The Tea Party: Then and Now
By: Michael Johns
The largest and most impactful political movement, at least since the civil rights movement and perhaps in all of American history, originated in the minds and efforts of less than a dozen American citizens.
It was late February 2009, just weeks after the inauguration of Barack Obama, and there was every reason for conservatives to fear the worst: That we had elected a polarizing, far left and ultimately ineffectual president who would prove a threat to constitutional law, our economy and America’s global standing in the world. Most concerning was that he would gradually or even quickly erode our nation’s two centuries of respect for individual rights and liberties upon which America was founded, “fundamentally transforming” (as he promised) our nation in destructive ways.
On the morning of February 19, 2009, as was often the case, I had the financial media outlet CNBC playing on a distant television in my suburban Philadelphia home. This particular cold February morning, Rick Santelli, a Chicago-based CNBC reporter, was doing his usual stand-up reporting from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade (COMEX). Santelli began reporting on Washington’s federal subsidies of housing under Obama when mid way through his report his sense of outrage began to escalate passionately.
Santelli accused the Obama administration of “promoting bad behavior” in subsidizing mortgages then at default risk with a $75 billion housing program, known as the Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan. He then turned and, while still live on CNBC, stated assertively to COMEX floor traders: “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party!” Santelli’s suggestion of a Tea Party response to the federal government’s overreach was greeted with supportive applause and whistles of approval from COMEX traders. Santelli then said: “What we are doing in this country is making our founders roll over in their graves.”
I found Santelli’s Chicago comments accurate, inspirational and even bold for a mainstream reporter in a media world that really never challenged Obama on much of anything during or since the 2008 campaign. What I did not realize was that his remarks were viewed similarly by several other conservative-leaning Americans, who would go on to inspire a national political movement that would shake the nation.
Just a few days following Santelli’s rant, 12 or so conservative activists, including me, were invited to participate in a strategic organizing Tea Party conference call moderated by Nashville-based, Stanford educated conservative Michael Patrick Leahy. It was Leahy who earlier launched the now famous #tcot (Top Conservatives on Twitter) hashtag, where it remains today one of Twitter’s most commonly used hashtags and a key methodology for conservative communication.
Most on the call, unlike me, were new to political engagement. They had largely never worked in government, public policy or politics. Aside from Leahy and me, the others had never managed an organization either. They had largely never written or spoken on political or public policy themes, even though all of us would soon be called upon to articulate our Tea Party message nationally in the weeks to come. Most had never even worked on a political campaign. But the passion on that call was infectious. The 12 or so of us left it with a feeling that a potentially influential national political movement was emerging—and quickly.
Several follow-up calls were scheduled, and they led us to devise a now well-known plan for Tea Party protests across the nation on Tax Day, April 15, 2009. The aggressive six-week timeline, like much that the Tea Party movement has undertaken since its creation, was organized hastily, with a sense of urgency, and not without its errors. But April 15, 2009, is now a fairly notable day in American history in the sense that it was the physical manifestation of a national political movement, comprising tens of millions of Americans and quite possibly the largest in American history, that would go on to impact significantly the nation’s political debate.
The day of April 15, 2009, was a busy one. For my part, in the afternoon, on Boston Square in downtown Boston, just blocks from the original Sam Adams-led Tea Party on December 16, 1773, I spoke to a large and passionate crowd furious with Obama and the country’s direction. I then left Boston to speak that evening at one of the nation’s largest tea parties of the day, held in lower Manhattan, not far from the memorialized 9/11 attack location. Three days later, on the grounds of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, I spoke for a third time in just three days to a very large and vibrant Tea Party rally organized by the Independence Hall Tea Party Association, of which I was then an officer.
The years 2009 and 2010 were full of flurry and a sense of urgency for the national Tea Party movement, an urgency that has continued to this day. In 2010, in Quincy, Illinois, where Lincoln held his sixth debate with U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas on October 13, 1858, I joined Leahy and the late media personality Andrew Breitbart in addressing a large Tea Party crowd on the precise location where Lincoln pointedly articulated his anti-slavery message: “We (the Republican Party) also oppose it as an evil so far as it seeks to spread itself,” Lincoln said that day in Quincy.
By this time, the message of our movement was being refined and polished, comprised mostly of three universal themes that were and continue to be broadly popular with the American people: First, the federal government has grown too big and its taxes vastly too excessive. Second, the sovereignty of the United States—in controlling its borders, in developing its national security and foreign policies — must be defended at all costs. And third, that the U.S. Constitution was a document containing absolute truths to which government needed to adhere if it was to avoid lawlessness and chaos.
