On April 15, 2009, several hundred thousand Americans demonstrated in more than 700 cities and towns. These were the “tea bag” protests, named after the Boston Tea Party. The protesters were peaceful and even well mannered. They flew the American flag and the yellow Gadsden flag with the snake and the Don’t Tread on Me. They hoisted such signs as:
Don’t Leave Your Debt To Me
You Are Not Entitled to What I Have Earned Change It Back: Yes We Will
Read My Lipstick: NO New Taxes
Pay your own@#$O/o/ mortgage!
Spread My Work Ethic, Not My Wealth
No More Bailouts
No New Taxes
Readers of this journal would have no problem deciding what these protesters meant. These were free-market conservatives and libertarians and their friends attacking the Obama administration’s volcano of spending and corporate alms. They were making a preemptive rumble against new federal taxes, and often new state taxes as well.
The protests were about liberty. Said a protester in Olympia WA: “We’re for individual rights and small, limited government.” But connecting spending to the idea of liberty takes a dash of ideology, and the mainstream media didn’t have that ideology, or maybe they had a different one. To them the talk of liberty was hypocritical.
At the Chicago protest a man holding a baby told CNN reporter Susan Roesgen that he was there because he heard”a president say he believed in what Lincoln stood for. Lincoln’s primary thing was, he believed that people had the right to liberty, and they had the right – ”
Roesgen interrupted him: “Sir, what does this have to do with taxes? Do you realize that you are eligible for a $400 – ”
“Let me finish my point,” the protester insisted. “Lincoln believed that people had the right to share in the fruits of their own labor, and that government should not take it.”
“Did you know,” she asked, “that the state of Lincoln gets $50 billion dollars from this stimulus? That’s $50 billion, sir.” But before the man could reply she moved away, speaking to the camera. “I think you get the general tenor of this. This is antigovernment, anti-CNN. This is highly promoted by the right-wing conservative network, Fox.”
The message: these people are idiots who have nothing to com- plain about. They’re getting government money!
In Seattle, Hearst cartoonist David Horsey drew an image of a fat, middle-aged, scowling white man holding a sign saying, “Taxed Enough Already.” Yelling in his ear was a hip young man: “Excuse me, but it’s a fact that income tax rates are at their lowest point in decades, plus Obama just gave your family an $800 tax credit.” In the next panel, the fat man says: “Obama is Hitler!”
The message: these people are complaining about taxes when they’re getting government money. And they are idiots, besides.
It was true that in his first three months in office Obama offered a shower of rebates and grants to state governments. Many Americans were expecting to receive checks in the mail. But that was also the worry. The Congressional Budget Office was forecasting that federal spending for the year ending Sept. 30 would be 27.4% of gross domestic product – the highest share of the people’s output going to government since World War II. Federal revenue would be only 15.5% of GDP, leaving an enormous gap to be filled with money creation and debt.
And further: the CBO projected that federal spending, which had been about 20% of GDP for most of the decade, would henceforth drop no lower than 22%. If Obama’s tax and revenue proposals – his early proposals – were enacted, the federal share of GDP would rise back toward percentages in the high 20s.
Were there not tax implications of that? Big, important tax implications?
Having received a Treasury check, was the citizen obliged to be silent? (And what does that imply?)
The protesters were not idiots. But there was an effort to make them look that way. Enemies of their protests homed in on statements that were politically outlandish, or could be made to seem so.
New York Times columnist Gail Collins and Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson each made an issue of remarks by Texas Governor Rick Perry.
After some Tax Day protesters yelled, “Secede,” Perry made off-the-cuff remarks about how Texas had never learned to submit, that he knew how they felt, that things might get so bad that the state would have to secede again someday. Later he said he had just been trying to assert Texas’s 10th Amendment rights, and that the Union was a wonderful thing.
Secession had never been a serious proposal, and every- one knew it. But it was outlandish enough to be portrayed as nutty and irresponsible right-wingism that needed to be denounced by civilized, good-government progressives.
Which also meant the protesters were nuts.
