" was limited: It was credited with helping independent Ned Lamont beat Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary in Connecticut, but Lieberman won the general election as an independent.

Now, with a Democrat in office, the "netroots" is muted.

Enter the "tea party" phenomenon.

It's the conservative libertarian answer to Obama and majority Democrats.

And like the "netroots," it's finding that creating a movement is messy. And that its power only goes so far.

The coalition is divided over everything, it seems, except the need for limited government, less spending and an end to Obama's policies. It claimed credit — probably far too much — for Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown's surprise win for a Senate seat last month. But several "tea party"-backed candidates came up short in Illinois primary races last week.

Like any coalition, it includes people at the far ends of the political spectrum pushing their extreme ideology, and it probably also includes people whose anger is actually rooted in distrust of the country's first black president.

But many who call themselves "tea partiers" are simply real people with real concerns who have real voices and want to force real change.

And, as history has shown, politicians of all political stripes ignore such uprisings at their own peril.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.

An AP News Analysis

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