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Over the past few years, while atrophy of the welfare state system has spurred violent protests in Western Europe, the United States has experienced a parallel, but remarkably distinct phenomenon. In early 2009, desperate Greeks rioted in the streets to demand that their overextended government do more for them in the face of financial crisis. Americans, at the same time, rallied across the nation for their government to do less. More than any one individual alone in 2010, this movement, the Tea Party movement, wrought tremendous change over the political landscape, realizing a historic election and revitalizing the American zeitgeist. The title of FrontPage Magazine’s Person of the Year, therefore, must be bestowed collectively on these individuals, the formidable torchbearers of our beloved liberty and prosperity.
Two days after the newly-elected President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus bill) into law February 19th, the Tea Party movement found its voice — in the unlikeliest of places. A little-known CNBC analyst, Rick Santelli, embarked on a spontaneous rant while delivering a market forecast live on air. His harangue was precipitated by the federal government’s decision to stem the 2009 housing and financial crisis with a series of unprecedented “bailouts” for Wall Street and the banking industry, financed by taxpayer revenue. “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage, that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” Santelli wailed, turning to the gallery of traders on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. The crowd jeered. “President Obama, are you listening?” Apparently, he was not. Santelli proceeded to flippantly claim he was considering organizing a “Chicago Tea Party” to protest government spending and the apparent collectivization of wealth.
The clip was immediately picked up by the Drudge Report, a highly influential driver of conservative discourse. (For nostalgia’s sake, Santelli’s video clip is here.) Prior to this incident, there had been several large conservative-oriented rallies held around the country, some of which were publicized by conservative journalist and blogger Michelle Malkin. To our best reckoning, however, the “Tea Party” moniker had not been applied to this growing brand of conservative activism until after the Santelli clip “went viral.” Within hours of the rant’s debut, a number of “Tea Party” websites went live.
The notion of a Tea Party protest following the 2008-2009 financial crisis was completely felicitous at the time. It encapsulated at just the right moment, in just the right way, an ambient sense of unease, not just among steadfast Republicans, but among individuals erstwhile unengaged in the political process. By the time the Obama administration incestuously “bailed out” the auto-industry in March of the president’s inaugural year — or more precisely, bailed out the his union patrons — followed by the effective ousting of the presiding General Motors president, the political die had already been cast. President Obama’s throng of support quickly evaporate into a haze of resentment from the now not-so-silent majority.
The rancid reaction of the Left to the Tea Party is well known and not worth treatment here. What is important is setting the record straight on what the Tea Party really is. This is no straightforward task, to be sure, as the term “Tea Party” is essentially an umbrella label for numerous regional and national conservative activism groups. Members are predominately Republican voters, many of whom are disaffected and work largely outside the GOP establishment. Only 54% of Tea Party supporters had a favorable view of the Republican Party, according to an April 2010 New York Times/CBS News poll. Polls consistently show the movement’s single greatest unifying principle is fiscal conservatism, including a desire for a smaller government and a concern over the federal deficit. Social issues are mixed and far less uniform. According to the same poll, slightly more people favored civil unions for homosexuals compared to those who believed gay couples should receive no legal recognition (41% to 40%) and 45% are pro-choice (believing abortion should be available, but with restrictions), while only 35% believe abortion should not be available.
The movement’s focus on the virtues of fiscal conservatism in an atmosphere of immense economic uncertainty proved to be a political powder keg. In the afterglow of Barack Obama’s presidential victory, with both chambers of Congress controlled by the Democratic Party and headed by far-left leadership, many left-wing commentators believed the Republican Party was on the wane. And in fact, perhaps they were right. A large portion of Tea Party supporters, almost 40%, did not like McCain and slightly more had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party. Glenn Beck was more well-liked than both McCain and President George W. Bush. The Left’s pronouncements may have been accurate with respect to the political clout of the Republican Party, but conservatism was — and is — still very much alive. As the Democratic Party moved farther and farther away from economic matters after the stimulus bill was passed, and as beleaguered Republicans stood by impotently, worried fiscal conservatives took the only avenue left.
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