Noting protesters’ signs about immigration, gay marriage, and gun rights, Robinson wrote, “The protests were all over the map, and thus hard to take seriously.”
Hard to take seriously: the take-home thought.
Another jab aiming at the same conclusion was that the protests were not “grassroots” but “AstroTurf” – protests that didn’t represent real people. The tactic here is to trace the protests to a rich sponsor and declare them to be reflective of cash instead of passion.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote:
It turns out that the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects. In particular, a key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey, the former House majority leader, and supported by the usual group of right-wing billionaires. And the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by Fox News.
Added left-wing columnist Joe Conason:
Most of the money that funded Armey’s activism in the past was provided by tobacco, pharmaceutical, and banking interests – and there is no reason to think that has changed.
Think of what is being said here: that hundreds of thou- sands of Americans who don’t really care about an issue can be made to protest about it through the influence of “tobacco, pharmaceutical, and banking interests,” and “right-wing billionaires.” This is a preposterous thought. And anyway, the protests were not focused on the interests of billionaires; they had nothing to do with tobacco or pharmaceuticals. They did have something to do with banking interests: they were against banks getting government funds.
Yes, the plans for protests were covered by Fox News (and were ignored by other major media). But news organs can’t force an unwilling people to take to the streets. Nor were the protesters paid to go or ordered to go. Their signs were mostly not made at the print shop – and, as Robinson and others charged, were not always on message.
As for organization: of course the protests were organized. All nationwide protests – antiwar protests, for example – are organized. But they had not been started by fat cats. The first anti-stimulus event – dubbed a “porkulus” protest- had happened two months before, on President’s Day, February 16, in Seattle. It had been started by a political nov- ice, Keli Carender, 29, a fan of free-market economist Thomas Sowell who calls herself “a conservative with streaks of libertarianism.” On February 10, Carender, an adult-school math teacher and stand-up comic, had used her blog to call for a protest a week thereafter:
Date: Monday, February 16th
Time: 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Where: Westlake Park in downtown Seattle, 401 Pine St.,
in the open area by the big arch.
The idea is to use what we’ve learned about dissent over
the last eight years. We need loud protests with lots noise and visuals. So, what should you bring?
Bring AS MANY PEOPLE AS YOU CAN! Bring your families, your friends, neighbors, bring everyone!
Bring SIGNS!! Get those craft making juices flowing and make signs and banners and pictures and paintings. Just imagine that you are a left-wing college student with nothing else to do and that should help you get started!
Talk-show host Kirby Wilbur on KVI-AM, the Seattle Fox affiliate, brought Carender on his morning radio show. Carender also got internet help from Steve Beren, twice the Republican candidate against Seattle’s left-wing congressman, Rep. Jim McDermott; and from syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, who had worked at the Seattle Times in the late 1990s. Malkin flew out from Washington, DC, and brought a big tub of pulled pork for the uporkulus” protest.
But at that first protest, 120 people showed up. It received almost no media coverage.
Carender collected email addresses from the people at the protest, and began networking on the internet. Then came another internet event. Outraged at the proposed federal aid to people who hadn’t paid their mortgages, CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli made what has been dubbed “the rant of the year.” Speaking on February 19 from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, Santelli said that the system should “reward people who could carry the water instead of drink the water.”
Santelli boomed to the traders on the floor around him: “This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hand!”
Unwinding from his rant, Santelli said he was “thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July.” Santelli’s outburst went on YouTube and was quickly watched several hundred thousand times. As of April 25, it had been watched 1,045,115 times.
The movement went from there. And, yes, it was organized on the national level by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, Tim Philips’s Americans for Prosperity, and Eric adorn’s DontGO Movement.
Americans for Prosperity is probably the most conservative of the three groups. Odom is a libertarian: he voted for Bob Barr, and he did the most to avoid connections to the Republican Party. Dick Armey is the former Republican congressman and House majority leader: he was noted for being an opponent of the minimum wage and of farm subsidies, and a supporter of Social Security privatization. He was also against the invasion of Iraq, when George W. Bush proposed it: Iraq had not attacked us, he said, and an invasion was not justified. He was talked out of that stand by Vice President Dick Cheney, and voted for the war. Later he complained that Cheney had lied to him.
