I had the welcome chance to speak at the convention of the Tea Party of the San Francisco Bay Area last weekend (yes there is one!). I wanted to share my impressions, because they are totally at odds with the image of the tea party in the media. Apparently, President Obama has given an interview to Rolling Stone where he has called the Tea party the tool of “very powerful, special-interest lobbies.” He also claims that it has members who are “a little darker, that have to do with anti-immigrant sentiment or are troubled by what I represent as the president.”
Obama could not be more wrong -- in fact, his thinking shows a lot more about his problems than the tea party's. If the Tea Party is being run by special interest lobbies, then our special interest lobbies are in a lot of trouble. The convention was held at the Mill Valley community center. There were about 500 people there; it was standing room only. They spent the whole day milling about between different tables that represented various groups, ranging from the NRA to the seller of a cookbook of "conservative recipes." I didn't look, but I assume it was full of recipes for meatloaf and mashed potatoes with nary a sprig of endive in sight. There were funny T-shirts, cut-outs where you can get your picture taken next to Lincoln, Reagan, or Palin, and lots of sugary foods from Costco.
It was all very unprofessional, by which I mean that it did not seem the least bit stage managed or fake, in the way that the events put on by professional political operatives usually are. It was all quite spontaneous. Here's an example. The speakers were unorganized, and had to speak in the hall in competition with all of the tables. So if people were not interested in a speaker, they would just go on buying and selling books and T-shirts or signing up for petitions, and eventually the speaker would be drowned out. If they were interested, the chatter would stop and eventually people would stop and listen. It was, in a charming way, the competition of the free market of ideas at work.
I talked to a lot of the people who organized it, out of academic curiosity, because I wanted to see how these folks fit into our theories of political mobilization. These folks were not out of central casting or the textbooks. The organizer of the event, Sally Zelikowsky, was a stay at home mom (with a law degree), who finally got fed up with Obama's nationalization of the economy and health care, and just started emailing people. She had the off-the-cuff idea to have a protest on tax day in downtown San Francisco of all places, followed by a march to Nancy Pelosi's office -- it drew more than a 1,000 people. Here's another example. There was no tea at the event, neither iced nor hot! A professional political operative wouldn't have forgotten the tea for a tea party event. But the nice lady in charge of refreshments was a retired flight attendant, and it just didn't occur to her. I talked with another organizer, who had a very interesting argument to make about a specific Anti-Federalist paper on patriotism. Most people have never heard of the Anti-Federalists, not to mention the Federalists -- luckily, I had read it. But not exactly what they teach in lobbying 101.
The idea that the attendees are anti-immigrant or racist or sexist is, I think, bizarre. It could only be made by journalists or Presidents who haven't been to one of these conventions. I saw people of different races (in fact, Ward Connerly spoke later after me), sexes, and ages. They were certainly not rich -- I met everyone from high school baseball coaches to lawyers and doctors. They seemed drawn together by three things. First, they are really interested in the Constitution. Second, they think that the federal government under this President has violated the Constitution's limits on federal power over the economy and society. Third, they are patriotic and believe that America is an exceptional country and worthy of the devotion of its citizens.
I think Obama foolishly and mistakenly attacks the tea party as the tool of special interests or as potential bigots. It says more about him that he attributes hateful motives to people who simply disagree with him as a matter of policy and of the Constitution. He has become so arrogant and out of touch with the American people that he sees disagreement as bad faith racial animus or class conflict. It is a sign that he thinks he has some kind of messianic mission and that he is a figure of world-historical significance, and that all opposition is somehow immoral. Luckily, the Framers designed our political system to remedy itself when confronted by demagogic leaders, and hopefully the November elections will be the first start.