9/12 Tea Parties Galvanized by Health Care Reform

The massive surge of conservative and libertarian activism on September 12 was unprecedented in American history. The day's main event was billed as the 9/12 Tea Party on the National Mall. Hundreds of thousands of everyday Americans marched on Washington, D.C., to protest the expansion of economic and social policies under the Barack Obama administration. The protest was the culmination of months of grassroots agitation against financial bailouts, economic profligacy, and government corruption and hubris. As Rick Moran wrote earlier on these pages:

This is history in the making, something the United States has never seen: a genuine grass-roots conservative mass movement, activated by the new technologies, communicating effectively using the new software and hardware -- and it is growing.

Outside the nation's capital, many unable to attend events in D.C. staged their own demonstrations at home. In Quincy, Ill., an estimated 12,000 came out for a tea party billed as "Lincoln's Legacy: Patriots on the Prairie." Glenn Reynolds was on hand in Quincy to report for Pajamas Media. Warning members of the party of Lincoln not to get too confident, Glenn notes that "those in the GOP who think that the tea party movement is for their benefit need to think again."

That sentiment was reflected in Ft. Worth, Texas, where local libertarian activists staged a rain-soaked tea party demonstration. One planner dubbed the event a "Parade, Rally, Protest, and all-around Procession of the Pissed." In Colorado, activists gathered at the state capitol to protest the "ever-accelerating runaway government spending and borrowing in Denver and D.C. alike, as well as the socialization of health care, and the irresponsibility and unaccountability of the state and federal government. Also at issue was the growth of government at all levels and the corresponding retreat of liberty before the 'nanny state'." As one protester tweeted: "Sign at Denver 912 rally: Lies make us angry; truth makes them angry."

Near my home in Los Angeles, a loose coalition of Southern California tea party activists organized "912 West: A Tea Party for the West Coast." The event was billed as "the largest tea party on the West Coast." The roster of speakers included actors Basil Hoffman and Victoria Jackson, as well as PJTV personalities Sonja Schmidt and Bill Whittle. Some estimates put the crowd size at 3,500 people. That's virtually nothing compared to Saturday's turnout in Washington, but those in attendance at the Wilshire Federal Building had all the grassroots enthusiasm of their cohorts marching on Capitol Hill.

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What strikes me, as one who's reported on the tea party movement all year, is the sense of confidence and triumph among participants on Saturday. In April, when conservatives launched the first big wave of action in the Tax Day tea party events, I saw quite a bit of uncertainty about getting the message out and on what kind of impact the protests would have. Sure, back then the spirit was energetic -- euphoric at times -- when people realized "we can do this too."

But by May momentum seemed to stall. At one point I argued, amid the plethora of banners decrying "socialism," often featuring images of "Comrade Obama" next to Fidel Castro and Chairman Mao, "that movement organizers need to realize that angry protesters denouncing the Democrats in Washington as 'socialist' isn't enough." Activists needed to move away from abstractions. They needed a more focused message and a practical political program to bring about political change.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to September 12: Conservatives found their issue. In June, tea partiers shifted attention to Barack Obama's gargantuan health care reform agenda. Nothing so far has galvanized activists as much as the not-so-abstract possibility that American health care was heading the way of Britain's NHS health-rationing or the vermin-infested wards of socialist Cuba. Folks took to the streets in 2009's "long hot summer" of anti-Democratic town hall rallies. The events put the Obama administration on the defensive. By August, the White House had tempered their push for "comprehensive reform" (and muted discussion of the "public option") and instead focused the nightly-news talking points on a more generic "health insurance reform." By the August 22 "Nationwide Recess Rallies," some on the right were predicting a Democratic Waterloo!

At both the Wilshire protest and nationwide, many activists were talking about a ballot-box revolt. Protest signs routinely pledge to "turn the bums out" next year, and there's a new right-wing political action committee called "Flip This House in 2010." In Los Angeles, during what I thought was the keynote address on Saturday, Bill Whittle rallied the crowd to keep the momentum going. Grassroots citizens "need to run for office themselves," was Whittle's exhortation. He said that the only way Americans will preserve liberty is by taking it back themselves. Go to Washington and do your "tour of duty as a citizen legislator," Whittle exclaimed! Then "come back home to your families and communities" to let other patriots steer the ship of state for a time.

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It was a dramatic and powerful message. My sense is that Whittle captured the real nature of what we've seen in the protests this year. Whittle noted that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are brief documents, but members of Congress apparently hadn't read them. And if they had, they failed to understand the simple call to freedom found therein -- manifestos of liberty, painstakingly outlined by our nation's Founders. In contrast, legislators can parrot by rote the nationalizing principles embodied in House Bill 3200, with its 1,018 pages of proposed bureaucratic tyranny.

So, yes, while only a few thousand were on hand in Los Angeles on Saturday, it's clear that by now activists are heartened by a triumph of democratic significance. That is, people are making a real difference. After months of being smeared as "racist teabaggers" and "right-wing political terrorists," the movement is now an unmistakable force with which to be reckoned.

Rosslyn Smith, commenting on the Washington protest at the American Thinker, suggested that "we are witnessing a very rare phenomenon, the genuine, broad based spontaneous political movement with no visible charismatic leaders." But Ms. Smith's only partially right. The "visible charismatic leaders" are the real people, drawn from all walks of life, who have rallied to the cause of freedom this year in record numbers. Many have told me personally that they'd never attended a protest or a town hall event in their lives. It's hard to find a better testament to the enduring Americans values of freedom and individualism than that.

Congratulations to marchers nationwide who are revitalizing the American democracy.