Almost five years ago, John Tweedell stood inside the National Mall and looked out at a sea of fellow citizens marching on Washington, D.C., to protest the federal government. They were there to protest taxes, losses of freedoms and to show general discontent with the nation’s leaders.
National media gave little credence to the gathering and reported numbers in the thousands. Tweedell scoffed at the “mainstream media” report and said officials there “said they had never seen so many people gathered inside the Memorial Park.” He suggested the number to be more than 1 million protestors.
Tweedell, 83, a former Air Force intelligence officer and retired air traffic controller, said he was like many Americans, “too quiet, for too long.” So he decided to join the protest and a movement he believes is alive and well.
Joining the Tea Party movement was not about him, he suggested, but future generations of Americans and Texans who will be subject to what has happened over the past few decades and what will happen if citizens don’t demand changes now.
“I was asleep for most of my life, not paying attention and then all of a sudden I wake up and this nation isn’t the nation it once was,” he said. “I’m not protesting for me. I’m an old man, but my grandkids and their kids, I’m in it for them.”
It’s been five years since protesters such as Tweedell, despondent about a crippled economy and angry with a government they felt was out of touch with ever-day Americans, took to the streets. Whether called a grassroots, Tea Party or liberty movement, what sprang from those initial tax day protests in April 2009 changed the political landscape in Texas and has engrained itself in the national conversation about governance.
The movement has outlasted and exceeded some observers’ expectations, albeit without meeting goals such as limiting President Barack Obama to one term and gutting or repealing his signature piece of legislation – the Affordable Care Act.
But the Tea Party has captured a place in the political psyche of America and Texas, political analysts, party officials and residents agree.
Vonda Mecham, 72, of Tyler, said similar despondency regarding the nation’s future drew her to a Grassroots America event in July 2009. Like most people who relate to the Tea Party movement, Mrs. Mecham’s concern grew out of the government bailouts she viewed as poor fiscal policy and against free market capitalism. To her, bailing out businesses that jeopardized the nation’s future ran counter to American principles.
A former junior high English teacher, homemaker and department store manager with four children and nine grandchildren, Ms. Mecham’s concern peaked when the Obama administration’s fiscal and social agendas continue an even more troubling course.
She said she has not maintained her activity but watches Tea Party activity closely and believes it has been effective since it began.
“The Tea Party has had a lot of influence,” she said. “I feel like a lot of people don’t think the government and our leaders are being true to what made America great and that goes for Democrats and Republicans. The Tea Party shows it.”
BORN OF ANGER
Smith County Democratic Party Chairman David Henderson said the movement was born from conservatives who silently simmered since the counter culture revolution of the 1960s and watched as “their America” changed into a more secular, more integrated society.
“Conservative, deeply religious people had been pushed too far” and they reacted, he said.
Most political movements in American history last an election cycle, maybe two, Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson. He expected an improving economy to reduce Tea Party enthusiasm, but that wasn’t the case. Jillson suspects election of a Republican president could quiet the movement.
Jillson said Tea Party leaders say they were opposed to policy and actions by the George W. Bush administration -- including the prescription drug program, the Patriot Act and ramped up federal spending – but weren’t vocal.
“The vocality came, the energy came and the out in the streets part of the Tea Party movement came when Obama won," he said. "I think that was a social and historical shock to Tea Party people and then there was the fiscal issues as well, when the economy tanked and we ran a $1.4 trillion budget deficit.”
The “take our country back” rhetoric teamed of racial elements, Jillson said. Southern, white conservatives viewed the Obama administration and Washington, D.C., as confirmation to where parents, grandparents and great-grandparents predicted the nation was moving since Reconstruction – “that the bottom rail would be on top.”
“If you’re a social and cultural conservative, there is a lot about modern America that you don’t recognize and it makes you nervous,” Jillson said. “Other people celebrate that, but within the Tea Party there is a lot of affinity for a rural, Southern set of cultural traditions and ‘the way I remember it.’”
Ms. Mecham doesn’t see it exactly that way.
Yes, she feels the nation continues down a dark moral path and as a Christian feels leaders’ and citizens’ lives are based less and less on lessons learned in Sunday school classes and in synagogues.
To her, the bailouts, the financial collapse and poor political policies from within both parties occurred because the nation’s morality has declined. But racial and social bigotry is not what fueled the movement, she said.
There is a longing to return to simpler times, but it was anger and concerns for the future that motivated Ms. Mecham, though she hasn’t been personally active since.
