Analysis: Fewer 'Shell-Shocked' Financial Panic Survivors at 2010 Tea Parties

As mentioned in a related article published in Michigan Capitol Confidential ("Analysis: What's Next for Michigan Tea Parties?" April 20), although Tea Party rallies held across the state and nation last week had mixed results in turnout, the movement itself appears strong, according to recent polls, including a Rasmussen one showing that 24 percent of U.S. voters now say they consider themselves a part of the Tea Party movement, and 40 percent have a favorable view of it.

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My own observations at the 2010 Lansing, Lapeer and Sterling Heights Michigan Tea Parties suggest that whatever the exact attendance figures, there appear to have been far fewer of those "shell-shocked," middle-aged, middle-class people who swelled the turnout a year ago, and who described themselves as being frightened at was happening in Washington, and had never previously been involved in any political action, protests or demonstrations.

The unexpectedly large numbers of such people at the 2009 Tea Parties, along with the spontaneousness and genuineness of those events, is what made them so startling and newsworthy (regardless of whether the mainstream media covered them honestly, or at all). One activist described those protests as akin to stunned people wandering out onto the streets after an explosion or natural disaster.

Those new-born activists were motivated then by objective "facts on the ground": One year ago, the stock market (and 401(k) retirement accounts) had fallen almost 50 percent compared to a year earlier; plummeting home values converted what had been a strong asset into a "boat anchor"; and employment levels were in free-fall. A year later, the stock market has recovered most of its losses, unemployment is much higher but seems to have stabilized, and if home values have not recovered, neither have they plummeted further, while homeowners are now resigned to their loss of wealth (or just numb).

These protestors were also very frightened by Washington's response to the economic crisis, including the bailouts that began in the final months of the Bush administration, and the massive new "stimulus" and other spending of the new Obama administration. In early 2009, Congress appeared poised to quickly pass the federalization of health care, cap-and-trade and "Card-Check." A year later, only the first has become law, and only after so depleting the new regime's political capital as to create a widespread expectation of substantial losses in the coming 2010 election.

With that preface, here are some 2010 Tea Party attendance estimates and comparisons:

In Michigan, approximately 1,500 showed up in Lansing on April 15, compared to 4,000-plus the previous year. There were around 1,000 in Grand Rapids versus 3,000 on April 15, 2009.

Both cities had been visited five days earlier by the somewhat commercialized, establishment "Tea Party Express," which attracted crowds comparable to those on tax day, and probably drew off some of the participants who might otherwise have attended.

The TPE also attracted very large crowds in northern Michigan's 1st Congressional district, where resentment against Congressman Bart Stupak's vote for President Barack Obama's health care bill was boiling over. In Macomb County, media reports described a crowd of  "thousands" at TPE's Clinton Township event on the Sunday before tax day.

Four days later, the Tea Party in Sterling Heights attracted an energized crowd of around 600, waving flags and homemade signs; across the street, 75 to 100 public school establishment demonstrators held preprinted "SOS" signs. There was no event in this location in 2009. However, there was a 2009 Tea Party in nearby Troy that drew around 2,500, but no 2010 Troy protest.

At least 1,000 attended a 2009 Tea Party in Hudsonville; in 2010, different reports put the turnout at 500 to 900, and attendees noted that the energy level was dramatically lower. The Lapeer Tea Party drew around 300 in 2010; in 2009 the figure was 500. In Traverse City, 600 attended the 2009 protest. A similar number attended a 2010 Tea Party Express rally the Saturday before tax day, given a big assist by a "pre-event" organized by local blogger/activist Jason Gillman.

Reports from Chicago indicate that the noontime Tea Party downtown had less than half the participation of last year, but attendance may have been reduced somewhat by the presence of another rally in the Loop at 3:00 p.m. The competing events expose what is both a strength and weakness of the movement: its lack of any unified organizational structure. The worst effect is the "splitter" phenomenon, with fractious and "fief-building" local organizations and leaders expending time and energy tearing down other movement members.

News coverage of this year's Tea Parties reinforces the main point of this article, which is while large numbers of people "yelling at big buildings" is no longer "news" after a full year of generating demonstrations much larger than anyone expected, the creation of a potent new political identity is a new reality likely to affect this nation's politics for years to come.

A USA Today story about the April 15, 2010, events devoted much of its space to coverage of establishment "conservative" organizations sponsoring training sessions in "political organizing," with a focus on electoral campaigns. On the Fox News Channel's "O'Reilly Factor," Bill O'Reilly announced in positive terms: "Big Tea Party rallies today. Thousands were in Washington venting their frustration with Obama. In Boston, 7,000 protested at Boston Harbor, site of the original Tea Party." And that was it — he moved right along to other items, as if it isn't really news anymore that Tea Party demonstrations get big numbers.

This may be frustrating to many Tea Party activists who have ground their teeth at the mainstream media's past dismissals of the movement and undercounting of its events, but in fact they probably have reason to feel satisfied: The latest coverage is an indication that the movement has "arrived" and become accepted as a new force on the American political scene.