Georgia View: Reading The Tea Leaves

I'm going to forecast two words you'll be hearing often after this November election. The words will be spoken with a slight smile or a smirking sneer, depending on the direction you prefer your networks and talking heads to lean. The two words? Tea Party.

Twenty-five years ago, on my first visit to New York City, having lunch at the then-new Hard Rock Café, I ordered iced tea with my burger and fries. The waitress almost laughed as I tried explaining “sweet tea,” before she brought sugar to the table. When the check arrived, my burger, fries and tea came to nearly $30. Mystified, I asked the waitress why it was so high. “You had four iced teas, and we don't do free refills,” she snapped while starting to bus the table.

I left the restaurant peeved and feeling gypped (though I still tipped). Our waitress was giggling and pointing as we left, and I could all but feel the condescension. (“Come back soon, Gomer.”)

Anger at taxation without representation, along with a dollop of condescension, helped fuel the original Boston Tea Party, as colonists dumped three shiploads of “pre-taxed” tea into Boston Harbor. That protest became a major catalyst for the American Revolution.

And while the Tea Party has had a lower profile in Georgia than many other states, several of its most prominent promoters have strong Peach State roots. I'll just list a few who’ve played a role in the Tea Party's rapid national expansion and visibility: Glenn Beck (Fox News host, formerly with CNN Headline News in Atlanta); Sean Hannity (who made his jump to national syndication from Atlanta radio); Herman Cain (former Georgia GOP U.S. Senate candidate and now a WSB radio talk host with a growing national following). The Cobb County Tea Party, now the Georgia Tea Party, is one of the largest and strongest chapters in the nation.

I visited a Tea Party rally at the Georgia State Capitol in 2009 and another in 2010 on the Marietta Square. The attendees were predominantly, though not exclusively, white and tended to be over 50, but there were also young families, children and more than a handful of minorities representing the wide spectrum of Georgia's population. These people were anxious, some were angry, but most were simply, very clearly, frustrated with a government they believe does not listen. The majority were concerned not only about the direction of our nation, but also the geometric explosion of national debt becoming a very real threat to their families, their children and their grandchildren.

These folks were not political hacks, and though they were certainly more Republican than Democratic, most labeled themselves Independents, with a healthy number calling themselves Constitutionalists. They were hardly hate mongers, racists or deserving of some of the labels they are drawing from some critics.

I did recognize one thing, though: These folks will be there on Election Day and will make their presence felt. In a mid-term, non-Presidential election, their impact could be substantial.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has played “Tea Party” endorsement maven, and her candidates won more often than not (with the exception, in Georgia, of Karen Handel); but it was votes from conservatives, independents, Libertarians, Tea Party members and even a few Democrats who actually put those candidates over the top.

The most visible Tea-infused race in Georgia played out in the 9th Congressional District, where now Congressman Tom Graves won a special election, general primary and finally a primary run-off to replace former Congressman Nathan Deal.

Graves won with wide-based support, but will acknowledge the role that Tea Party activists of his district played at the polls.

Somewhere a few media elites are having drinks and laughing about the rubes and older Americans in red, white and blue planning their next Tea Party Road Rally via bus. “They're ignorant, they're old, they're just astro-turf controlled by arch-conservative millionaires. Ha, ha, ha.”

If you really want to make sure those Tea Party attendees turn out, remember to laugh – and point. Another cup of Earl Grey, anyone?

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