“I feel guilty sometimes that I am not more involved but I do watch what is going on and I do vote,” she said. “It’s a big force and I think Republicans and Democrats are afraid of it.”
There is no formal definition for the Tea Party movement, said Grassroots America – We the People Executive Director JoAnn Fleming. There are hundreds of groups who lean toward the Tea Party, she said, and what she calls the “Liberty movement.”
It is a bottom-up rather than top-down administrative structure and therefore hard to define, pigeonhole or counterattack, she said.
Grassroots America believes in principles of individual freedom, personal responsibility, limited government, rule of law, free enterprise, virtuous citizenship, economic opportunity for all citizens and a return to Constitutional and Judeo Christian principles. Many other groups share consistent beliefs.
For five years Mrs. Fleming, a former Smith County commissioner and taxpayer advocate, has networked with other organizations and leaders to build a web of connection between like-minded groups made up of blue-collar folks and professionals who use their expertise to keep the movement’s momentum.
“We’ve matured,” she said. “People are always going to have little differences in the direction they want to go but we’ve gotten to know each other on this five-year journey that started with pushback against the federal government.”
There’s no doubt in Jillson’s mind the Tea Party movement has been effective in organizing and energizing conservative elements within the GOP.
But it’s also created definable differences within the party, he said.
“They’ve been highly effective, and the way that effect has shown itself is in scaring the bejezus out of traditional Republicans, out of the business community, let alone the country club Republicans,” he said. “And once it became clear the route to the Republican nomination ran through the Tea Party it completely disoriented traditional Republicans.”
In Texas, it’s not only U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s defeat of long-time Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst or Dewhurst’s likely dethroning by Dan Patrick, who he faces in a May runoff and has aligned himself as a Tea Party-type candidate, but it’s also the effect to down-ticket and district primary races, Jillson said.
Successful, articulate, insider politicians with plenty of campaign endorsements and money are “fish out of water” when trying to appeal to Tea Party groups and sound convincing, Jillson said. The result is more scorn than appreciation, he said.
“They have upset the applecart and changed the conversation, but there are no real Tea Party solutions,” he said. “The Tea Party has done nothing to end the conversation with a set of policies people believe can work.”
Texas spends 70 percent of the national average among states and ranks 46 among states in per-student spending, he said. It reduces Tea Party credibility to ask for spending reductions when the state needs to invest in infrastructure and education to maintain its economy, Jillson said.
But politicians were reluctant to raid the Rainy Day fund for infrastructre or to close a budget shortfall and ended the 82nd Legislative Session in 2011 cutting more than $5 billion from education and other social programs to appease a rising tide of conservative consciousness. In 2013, some cuts were restored, and legislators tapped the Rainy Day Fund to avoid infrastructure what they called a water and transportation "crisis."
Mrs. Fleming counters concerns about the lack of taxpayer investments with numbers showing more than $20 billion in transportation-linked debt, reliance on federal funding and government spending rising well above population and inflation. She also feels that education’s ills will be solved at the local level rather than in Austin or Washington D.C.
Henderson sees Tea Party success as an impediment to solutions and progress rather than a bastion for overhauling a squeaky system.
The Tea Party was effective if political gridlock in Washington, D.C., and cutting around $6 billion from Texas’ public education system could be called success, Henderson said.
But five years in the context of two decades dominated by the GOP is not long enough for him to anticipate what role the movement might take in Texas and national politics, he said.
Henderson described the political environment over the past five years as a billiards table. The Tea Party took on the role of cue ball, he said, and politicians, policies and parties have been reacting to being struck. He said the November elections could be a big indicator on how the table will continue to be played. The Tea Party may continue striking but it could sink the GOP or scratch
“The Tea Party has clearly moved the GOP to the right,” Henderson said. “It’s political physics. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
Henderson said political activism within the bounds of established democracy is good and that so far the Tea Party has operated inside the lines.
Tweedell said he believes the Tea Party has waned in the past five years but said it was subject to human nature. Humans can’t sustain a fever pitch for five years, but one important thing is evident – there are smart specialists involved and more “worker bees.”
Ms. Mecham said she believes the Tea Party movement has created a credible conversation among Americans and that as long as there is discontent with the government, the movement will continue. But there are doubts about any major cultural or social shift.
“I don’t feel our government is in touch with the American people and what mainstream Americans want,” she said. “But maybe I am out of touch.”