I studied and wrote about the Tea Party for the better part of five years. The protests today—how they came about, how they brought distinct political interest groups together, how they connected first-time protesters—echo very closely the nascent Tea Party protests of 2009. The key in transforming those first Tea Party protests into an effective political movement (however misguided and misinformed they were) was the conversion of their political awakening into an incredibly disciplined small-group movement.
After their large protests—especially on “Tax Day” and then again on July 4th, 2009—small groups started meeting weekly, relentlessly, to talk, organize, recruit, and educate themselves (though we might disagree on the meaning of “educate”). The social power of those small groups gave the wider national movement whatever legitimacy it had, and attracted the big players in the conservative establishment that then poured a good deal of money in behind the scenes.
Being in those small groups—week in, week out, for *years*—is what made them more than just a noisy anti-Obama circus. They planned, they acted, and then they repeated the process. They elected State Reps, Congressional Reps, and Governors. They pushed John Boehner around like a kid on the playground. And the bulk of that was because they *refused to stop.* I disagree profoundly with what they stood for and how they achieved their goals (often based on misinformation and/or outright lies), but I have to give them credit: they had fortitude.
So, in order to transform today’s events into something durable and action-oriented, we all will need to commit to new levels of civic engagement. We need to meet more, speak more, and do more than we ever thought we could. If we are serious about changing our national political reality, we need to get serious about changing our local political reality, and that means changing our personal political reality.
It’s an invaluable gift from the framers of the Constitution and the political activists who have kept the spark of democratic action alive in the United States. It takes an enormous amount of work to keep it running… but the stakes are too high, and the rewards too precious, to miss this golden opportunity.