"I just can't see the American people sitting back and letting this happen." — overheard April 15, 2010 as two attendees chatted at the Charlotte Tea Party rally.
The question is figuring out what "this" the pair was talking about. Despite efforts to categorize them, Tea Party members resist. The signs being displayed in Charlotte that day certainly told a story: "Welcome to France," "The American Dream Is Not a Handout," Remember in November" and the popular "Don't Tread on Me," with a coiling snake driving home the point. One man I saw wore a tea bag pinned to his shirt.
But after covering the first Tea Party national convention in Nashville in February (for the news website PoliticsDaily.com), after listening to speakers and talking with some in the crowd of 1,000 or so at the Charlotte gathering, I've learned that both clarity and contradictions are hallmarks of the movement -- if it is a unified movement. You see what I mean by contradictions.
After Nashville, I found myself on the mailing lists of all sorts of organizations. Some -- such as the Young Americans for Freedom -- catered to the younger demographic the Tea Party would like to see more of. Others were geography specific, announcing rallies or fund-raisers in a certain part of the country. PJTV -- a conservative online network broadcasting over the Internet -- covers events, offers commentary and is open to anyone with a computer and a few minutes to spare.
In Charlotte, an incomplete list of organizations represented at the two-plus-hour rally includes: We The People NC, North Carolina Fair Tax, Get Out of Our House (which, according to its website, plans "to evict the career politicians from the U.S. House of Representatives"), the Ayn Rand Center, the John Locke Foundation and the Campaign for Liberty, whose representatives passed out copies of the "North Carolina Firearms Freedom Act" that it wants the N.C. State Assembly to pass. (It exempts "from federal regulation under the commerce clause of the Constitution of the United States a firearm, a firearm accessory, or ammunition manufactured and retained in North Carolina.")
The Americans for Prosperity North Carolina's handout urged Gov. Bev Perdue and Attorney General Roy Cooper to join the lawsuits to declare the health care reform bill unconstitutional. (Cooper has said that after review, his office believes the bill is lawful, and Perdue agrees.)
Ken Yarmosh, attending with his wife and daughter, said his beliefs transcended taxes and small government: "If the Lord God isn't in this movement, it will fail. Only God can reconcile this nation," which has, he said, "become an immoral nation."
The Charlotte Tea Party publicized and printed the program for the April 15 event here. It describes itself as "a non-partisan grassroots organization," though it lists a link to the state GOP on the agenda, with advice to "get involved!"
What do all these groups have in common? Though I don't mean to generalize or mischaracterize (they believe the media do that all the time), I think it's fair to say: They don't like the federal government, particularly when it pokes its nose into health care reform; they don't like taxes; and they're none too fond of President Barack Obama. They insist that though Tea Party crowds are overwhelmingly white, they are not racists. While the movement isn't a religious one, God's name usually comes up -- almost as often as that of Sarah Palin, who is admired if not considered a likely presidential candidate. (In Nashville, Palin was greeted like a rock star and she had them cheering before the first word of her speech.)
Charlotte will be able to judge just how much the movement has influenced other organizations when the National Rifle Association holds its annual meeting here May 14 through 16, with Palin -- an in-demand speaker at Tea Party gatherings -- leading a Friday "Celebration of American Values Leadership Forum."
Talk about a big, if somewhat ideologically narrow, tent.
So what comes next? Nothing less than a revolution, according to the message I repeatedly heard, in tones ranging from calm to vitriolic. The Charlotte Tea Party site says: "Revolution Is Brewing!" Many believe that the future of America is at stake, and if there is one slogan that captures the mood, it is: "We've got to take this country back." To where and from whom? Let me count the ways.
The national convention in Nashville was itself controversial, with some announced speakers and Tea Party groups -- such as the American Liberty Alliance and the National Precinct Alliance -- opting to stay away because of the cost (registration was $549) and questions about who would profit. (The same group that organized this first conference is planning a "Unity" convention in Las Vegas in July.)
The confusion wasn't cleared up during an announcement in Nashville of the Ensuring Liberty PAC, a political action committee that would "endorse, support and elect" candidates, according to Mark Skoda, the media director of the National Tea Party Convention who serves as both the chair of the Memphis Tea Party and the new PAC. They would be judged, according to Skoda, on the "first principles" of fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, less government, states' rights and national security, issues that Tea Party groups can agree on.