In order to judge the significance of the conservative-led demonstration that took place in Washington D.C. this weekend, it is important to begin with a realistic estimate of the number of people who actually participated. This is unusually difficult in this particular case because Matt Kibbe, the President of the organizing group Freedomworks — understandably concerned as he was about the danger of liberal media bias — came up with the innovative solution of simply claiming that ABC news had estimated that1.2 to1.5 million people had participated – something the network itself most emphatically denied ever having done. Several conservative blog posts and tweets later this number had been carefully and judiciously narrowed to an even two million participants, making the demonstration larger not only than Obama’s inauguration – which shut down the entire transportation grid of Washington D.C. — but also the entire population – every man woman and child — of both Delaware and the District of Colombia. Say what you will about chairman Kibbe, whatever he may lack in empirical rigor, he certainly compensates for in audacity.
The only official estimate that was provided – by the Washington D.C. fire department – was that about 60,000-70,000 people participated, a number that was generally in line with standard crowd estimation techniques ( As it happened, because all the marchers were funneled through the narrow rectangle formed by Pennsylvania avenue between the white house and the capitol and time lapse photographs were taken, it was possible to use a number of standard “per square foot” and “flow per minute” crowd estimation formulas to roughly gauge the number of demonstrators. Both methods indicated a crowd size clearly below 100,000).
On the one hand, bringing 60,000-70,000 protestors to Washington is undeniably a substantial achievement, one that firmly establishes the existence of a new kind of conservative political organization – a composite organization that is a fusion of (1) a major TV network that provides popular political commentators and massive free advertising for a demonstration (2) a professionally managed coordinating organization (Freedomworks) that in this case provided $600,000 in direct funds, 14 full-time staff workers for logistics and planning and a robust, technically sophisticated web and social network infrastructure and (3) a set of decentralized social networks that enabled communication among the grass-roots protesters.
Although Freedomworks as an organization is as completely “Astroturf” as any firm in Washington, the large majority of the participants in the demonstration were undeniably “authentic” grass-roots conservatives – they were neither full-time Republican operatives nor members of traditional right-wing organizations. They generally paid their own way to participate in the demonstration and the vast creative and artistic panoply of their hand-made signs – which generally ranged from the histrionic and lurid to the clinically delusional – bespoke a perspective and sensibility that — whatever else it might be — could not seriously be described as regimented and obedient to any organization.
The demonstration apparently left most of the participants feeling optimistic and energized. “We are the real America” they confidently asserted to each other, and “the vast majority of Americans are now waking up” and joining the struggle to “take back our country”
The demonstrators’ sense of having reached an important milestone was not necessarily wrong, but among the organizers and strategists of the protest there was a different perception – that the critical objective of bringing a sufficient mass of protesters to Washington to actually intimidate wavering, “on the fence” members of congress had clearly failed. For this purpose the demonstration would have had to be at least in the 250,000-300,000 range, and preferably around a half a million. The demonstration needed to convince wavering members of congress that the protesters represented more than just the well-known conservative/Republican base and in this critical regard it simply did not succeed.
The consequences for the “Tea Party” (or, as Glen Beck has for some obscure reason renamed it, the “9/12 Movement”) are substantial. Mass demonstrations in Washington D.C that do not achieve their key objectives are subject to a form of diminishing returns. It becomes harder and harder to convince the same number of people to return to Washington for subsequent events. This is particularly the case with a new social movement like the Tea Party protests whose participants can become deeply demoralized when they begin to perceive that their efforts are actually having very little effect on the steady progress of health care reform and other Obama initiatives.
As a consequence, it is likely that by this November or December if not before the Tea Party/9-12 movement will begin to experience a major schism over strategy and tactics.
On the one hand, the more establishment elements of the movement will begin to focus on the 2010 elections. Freedomworks, for example, has already said that the next phase of its work will focus on organizing conservative activists at the level of congressional districts. But the choice of specific candidates will quickly create divisions between the “sensible” Republicans who want to win elections and the Glen Beck/Rush Limbaugh ideologues who will insist on doctrinal purity. Freedomworks will quickly find itself unable to straddle this divide and will be caught in the middle of bitter debates.
At the same time, however, a major sector of the Tea Party/9-12 movement – particularly those who see the conflict in stark Manichean terms – will reject any return to politics as usual. This group will divide into three overlapping but also competing sectors.
1. Groups proposing forms of civil disobedience. Schooled in protests at abortion clinics, these protesters will organize protests at IRS centers or government facilities of various kinds. They will propose that parents withdraw their children from schools or boycott civic activities that they perceive as partisan or ideological.
2. Groups threatening violence or intimidation. Various “skinhead” or other neo-Nazi/Klan oriented groups are already chomping at the bit to join protests under their own banners and wearing their own “macho” regalia (military-style boots, quasi-military dress). At the same time, an increasing number of “militia” types will seek to ostentatiously carry guns and assault rifles at protest demonstrations and “lone wolf” patriotic terrorists will increase the assassination of symbolic individuals and the bombing of “soft” symbolic targets.
3. Groups proposing withdrawal from mainstream society. As in the 1990’s, there will be an increasing number of “survivalist” communities sprouting up in remote areas, religious communities seeking to separate from the local governments and towns in their areas and a growth of “secessionist” ideologies proposing state or local withdrawal from federal jurisdiction – initiatives such as have been proposed in Alaska, Texas and — with Tim Paulenty’s recent effusions — Minnesota.
The likelihood of this kind of fragmentation is so high that conservative activists will likely look back on this summer as the high point of their movement – a time when there was a widespread sense of optimism and general agreement over a broad set of issues, tactics and goals.
To be sure, Republicans will desperately try to deny, conceal or ignore the tensions that will emerge. They will seek to convince Democrats that Republicans and the Republican Party should not be blamed for the opinions and activities of the conservative “fringe” even as they blow ideological “dog whistles” signaling the fringe so loudly that vast numbers of unfortunate household pets howl, bay and whimper in heart-wrenching paroxysms of aural pain and dismay.
Democrats should not let Republicans get away with this. They should insistently ask “Do you agree with Glen Beck about this?”, “Do you think Obama is really a socialist? “Or a Fascist?”, “Or born in Kenya?”, or “is it really OK to call the president a liar?’, “To keep children out of school when the president speaks?”, “To carry guns to town halls?”
There will be a constant succession of wedge issues along these lines – issues that become critical litmus tests of “toughness” for the movement right but which are embarrassing distractions for Republican candidates seeking moderate votes. Democrats should be absolutely dedicated to keeping these wedge issues on the front burner. The operational criterion is simple – Republicans seeking support from moderate voters should be on the defensive literally all the time.
Many Dems find this kind of politics distasteful. They prefer reasoned debates about the “real issues” to shouting matches with the Becks, Limbaugh’s and O’Reilly’s of the world.
Such delicate flowers have full permission to step away. There are now more than enough Dems who are sick and tired of being accused of planning to murder their elderly parents and set up concentration camps for people they disagree with to happily step up and slug it out toe to toe with the political representatives of the Republican slander machine.