UI consider FreedomWorks a very libertarian organization,” says its president, Matt Kibbe. Not all the protesters were libertarians, Kibbe said, but he added, “It’s always the most philosophical, informed, energized people who create movements.”
Kibbe told Liberty that the organizers tested the concept with protests in St. Louis and Florida, saw that there was pub- lic sentiment behind them, and then planned the big protests for Tax Day. Most of the cost was staff time.
Other organizations took up the job at the state level. In my home state, Washington, the largest protest, in Olympia, was organized by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a liber- tarian-leaning conservative group known for its fight against
The tax protesters were not idiots. But there was an effort to make them look that way. Enemies of their protests homed in on statements that were politically outlandish, or could be made to seem so.
the political use of mandatory union dues. The group’s effort was “mostly staff time,” and mostly for internet work, said the group’s in-house counsel, Mike Reitz. Much of the work was coordinating what was going on already. “Someone would call and say, ‘I’m coming with 300 people.’ ”
Reitz, who attended the Olympia protest with his kids, said it was the largest protest Evergreen Freedom Foundation had ever organized. The group carefully allowed two politicians to speak: one Republican (a state legislator) and one Democrat (the state auditor).
Wilbur, the Seattle talk-show host, attended the protest in Microsoft’s hometown, the Seattle suburb of Redmond. Wilbur lives near there, and he has been active in the Republican Party. “I saw maybe three people out of 200 I recognized from Republican politics,” he told Liberty. “These are not Republican activists…. And I tell my Republican friends, ‘Don’t take these guys for granted.'”
Organizers told me that more than 1 million people pro- tested on April 15. I was more inclined to believe a figure of 300,000, simply because 1 million seemed preposterous. But I don’t know. The protests were said to have happened in more than 800 places – was that number correct? – and, as Wilbur told me, many were in rural towns. That a couple thousand protested in Manhattan is no big deal; that 200 protested in Okanogan, WA, population 2,352, is impressive.
The left-liberal commentariat does not see places like Okanogan. It sees Manhattan, and it sees Newt Gingrich speaking there; it sees anti-Obama signs, and it knows what it thinks.
It thinks of ways of not answering what the protesters are saying.
One way is simply to remind everyone that Obama won and his enemies lost.
You lost. Shut up.
This was very common.
Commentators noted that polls showed average Americans still supporting Obama. It was true; they did. They also opposed the bailouts, and the commentators didn’t mention that. That they supported Obama meant that the protesters could be ignored. Robinson used that argument. So did Conason.
Then there was the hypocrisy argument. These protesters were, obviously, Republicans. Why had these outraged Republicans not protested overspending and bailouts under George W. Bush?
It wasn’t just the left that was making this point. It was made repeatedly on the libertarian website LewRockwell.com. Ryan McMaken wrote of attending the protest in Denver:
I was too polite to ask any of the protesters questions like ‘How exactly is it that you just suddenly realized that tax rates are high and that government spending is out of control?’ Or perhaps: ‘I like your little sign that says, “Stop the Spending!” How ’bout we save hundreds of billions immediately by bringing all the troops home?'”
On Bloggingheads.com, libertarian Matt Welch said: “I want to go there and ask people, ‘Why weren’t you out there doing this a year ago? Where were all these principled people when their people were in power?’ ”
In response to such accusations, the original Seattle organizer, Keli Carender, wrote, “I fully admit we are late to the game. I wish I had been on the ball a long time ago.” Carender had voted for Bush and for McCain. But wasn’t it better to be protesting now than not protesting now?
The left had chided Bush for overspending but had not been against overspending as such. It had been against Bush. Its accusations of hypocrisy were not about a position it actually held.
The libertarians did hold that position. But what political sense did it make for libertarians to bash the protests? Doubtless many of the protesters had voted for Bush: so what? Three key people who promoted the “porkulus” pro- test in my hometown – Wilbur, Beren, and Malkin – are supporters of the war. So what? The protests were not about the war. They were against the bailouts, the stimulus, the trillion-dollar increase in the federal debt, and the associated bor-
Then there was the hypocrisy argument. Why had these outraged Republicans not pro- tested overspending under George W. Bush?
rowing, fiat money creation, and eventual taxes. The protests were against a new and scary increase in the size of the state.
