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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Tea Parties: Laugh At the Craziness, But Also Watch and Learn

If you’re a progressive who has paid attention to the Tea Party protests, there’s been a lot to laugh about.
First, after weeks of build up, we’ve learned that many of these gatherings were small, and on the East Coast at least, rain-drenched affairs. The Right had been comparing this event to the Iraq War protests, which engaged tens of millions across the globe, and whatever this is, it isn’t that. Nate Silver estimates that around 250,000 people participated, which as we noted earlier puts turnout below the pro-immigration rallies three years ago.
Second, the guy who helped to launch this idea in the popular imagination — CNBC personality Rick Santelli — couldn’t be bothered to attend one of these Tea Parties himself. In fact, he told reporters, “I have to work to pay my taxes so I’m not going to be able to get away today.”
Third, it turns out that a lot of people interested in these protests have no idea that the phrase ‘tea bagging’ has some pretty strong sexual connotations. So much so that FreedomWorks — Dick Armey’s group that has done so much to organize today’s fun — took to distributing flyers at the protests, telling fellow conservatives not to get duped.
And, it is pretty clear that some very traditional powers-that-be in the conservative movement, in an effort to prove their own relevancy, did a lot to make these supposedly-grassroots protests a reality. Brian Beutler, among others, has convincingly shown that this idea was conceived by FreedomWorks and helped along the way by it and organizations like Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions. As we noted in a staff post this yesterday, that’s astroturfing.
But …
We live in a time of hyperconnectivity. Even an event pulled together with extensive centralized planning can take on a life of its own through the Internet. I suspect that’s exactly what happened here.
A search for “Tax Day Tea Party” returns 4,100,000 results on Google. No matter how effort FreedomWorks put into this thing, they could not generate that kind of attention alone.
More telling still, #teaparty is currently one of the most popular hashtags on Twitter and has been for days. As we’ve discussed before, there isn’t a better tool for online organizing, and yesterday’s protests are dominating discussion on the service.
My point is that Democrats shouldn’t dismiss these protests out of hand. While this thing may have begun artificially, it has developed some real roots along the way.
The Right doesn’t have much experience with activism like this, and we’re all learning about the best ways to engage the public in the age of the Internet.
But we dismiss yesterday’s events at our own peril. Conservatives aren’t simply going to wait for the Obama presidency to end before they try to re-assume power. And they’re quickly learning some cool new tricks that we’d do well to study also.

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