The meaning of Tea Parties

Something wonderfully ironic happened last week at the State Capitol: a sales tax increase of 3/10 of one cent was formally proposed by leading legislators on April 15th. The irony isn’t that it was unveiled on tax day. It’s that 200 feet away, the bigest rally at the Capitol in five years was protesting… higher taxes.

At 5,000 strong, it was the largest of more than 30 “Tea Parties” taking place throughout the state (and a thousand more across the country). People who lean conservative aren’t inclined to protest or march in rallies – particularly on a work day. But they covered every corner of the state, from conservative Colville in eastern Washington to liberal Seattle at Westlake Center, from upscale San Juan county to blue collar Aberdeen, way up north in Anacortes and clear down south in Vancouver, and throughout the eastside, from Redmond to Bellevue, Woodinville, Issaquah and Renton, among others.

Media coverage ranged from positive (Fox) to curious (most local newspapers and television stations) to hostile (all the major networks and most cable stations, especially CNN, where out-of-control “news reporter” Susan Roesgen argued on camera with the participants and told viewers that the rally was “anti-government”, “right-wing” and “anti-CNN”). Many commentators, pundits and analysts, most of them in DC and Manhattan, dismissed the events as mere anti-Obama rallies, or an attempt to rebrand the Republican party, or the angry outcry of a movement and a party in decline.

They’ve got it wrong. It’s not the end. It’s the start of something, and the political players in Washington, D.C. and Olympia will be the last to figure it out.

I went to the Tea Party in Redmond. I saw hundreds of people waving American flags and handmade signs, most of which were either irreverent or funny (“I am not your ATM”; “Long time taxpayer, first time protester”). Plenty of grassroots Republicans showed up, but so did lots of people I’ve never seen before. Of the people I talked to, most had never been to a protest, including one 80-year old lady from Bellevue. They included families with kids, retirees, and a surprising number of young people.

One word summed up their message: “enough”. These are people who work hard and play by the rules. They are appalled that rising spending, deficits and debt in Washington, D.C. is now skyrocketing. They are dismayed that Olympia wants to cover its reckless spending with higher taxes. They are angry that so much of this money is going to help people and politically connected companies that made bad choices. The people at these Tea Parties don’t want bailouts, and they don’t want their taxes going up to bail out other people’s bad behavior, either, whether it’s their neighbor three doors down who got a mortgage he had no business getting, bankers who violated the fundamental rule of finance (never lend money to someone who can’t pay it back), the Wall Street executives who packaged bad loans to disguise the risk, or politicians who raised spending way beyond inflation, expecting that government revenues would just keep growing, just as Wall Street kept expecting housing values to keep accelerating.


In the late 70’s a lot of common, hardworking Americans got fed up with their rising tax burden while government grew and the economy shrank. Political insiders derided them as eccentrics and extremists because their message was so discordant with political discourse within legislative chambers and editorial boards. But those people ignited the Tax Revolt. It changed the face of American politics.

And it could be happening again.