There were promises of transparency and of a new kind of collaborative politics where establishment figures listened to ordinary Americans. We were going to see net spending cuts, tax cuts for nearly all Americans, an end to earmarks, legislation posted online for the public to review before it is signed into law, and a line-by-line review of the federal budget to remove wasteful programs.
These weren't the tea-party platforms I heard discussed in Nashville last weekend. They were the campaign promises of Barack Obama in 2008.
I don't know how many Tea Party folks voted for Barack Obama, but certainly some did. I do know that a lot of people took Barack Obama's promises seriously. And I'd bet there were some Obama voters in Nashville.
So when promises are broken, what do you do? Sulk? Or take matters into your own hands? Reynolds finds citizens who are doing the latter.
Mr. Obama made those promises because the ideas they represented were popular with average Americans. So popular, it turns out, that average Americans are organizing themselves in pursuit of the kind of good government Mr. Obama promised, but has not delivered. And that, in a nutshell, was the feel of the National Tea Party Convention. The political elites have failed, and citizens are stepping in to pick up the slack.
One thing that Reynolds noticed is that while there is anger involved, especially directly to the insiders who control both major parties in varying ways, this isn't an especially angry mob.
Pundits claim the tea partiers are angry—and they are—but the most striking thing about the atmosphere in Nashville was how cheerful everyone seemed to be. I spoke with dozens of people, and the responses were surprisingly similar. Hardly any had ever been involved in politics before. Having gotten started, they were finding it to be not just worthwhile, but actually fun. Laughter rang out frequently, and when new-media mogul Andrew Breitbart held forth on a TV interview, a crowd gathered and broke into spontaneous applause.
But is Breitbart a Tea Party leader? Not especially. Is Sarah Palin? Not necessarily. Reynolds:
Press attention focused on Sarah Palin's speech, which was well-received by the crowd. But the attendees I met weren't looking to her for direction. They were hoping she would move in theirs. Right now, the tea party isn't looking for leaders so much as leaders are looking to align themselves with the tea party.
And when the leaders aren't available, others from the ranks are stepping up.
It's easy to see why. A recent Investor's Business Daily/TIPP poll found that three-fourths of independent voters have a favorable opinion of the tea party. This enthusiasm, however, does not translate into an embrace of establishment Republicanism. One of the less-noted aspects of Mrs. Palin's speech was her endorsement of primary challenges for incumbent Republicans, something that is already underway. Tea partiers I talked to hope to replace a lot of entrenched time-servers and to throw a scare into others.
That's exactly right. I've long argued that the turn against the GOP in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles was fueled by the sense that Republicans, especially the Tom Delay/Dennis Hastert money-grubbing types, deserved to be fired. It never meant that the Nancy Pelosi/Steny Hoyer money-grubbing types were suddenly in favor. Democrats wanted to believe that and because they received a lot of votes in those two election cycles, it seemed plausible. But it was illusory.
I get the sense that a lot of Republicans, especially those in the establishment, are just waiting for the tide to come in. But they too will be challenged and deserve to be. Reynolds finds an example:
One primary challenger is Les Phillip. He is running against Republican Parker Griffith in Alabama's fifth congressional district. Mr. Phillip, a black businessman and Navy veteran who immigrated with his parents from Trinidad in his youth, got his start in politics speaking at a tea-party protest in Decatur, Ala., last year.
"Somebody had to speak," he told me, "so I stepped up." He did well enough that he was invited to speak at another protest in Trussville, Ala., after which things sort of snowballed. Of the tea partiers, he says, "Their values are pretty much mine. I live in a town in North Alabama where there are plenty of blacks driving Mercedes and living in big houses. Only in America can someone come from a little island and live the dream. I've liked it, and that's what I want for my children. [But] I saw the window closing for my own kids."
If you want to understand what's going on, you need to listen to Les Phillip. More importantly, you need to listen carefully. It's easy to dismiss what he represents as just another spasm of populism. It's not. This isn't a selfish movement fueled by resentment, although it could seem that way, especially given the dismissal of elites and elitism that is a common theme. Elitists certainly read things that way. The key statement Phillip makes is the last one:
Only in America can someone come from a little island and live the dream. I've liked it, and that's what I want for my children. [But] I saw the window closing for my own kids.
It's easy to dimsiss the American Dream, but it holds power precisely because so many people have lived their own version of it. And people are willing to fight for their children to have the same opportunity. And they will be heard on November 2.