From its early beginnings the Tea Party was dismissed as irrelevant and then derided by the national media. In the summer of 2009 health reform was the hot topic of concern across the nation and to the Tea Party movement. The media, the Obama administration, and Democrats described opposition and questioning Tea Partiers as “mobsters, anti-American, and Nazis.” President Obama referred to them dismissively as “tea baggers.” The New York Times attempted to link Tea Partiers to militia extremists.
In the early days of the movement the descriptions did not match the images I was seeing on television. Congressmen were sharply questioned. Anxiety and even anger was evident. But, political town hall meetings are normally filled with supporters wanting a few minutes of contact with the person they campaigned for and sent to Washington. I did not see the normal supportive attendees shout down the challenging questioners. In fact, others in the audience tended to applaud the questions and the questioners.
At local, regional and national rallies the media focused on the demonstration excesses. But I saw something different as the reporters were trying to tell me what I was seeing. I didn’t see a single window broken, a single flag burned, or a policeman spit upon. Oh, there was yelling by some so as to be heard above the crowd and a few weirdo signs but the interesting thing visually was the presence of mostly hand-made signs, clean cut youth, middle aged women, and a good number of youthful grandmothers.
Last summer I was asked by the Southern Crescent Tea Party Patriots in south Atlanta to speak at an educational session on healthcare reform. I had heard the media mocking of the Tea Party and seen the images on television, but I wanted to see it firsthand. In August as I entered the meeting, I met organizers Claudia Eisenburg, Cindy Fallon, and a few other women wearing Tea Party t-shirts. I asked them how they came to be the leaders of the event and if they were political organizers.
I learned that they had never been actively involved in politics. This was a group of concerned parents who shared concerns about excessive government spending and the dangerous impact of a mounting national debt on their children’s future. They knew firsthand how families needed to carefully budget, cut back during tight times, and postpone “nice to haves” so as to afford “need to haves.” They had a common feeling that their country was moving away from fiscal logic and their family values. Not knowing what to do, someone said, “Maybe we should call a meeting of neighbors.” Finally a finger was pointed to moms Claudia and Cindy as previous organizers of school, PTA, and church meetings.
When I rose to speak to the audience of about 300, I profiled the attendees. I found that about 40% were Medicare beneficiaries. Others were employed in small businesses. A few were returning veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan. There were truckers, plumbers, electricians, and other white and blue collar workers. The largest and most striking group was Moms: working moms, married moms, divorced moms, single moms, stay at home moms, and grand moms.
These were regular hardworking Americans. These were homemakers with legitimate concerns about healthcare reform and its impact on their lives but more importantly on the lives and future of their children. They are now connecting and unifying over the internet.
After my presentation, the crowd lingered hungry for more information. The questions were what I had learned in English class 40 years ago: Who? What? Where? Why? When? They had legitimate questions deserving straight answers. They did not understand the complexities of health reform. They did understand that no one in Washington was giving clear answers. Any anger came from a belief that no one was even listening to them. Many were from, as Tom Brokaw described them, “America’s Greatest Generation.” They didn’t understand being called “un-American.” That made them mad and gave them reason enough to seek answers with sustained energy and purpose.
In my experience, the Tea Party movement seems a truly American phenomenon of patriotic citizens knowing they have the freedom to question their elected officials. They believe that elected officials work for them and need to answer to them. Maybe they didn’t ask enough questions in the past. But now Tea Party Moms are very direct in asking questions, especially when their children are threatened.
I have now spoken at about eight different Tea Party educational forums on healthcare. The audience profile varies little from my initial Tea Party experience. The concerns from moms are real and sincere. I believe the most powerful message for the 2010 elections will be, “I am a Tea Party Mom and I am concerned about my children’s future.” Past elections have focused on “Soccer Moms” and “SUV Moms.” I predict 2010 will be about the “Tea Party Moms.”
Politicians who accepted and added to the mischaracterization of Tea Party Moms will find their re-elections in peril. We all know you don’t cross Moms. Moms can give you “the look” and you know you are in trouble. You don’t ignore Moms. Moms know how to say no. Moms know that you don’t do things just because everyone else does. “Father knows best”, but Moms know better.
In my youth it was an insult to say, “Your Mom wears Army boots.” The world has changed. Today that would be a recognition of patriotic duty. Female power has always been pretty blunt. As my mother might have said, “Mr. Fancy Pants politician, you don’t call Moms un-American or we will give you the Boot.”
Ronald E. Bachman is president and CEO of Healthcare Visions, a thought leadership firm dedicated to advancing ideas and policy initiatives that are transforming the U.S. healthcare market.