D.C. Tea Party Sign 9/12/09 Penn Ave
It will be a loss for future historians if today’s chroniclers brush aside The Tea Party that came to Washington D.C. on 9/12 with brute characterizations.
I have watched, in the streets, several protest marches in D.C. over the years. The swell of people who stood outside the Supreme Court during Bush v. Gore in December 2000 debating chads was drawn by partisan fidelity (and some by the historic nature of the case).
During the protest following George Bush’s second inauguration there was a personal target and myriad complaints, hot rage, edge, but no uniting philosophical theme.
The remarkable features of 9/12 from my view:
- These are everyday people who showed up as the result of a viral, decentralized spontaneity sustained since April 15.
- The size. While estimates are debated on crowd size (and there must have been in the upper hundreds of thousands). I was struck by its calmness – the steady flow of the crowd. Deliberately paced. The tone among marchers – neighborly and of good cheer, yet entirely serious. They made a tradeoff to be here.
- There were all ages, mainly between 30 and 65, if I had to guess. From all over – I heard New Jersey, Georgia, California, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Maryland. As Mark Hemingway notes, participants were “stunningly normal”.
- The signage. I think Matt Welch at Reason has it exactly right. A handful of Ayn Rand, several pro-life, a scant few tasteless. I saw only one of the “Must-have-at-all-protests-no-matter-what-you-are-protesting” – the Reductio ad Nazium. I saw far more tri-cornered hats, colonial attire, two Statues of Liberty, and several grim reapers.
- The overwhelming sea of signage was hand-drawn. Topics: health care, the debt, taxation, Congress, the Administration (no love for either). Signs of the Constitution and Gadsden flags were abundant. If one sign summed up the mood it was, ”Don’t Make Me Come Up There”, stamped over the Constitution, held by a middle-aged woman standing by the reflecting pool in front of the Capitol.
These were ordinary people. The non-protesting kind from your neighborhood, organized via technology, the internet, blogs, message boards, Facebook, and Twitter. As the Wall Street Journal noted on April 15th, in the old days coordinating people required a union or a church. As the last decade and half of protesting has demonstrated, today people can coordinate themselves.
To know if the Tea Party movement is an ideological marker with the power to re-shape politics (not unlike the anti-war or environmental movements) it must be followed in seriousness – a difficult charge, since ideological behavior provokes ideological reactions in those observing.
Robert Higgs in his book, Crisis and Leviathan, writes on the nature and role of ideology in altering society.
“To understand ideology, one must study symbols, paying special attention to rhetoric. How the ideologue expresses himself may be as important as what he says. Imagery holds the key to the identification of ideological motivation and program. Language is an important political resource…By taking linguistic symbols seriously one opens a window for viewing ideologies in action.”
It is a foggy window, Higgs notes, but nonetheless it is still a picture to be studied.
For another first-hand account, read the notes of my colleague, Veronique de Rugy, at The Corner.
UPDATE: Added photo.