Christina Botteri had an excellent post in this space yesterday, in which she argued that Ron Paul is not the first person to claim he founded the Tea Party movement. I agree with Christina that a Voices of the Tea Party e-book on the true origins of the movement would be very helpful. Like Christina, I was one of the 97 every day Americans who helped organize the first set of nationwide tea party events, and I would like to add my perspective about Ron Paul’s claim on the Tea Party movement.
No one would argue that Ron Paul is without political baggage. From his near-permanent presidential campaign to his earmarking habits to his foreign policy stances, there aren’t many people in politics who haven’t found occasion to take a swipe at him. And while I do number quite a few Ron Paul supporters among both my friends and the members of our local tea party (which oddly sounds like I’m trying to say “some of my best friends are libertarians”), I’ve bottled this one up long enough. In the words of our president, let me be perfectly clear:
RON PAUL IS NOT THE FOUNDER OF THE TEA PARTY MOVEMENT.
There. I said it.
This mantra has been going around for a while, presumably to create warm-fuzzies in tea party types when they look for a presidential candidate. Alternately, it’s used by the media to paint tea party rank-and-file members with the same brush as Paul’s followers and thus discredit them to the larger American audience who don’t “get” them. One could argue the ideological paternity of the movement rests in part with Dr. Paul, and that’s a discussion for another day, but the implication is always that the man himself coordinated, planned and executed this vast groundswell of grassroots activism.
So as this election cycle ramps up, it behooves us to examine the timeline and some of the players in the tea party movement; not as an attack, but as a reminder that wishing something doesn’t make it so.
The phrase “Tea Party” has a historical meaning
We’ve come to think of the Boston Tea Party as a tax protest, but in essence it was a protest against monopoly, as British tea (via India) was essentially dumped on the colonies.That said, tea and taxes have since become inextricably intertwined. I recall news stories where protesters have sent tea bags to Washington D.C. multiple times since the 1980s over various tax outrages. This is nothing new. So a generic “tea party” label says little more about a movement or action than that tax protesting is involved.
Ron Paul’s Tea Party events occurred in 2007 as part of his 2008 Presidential Fundraising Campaign
The date chosen for the fundraising events in 2007 coincided with the Boston Tea Party anniversary. The Paul campaign supporters even called their movement “The Ron Paul Revolution,” in hopes, one guesses, to evoke the Founding Fathers. (Given that the communists loved the word “revolution” in the Twentieth Century, much more recent in memory, perhaps not the best choice) But Brooks Bayne, one of the original founders of the current movement, explains it this way: “A ‘Tea PartyMoney Bomb’ does not equal the modern tea party movement.”
He’s right. The original nationwide tea parties in February 2009 effectively took the pulse of the cities in which they occurred. Organized in just a few days, with microscopic budgets and promoted usually only by social media and word-of-mouth, these groups gathered thousands of people in 50 cities across the country; not to raise funds, but to raise their voices. Fundraising, if done at all, was an afterthought; buckets and jars set out to help organizers defray the cost of the venue. And at these early rallies, asking for funds for a politician, any politician, after the TARP-Auto-Industry-violate-free-market-principles-to-save-the-free-market-system-bailout mess might have ended up with a very unpleasant reaction from the crowd.
Ron Paul’s supporters did not organize the original nationwide events
After Rick Santelli’s historic rant on CNBC sparked nationwide attention on February 19, 2009, the Top Conservatives On Twitter community began to rally immediately to go into action. Brooks recalls the initial daily planning conference calls leading up to the first coordinated event. “Most of the organizers on the calls were first-principle conservatives” he says, noting that there was only one avowed libertarian present for the calls. Many were disaffected Republicans who didn’t believe there was an effective party structure with which to fight the progressive agenda. Others were conservatives who didn’t feel at home in any party structure. All felt the urgency that the fight needed to be joined. None of them ever mentioned Ron Paul.
The tea party phenomenon blossomed into something none of us on those calls were able to anticipate; from huge Tax Day rallies nationwide to a massive march on Washington D.C. to tectonic electoral shifts in 2010. It’s understandable that some politician would like to get some of the credit for kicking it off. But the leaderless, agile, principle-driven movement that is tea party succeeds precisely because it has no “father figure” out in front, in spite of media attempts to stuff everyone from Dick Armey to Ron Paul to Newt Gingrich to Sarah Palin in that role. Tea party has been able to navigate the rough waters of the past two years in spite of every effort to anchor it to a personality.
And that has been deliberate from the very first day.
So far, no one has been able to replicate the success of the tea party, or reproduce its energy, for that matter. Not Ron Paul. Not Newt. Not the RNC. And certainly not the Coffee Party or the No Labels gang, much as they would like to.
Do tea party people believe in some of the ideals that Ron Paul espouses? Certainly. In some of the principles he has run on? Of course. But claiming that he founded the tea party movement, or that somehow all tea party people intend to vote for Paul in the presidential primary, is not only absurd, but shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the political landscape.
Felicia Cravens organized the Houston Tea Party on February 27, 2009, and has been a leader of that organization over the subsequent two years. She can be reached on Twitter at @somethingfishie