New Political Movement or Passing Fad?

Are the American tea party protests held on April 15th a passing fad or the start of a political activism among American voters that will have an impact on government and in future elections?

On the day that Americans are required to send in their annual tax statement, a wave of protests called “tea parties” were held in large cities and small towns around the country.

Most Americans are generally satisfied with their government and have been for many years. Whlle journalists and professional politicians take up a lot of time on the air waves, many Americans ignore the process and the pundits and focus on their own interests and their own lives.

Only 56% of Americans voted in the last presidential election. That percentage was up from normal levels of turn-out because the election was widely touted as one that was historic, held during the midst of an emerging economic crisis, and featured widely divergent political philosophies between the two leading candidates. Many of those who did vote started to pay attention in deciding who would receive their vote in the last several weeks of the campaign without doing much research or asking many questions before making their decision. That approach to politics probably reflects a population that is generally satisfied and certainly not opposed to government to the extent of fomenting a revolutionary change.

Most Americans do not go to political rallies or become personally involved in politics and it is unusual to see as many average Americans with the motivation to get involved in a political activity as happened on April 15th.

The sudden coming together of people at these tea parties is worth watching. No one knows if the movement is a passing fad that will quickly fade or whether the concerns of those who attended will form the basis of a movement that will influence the role of government in the next election. The tea parties are reminiscent of the voters who supported Ross Perot in the early 1990’s fueling speculation that a new party would emerge from the ruckus that would change America’s political landscape. Despite the speculation and the relative success of Perot’s candidacy and his impact on the outcome of the election, no significant new nationwide political parties have emerged.

What would move American couch potatoes to move toward taking any role, however mild, in political activity?

It is probably fear of the future and fear of government leaders that are perceived as having their own political and financial interests taking precedence over the well-being of the country. From watching newscasts and attending a local tea party in a small town, the common denominator seemed to be concern about the federal government taking on trillions of dollars in debt and concern about future tax increases to pay for the debt.

Those attending seemed to have a variety of issues but their unifying philosophy seemed to be that Congress is passing out money to people who don’t deserve it while ignoring the role that government played in creating the housing bubble that led to the current economic crisis. In other words, there is a wave of underlying concern that the federal government is not representing the people that are not rich but pay taxes, do not want a government that takes their money and distributes it to others who have not made good economic decisions, and who assume they are already paying for the mistakes and lifestyles of others who are receiving government largesse. The targets of the dissatisfaction ranged from large corporations receiving bailouts to homeowners who took on mortgages with monthly payments that they cannot make without government assistance.

The idea of the tea party events stemmed from a rant on CNBC by commentator Rick Santelli two months ago about staging a “Chicago Tea Party” to protest the president’s bailout programs and that led to spawning tax protest tea parties around the country.

We are used to seeing irate people with a common cause at rallies starting with the protests against the Vietnam war and the civil rights marches that have occurred over the past decades. In general, those attending the tea parties are from a different element of society–probably best described by some as the “silent majority.”

Whether the issues reflected in the tea parties is a passing fad that will be a minor historical footnote or the beginning of a significant change in American politics remains to be seen. There is little doubt that the rallies have spurred emotions. Perhaps representing the cultural divide in the country, networks such as CNN and MSNBC reported on the rallies with a tone of disparagement or even ridicule.  Fox News had reporters at some events where the reporter appeared to become the center of the rally and a focal point for the anger and frustration over the direction of the country being expressed.

And, perhaps in a fitting contrast to the events of the day reflecting different political points of view, the governor of Texas raised the possibility of secession from the union because the federal government is strangling the country with debt, taxes and spending. On the other side of the spectrum, the Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security was standing behind a report on potential terrorism in the United States which listed returning military veterans, groups opposed to abortion and immigration as potential right-wing extremists but also noting that the agency does not monitor ideology or political beliefs.

If the tea parties are the beginning of a new political movement, it would obviously impact readers who work for the federal government in a variety of ways ranging from funding federal programs to structuring and funding employee benefits. But, if it is an insignificant passing fad, it will be soon forgotten and life in the federal government will proceed on.

What is your view? Did you attend one of the tea parties and do you think we are seeing the beginning of a new political activism among American voters or is it a passing fad?

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47