There were loads of creative, homemade signs at an April 15 anti-tax rally downtown — like "Don't Tax Me Bro." Those in the back bobbed their heads to the left and right to see past a "Vote Them Out" sign thrust up in the middle of the crowd while Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) told supporters, "We're going to take back our country."
Taking back? Only five months ago, America's conservative movement lost its spot in the Oval Office — due in equal parts to gross mismanagement, charismatic opposition, and a perception that the party had no discernible map out of the cavernous, bleak recession.
The thousands of Tax Day Tea Party protests held across the country last week prove two things. First, that the grassroots, libertarian (with a lower case "l") movement that gained its footing under Ron Paul has grown. And second, that the GOP rank and file are more than happy to commiserate over a couple bags of tea while progressives get childish giggles over the teabagging euphemism.
Dried-up Tea Bags Are a State of Mind
DeMint, who has railed against federal spending on pet projects for years, was preaching to the choir last week on the steps of the Old Custom House, telling the crowd of more than 2,000 that America wasn't getting a return on its investment in November.
"The only change coming to Washington is the change from your wallet," said DeMint, who is running for reelection next year.
After becoming a political punching bag because of his opposition to stimulus spending in South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford gave the welcoming audience an easy tagline for his presumed presidential run in 2012: "Not a penny more."
Other than politicians, the events put the spotlight on frustrated voters and a few confused children who were seemingly examples of those burdened with our debt. Aside from a spontaneous suggestion from one speaker that the crowd chase the communists out of Washington, the message stuck to some variation of the motto, "Don't Tread On Me."
The events last week, particularly in South Carolina, were notable for their strong numbers, including ordinary people that don't typically show up to these things, says Blease Graham, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.
"This gets to be a powerful statement of ordinary people," he says. "Middle class folks are feeling particularly stressed right now."
Tossing tea bags may seem silly, but stunts like these are effective in pulling bystanders off the fence — getting them onto the field in cautious support, or driving them up into the stands to mock the spectacle with the rest of the progressives.
It also gives Republicans the kind of affirmation that is hard to find in Washington these days.
"The Democrats pitched a shutout with the stimulus," Graham says. "This may be one way the Republican Party can find a political voice."
S.C. political historian Jack Bass, a professor at the Citadel, says that, while well organized, the Tax Day Tea parties don't compare to other political rallies and only seemed to appeal to conservatives.
Though the events were billed as non-partisan, the majority of the crowd could generously be described as conservative. A few of the signs told the story of a collection of random right-leaning principles. Things like "Abortion: Not With My Tax Dollars" and "More Aliens = More Taxes."
George Tempel, Charleston County chair of the Democratic Party, wonders where these folks were last year and the year before that. "Where were these people when the Bush administration was pouring money down a sand hole in a war to bring change to a country that didn't want it?" Tempel asks.
The answer, at least for the staunchest anti-tax folks, is that they were at a Ron Paul rally.
The Ron Paul Revolution Redux
There's been some grumbling among members of the Libertarian Party that their trademark indignation has been supplanted by Republicans, but the truth is in the numbers. When Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr made a Lowcountry stop, he was met by a few dozen curious college students. When Republican candidate Ron Paul came to Charleston, he was greeted like a rock star by hundreds of supporters.
As grassroots movements go, Paul's campaign has really only been bested by President Obama's flawless climb over Mt. Clinton. And Paul is no newcomer to the Tea Party metaphor. In a 2007 online fund-raising pitch on the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Paul pulled in more than $6 million for his presidential primary.
What was unfamiliar this year was having all of these fellow Republicans who all but branded him as a kook in the campaign now standing beside him to figuratively toss some tea into the harbor.
"It seems so strange that when I was involved in the presidential campaign, the last thing they wanted to do was to acknowledge or associate themselves with anything that I did," Paul tells the City Paper.
Not willing to say, "I told you so," Paul seems genuinely pleased to have the company this year. But he wants people dedicated to the movement, not fair weather anti-federalists.
"I think this happens all the time in political movements," he says. "They get diluted as people creep in and want to take advantage. If they think our numbers are 25 percent, they know they can't ignore us any longer."
Paul, who always seemed wary of taking the reigns of his own movement, continues to stress that it is the voice of frustrated voters, not his, that is fueling the revolution.
"This is not us," he says. "It's not like there's a national organization of tea parties run by Ron Paul. It's truly spontaneous and reflects how utterly frustrated the average person is."
The GOP establishment has started paying attention, but Paul wants to make sure they're really listening to the crowds.
"I think that's a challenge for us, to make sure these tea parties stand for solid principles," Paul says.