And libertarians oppose that?
Well, no; we don’t oppose that. But these people are not consistent.
Some people are so focused on being right about every- thing that they can’t cooperate with anyone who isn’t just like them. Show these dainty libertarians an ally, and they wrinkle their noses. They see a hypocrite. But hypocrisy is a small sin, and one you can learn to overlook politely. This is not academia. This is politics – and in politics, what matters is who prevails.
What more can be learned from the Tax Day protests? Three obvious things.
First, a matter of tactics. Enemies will use any nutty or nasty things to label and dismiss the whole movement. Most particularly, anything smacking of racism – and a suggestion of secession by the governor of a former Confederate state can
Three key people who promoted the “porkulus” protest are supporters of the war. So what? The protests were not about the war.
be portrayed as that -left, will be jumped on instantly by the left, which believes that racism is the secret cement binding all non-progressives together. Thus, for example, a lefty blog in my hometown pictured, without comment, Tax Day protesters with the signs:
Obamanomics: Monkey see, monkey spend Impeach the Kenyan
Given American history, it’s hazardous for anyone on the right to make a personal attack on a black president. It’s poison to make an issue of his Kenyan ancestry. Whether Obama’s birth certificate is in order is irrelevant now: it was filled out when he was an infant, it’s been vouched for by the State of Hawaii, and the man has been elected president of the United States. People who make signs like “Impeach the Kenyan” should be made unwelcome.
The “monkey see” sign was held proudly by a child who probably did not know that it could be taken as a racist slur. His parents should have known, and so should the organizers. You don’t allow signs like that. With 300,000 protesters, there will be a handful of such signs. Your enemies will find them if you don’t.
Second, the protests showed that America has hundreds of thousands of supporters of a free-market economic policy. We saw this in the Ron Paul campaign, but might have wondered if it had ended there. Well, it didn’t.
That is important. Protests rarely make a government tum on a dime, but they do have an effect. They intimidate the politicians who support a policy and embolden the politicians who oppose it. And that can be worth a lot.
Protests energize and organize. People meet others who think and feel as they do. They swap names and addresses. They form groups. Other groups recruit them. All the organizing groups were recruiting on April 15.
A third thing: Republican politicians.
This is a more difficult one. The Tax Day protests had not been created by or for existing Republican politicians. One blogger noted that in Wichita “an informal poll by a television reporter revealed that less than half the attendees were Republicans.” Still, given politicians’ love of crowds, it was predictable that elected Republicans would offer themselves as speakers. In Texas, Gov. Perry did; in Kansas, Sen. Sam Brownback did; in South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford did; in New York, former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich did.
Republicans were not always well received. In South Carolina, the crowd booed Rep. Gresham Barrett because he had voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
In Chicago, organizer Eric Odom turned down a last- minute request by the Republican national chairman, Michael Steele. Odom wrote: “We respectfully must inform Chairman Steele that RNC officials are welcome to participate in the rally itself, but we prefer to limit stage time to those who are not elected officials, both in Government as well as political parties. This is an opportunity for Americans to speak, and elected officials to listen, not the other way around.”
The Republicans are compromised and their label damaged. Why associate with them? That was the argument. Then again, if the protesters’ ideas were eventually to prevail, which party did they expect support from? The Democrats? If Republican politicians came to the events, publicly praised them, and maybe even made promises at them, wouldn’t that be a start?
I think Odom was probably right, for the moment: don’t let the Republicans co-opt the movement. But don’t kick away a supporter because you disagree with him on the war, or because he voted for McCain.
The “tea bag” protests of April 15, 2009, were not purely a libertarian thing. But they were about opposing the growth of government, and that is essentially a libertarian thing. It would be foolish to join one’s enemies in dismissing it. A movement this big does not come along often. It has power, and it might do some good.