I noticed a fascinating article in the paper the other day that discussed the intensive efforts Tea Party activists have been making to organize grassroots volunteers. Meanwhile, at least 300,000 (according to NBC News) and perhaps as many as 500,000 (the organizers' estimate) citizens have gathered in Washington, D.C. this weekend to listen to a series of speeches by Tea Party-affiliated luminaries ranging from Sarah Palin to headliner Glenn Beck.
The mainstream continues to characterize the Tea Party-related groups as a fringe movement.
I'm not so sure.
My own political beliefs are not aligned with the Tea Partiers. As outlined in previous posts, I deplore the current tendency in our political society toward demonization of the other, and I find much of the rhetoric coming out of this movement to be rife with the emotionally charged, factually-selective discourse that poisons American political life. (That does not mean the Tea Party alone is responsible for this... far from it.) I have a particular problem with the perception that, as one attendee interviewed at the Beck-led Washington rally put it, Jesus would not have agreed with welfare, bank bailouts and the economic stimulus package. She can hold her religious beliefs and I can hold mine (and isn't that the beauty of the United States?), but it strikes me as presumptuous to argue that the man the Gospels clearly portray as concerned with the least of these wouldn't entertain the idea of welfare programs, even if He might perhaps prefer something rather less bureaucratic. (The bank bailouts? Well, He didn't care much for money changers... but it is worth mentioning that this all began BEFORE a certain demonized chief executive took office. That happened during the regime of a previously demonized chief executive... sigh. Can't we all get along?)
However: regardless of one's position on the Tea Partiers, they are doing one thing very well. Politics work differently than they did in 1960, but they don't work that differently. Effective political organization depends upon motivating and mobilizing citizens to follow your lead. That requires footwork. It might not happen quickly, but it will happen over time with sufficient organization, grassroots effort, patience, and willingness to continue trying new things. My 2009 book (shameless Amazon link) outlines the ways in which as early as 1960, conservatives were working to establish efficient, effective grassroots efforts. These efforts paid off big-time over the course of the next couple decades.
Is it happening again? Too soon to tell. Also, conservatives in 1960 were working to counter an entrenched liberal establishment. I would argue that current conditions are far different, with no one political persuasion exercising such overweening control. However, politicos of all stripes would do well to note what is going on, and exercise their own political will accordingly. Long-term influence cannot be won in the pages of the New York Times, especially in our world of information explosion. Influence comes through relationships. People need fellowship, and they're going to gravitate toward places where they can find it.