op-ed

A civic reawakening: The Tea Party movement

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This week, conservatives of all stripes will gather in Washington for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. As this event also marks the one-year anniversary of the birth of the Tea Party movement, I think it is particularly appropriate to take a step back and reflect on the impact of the movement in its short one-year history.

There is a good deal of talk within the broader conservative movement and from the media peanut gallery regarding the future of the Tea Party movement. Many observers have pointed to “controversy” surrounding the relatively small Tea Party Convention, using Sarah Palin as an example that the movement is fracturing. While this is one of the smaller Tea Parties that have been thrown, it has received more attention than the million-taxpayer march on Washington last September. It is…curious.

Despite the media’s desire to create a simple (though oft-shifting) narrative of this grassroots movement, the vast majority of Tea Partiers recognize that no one organization, person or event speaks for the broad frustrations felt and expressed by millions of concerned citizens. A top-down structure of grassroots organizing makes for a great résumé builder, not necessarily a movement builder. It is both counterproductive and highly hubristic to claim the mantle of the Tea Party group, event or leader. From small towns to big cities to national Tea Party events, groups thrive when they move past petty hierarchies and credit grabbing and remember why they got off of their couches and into the streets in the first place: to have a tangible impact on the direction of our country.

How impactful this movement has been is nothing short of extraordinary. Just one year ago, I—like many Americans—was deeply disheartened and concerned about the direction of our nation. A popularly elected president had promised to “fundamentally transform the United States” on the campaign trail. World leaders and newspapers were marking the death of free-market capitalism.

Fortunately, a civic reawakening of sorts kept concerned citizens from merely bracing themselves for the shockwaves of a radically changing political environment. In “Rules for Radicals,” Saul Alinsky warned of an inevitable counter-revolution to the radical policies he espoused—policies, and tactics, that have been deployed day in and day out in the halls of Washington over the past year. The Tea Party movement is that counter-revolution. It is the instinctive American backlash to a government that has grossly overstepped its bounds exemplified in bailouts, handouts, and the persistent pursuit of radically expanding the size and scope of government though cap and trade, government-run health care initiatives, and other initiatives.

Democrats still control the White House and both chambers of Congress and, despite the concerns of their confused, uneducated constituents, they show no signs of relenting on their promise to deliver this brave new America. Yet today I’m more hopeful than ever about the future of our nation. From the Tax Day Tea Parties of April, to the August health care town hall protests, to the enormously successfully Sept. 12 march on Washington, more and more Americans are involving themselves in the political process. Not only are they opening their eyes and taking to the streets, but they’re dusting off and proudly reaffirming the founding principles of our nation, principles proclaimed outmoded and dead by the cynical political class just one year ago.

Recently, Massachusetts, where I was born and raised, elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate, to a Kennedy’s seat no less, with the mandate to halt ObamaCare in its tracks. This reaffirmed not only the widespread appeal of the principles of the Tea Party movement, but the fact that the movement can and will move beyond a state of rallying and be a very real, very potent political force as we enter the 2010 election cycle.

Today our president, so sure just one year ago that he would usher in an audacious agenda with ease, is now proclaiming his preference for serving one good term versus sitting for two lackluster two terms. As Charles Krauthammer brilliantly pointed out, President Obama forgot to mention the third option: a lackluster one-term presidency. With approval numbers dipping lower and lower each week, he just might get it.

Let us not forget that the genesis of this counterrevolution was against the backdrop of a nation facing the stark reality that personalities and labels cannot and should not be trusted as sturdy vessels of a coherent political philosophy. Hope and change, for example, mean nothing without tangible policy solutions behind them—results behind the rhetoric. Similarly, Republicanism is not necessarily synonymous with a deep conviction in limited government and fiscal responsibility. I would encourage my fellow Tea Partiers and political observers alike to keep in mind that the label “tea party” is not what is important. It is not an end in and of itself. It’s the principles, stupid: limited government, free markets, and fiscal responsibility. Thankfully, more and more people are espousing said principles and attempting to advance and defend them in the political process.

John M. O’Hara is author of A New American Tea Party, a book chronicling the history and principles of the tea party movement.  He is assistant director of communications at The Heartland Institute, a national free-market think tank based in Chicago, Ill.