Everyone agrees that the tea party phenomenon has added new life and energy to the conservative political discussion in the United States. People who haven’t ever involved themselves in politics before can be found in town hall meetings, quoting the Constitution at their elected representatives. Folks who haven’t monitored an election at all in their lives now attend meetings of their local school boards, city councils and water districts. Some of them are even running for office themselves. It’s unmatched in our history, this Great Awakening.
But with it comes the inevitable desire for the shortcut, the “cut to the chase” mentality, the expectations of the Microwave Culture. Tea Party, as a movement, has clocked in at just over a year, and yet the skeptical chorus charges: “Tea parties are ineffective. They’ll never work.” Others on the outskirts of the movement identify themselves as supporters, and may even donate, but essentially boil their interest down to “Just tell me who to vote for.”
Then, drop into this environment the “Celebri-TEAs“, the speakers like Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, so sought after by groups wishing to host the event with the most press coverage. Rumors swirl around the fees Palin gets for these appearances (high-five-figures at minimum.) And the press, rather than covering her speech, covers her costs, hairstyle, wardrobe, mode of transportation. In all the hype, the message is lost or distorted, and the cost of the event leaves people wondering whether the cost was worth the twenty seconds of news coverage allotted to it.
Also around to gather support and bask in hero-worship are the “Poli-TEA-cians“, self-described tea party candidates and elected officials who just want a chance to speak to the crowd and sell them on their tea party credentials. Not satisfied with organizing their own campaign events, they seek to turn every rally into their own self-worship service, telling you how they will “FIGHT FOR YOU” without addressing one issue of substance. They say so little, for someone taking up so much time at a rally.
It’s easy to see the allure of celebrity for an event like a tea party. What organizer wouldn’t want to get credit for organizing THE LARGEST RALLY in their area, in their state, in the nation? The positive press and positive image resulting from hosting such a massive event would be irresistible. And what tea party attendee wouldn’t love to be among the largest crowd, with the potential to see themselves on the evening news? In a nation obsessed with image, in a sound-bite news culture, what the news displays becomes accepted reality.
So again and again, tea party people hold up Palin, Hannity, and Beck and the like, or even local political operators, with the hopes that THIS ONE will lead us all into the promised land, and everything will be all right.
But talk to any real grassroots-level organizer and you find a lot less glamour, and a lot less money, too. After the rallies, the real leaders are picking up the little trash left behind. They’re packing up their vehicles with unsold merchandise and banners and sign-in sheets, which they protect with their lives. They’re answering e-mails at three in the morning, from people who have a dozen questions but haven’t been able to make it to a meeting yet. They’re preparing for meetings, uncertain if they will be welcoming two or two hundred. They’re waking up before dawn to prepare for radio interviews on the latest loony bomber plot, because inevitably the media will want to know whether the loon-du-jour is a member of the tea party.
These leaders don’t get their pictures in the paper, and they certainly don’t command five-figure speaking fees. They’d be happy if just for five minutes a politician listened to them instead of talk. These folks try to balance work and family, pleasure and duty, life and country. More often than not, they hear the voices of the doubters, the naysayers, and the skeptics rather than the encouragement of those who recognize their sacrifices and decide to step up and work alongside them. And when those idols of the movement prove to be profiteers, establishment hacks, opportunists or worse, these leaders get the inevitable questions and complaints, the chorus of “Ineffective!”
Nobody makes a tea party organizer into an idol. And that’s what makes this movement so unique and wonderful. There are hundreds of these web warriors across the country, and more and more joining the ranks every day. They’re frequently dispirited, and yet sincerely hopeful that their efforts will make a difference in the end. Long after the idols have moved on to the next rally and the next paycheck, these are the people left, still organizing, leading, doing the work that needs to be done. They don’t want to be worshiped as idols. They want people to stop making idols out of celebrities and politicians. They don’t want to be seen as saviors. They want people to stop looking for political saviors, and start looking to themselves for the solutions.
And they’d probably also like a nap.
** Felicia Cravens founded the Houston Tea Party Society in February of 2009, and also sits on the board of Katy Tea Party Patriots and Common Sense Texans. She has been a Guest on FOX New’s, The Glenn Beck Show. When not strategizing for tea party events or conducting trainings, she teaches drama in an after school program and enjoys being with her two very understanding daughters and supportive husband. She can be found on Twitter as @somethingfishie.