As I was in Boston and New York City, Leahy and others organized one of the day’s largest and most successful events in Nashville, drawing thousands. In downtown Chicago, just a couple blocks from where the Santelli rant heard round the world took place, another Tea Party founder organized a large and hugely successful Tea Party rally. His name was Eric Odom.
Quickly, the passionate and activism of this small cadre spread to thousands, then tens of thousands, and ultimately to millions of Americans who identified themselves as being supportive of the Tea Party movement. On November 2, 2010, a highly motivated Tea Party movement rocked the nation, sending 65 new Republican House members to Washington and thus forcing then Speaker Nancy Pelosi to surrender her gavel to new Republican John Boehner. Four years later, on November 4, 2014, the Tea Party movement again proved a huge difference maker, further increasing Republican presence in the U.S. House and increasing its U.S. Senate seats by nine, including pulling out wins in hugely contentious races in many states, including Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, and South Dakota.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. House of Representatives, a Tea Party Caucus, chaired by former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, had been developed with the movement’s input to coordinate the Tea Party agenda in Congress. And the national strategy discussions continued. In Chicago, for instance, Odom and I spent three long days in detailed discussion on the movement’s strategy, messaging and allocation of limited resources.
In the months and years since, along with other Tea Party founders from the February 2009 conference call, we continued tireless efforts of what by then had become a vast, influential, though sometimes chaotically organized movement of political consequence. All the Tea Party movement founders from Leahy’s first conference call are impressive in their own ways, and have their own personal stories about what sparked their leadership in this now historical movement.
In the years that followed, along with other national Tea Party leaders, Leahy, Odom and I crisscrossed the nation articulating the Tea Party message and helped to organize the movement politically in order to prevail in elections.
In Dallas, Leahy organized a national Tea Party leadership meeting that included many of the founders from the original February 2009 call participated. “Let’s begin this meeting with a prayer to God for His guidance of this movement,” I suggested privately to Leahy, who agreed. We began the meeting exactly that way. Later, also in Dallas, we organized a two-day training course for regional and other Tea Party leaders on political and public policy activism.
One of those leaders was Chicago-based Eric Odom. In fall 2010, from Las Vegas, we poured ourselves into the campaign of Nevada State Senator Sharron Angle in hopes of replacing the Obama administration’s strongest U.S. Senate ally, Harry Reid. As the movement’s prominence (and the associated strategic questions facing it) evolved, Odom and I spent several days in Chicago asking and discussing those questions and developing our best answers. And there was the day in Philadelphia where I invited Odom to join me in addressing an important pre-election Tea Party rally held on the iconic grounds of Independence Hall in front of the very building where 56 founders of our nation pledged with a “firm reliance of the protection of divine providence,” their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to remove imperial British forces and rule and establish a self-governed nation rooted in liberty and the rule of law.
The Tea Party movement’s efforts, as even its detractors would concede, have since proven hugely consequential, ensuring that Obama, at least since 2011, was not given full reign of the legislative and executive branches of government. A Tea Party-influenced Republican House and Senate, along with our extensive grassroots efforts, have held liberal Obama’s agenda at bay, despite the Tea Party’s ultimate inability to defeat Obamacare.
Since that first February 2009 conference call, the founding and ongoing development of the historic Tea Party movement is one of many intriguing personal stories, and a singular collective story. Along the way, we have done many things well (removing Pelosi and then Reid as Speaker and Majority Leader, respectively). We have strengthened the Republican Party as a party that stands more than before for conservative principles expressed (but too often ignored) in the GOP platform. We also quickly obliterated the 2008 progressive political culture that maintained that Obama was a man who singularly held the answers for the nation. Time has proven those ideas were not at all innovative and were actually just a rewording of those from the liberal playbook of more government and more taxes. In all these ways, since those February 2009 planning calls, the national Tea Party movement has exceeded the accomplishments of the effective and well-constructed 2008 Obama for America campaign that ultimately propelled Obama to the presidency.
All this history is important because it reaffirms the veracity of Margaret Mead’s famous statement: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” It’s worth asking: If those first organizing calls had not been launched, would Republicans today control the U.S. Senate and House? If no, that means that Obama’s entire far-left political agenda would have been rubber stamped by an equally liberal Congressional leadership. Has the Tea Party movement saved the nation? I believe it likely has.
Yet, to be truthful about the inner workings of the Tea Party movement, we have done many things well, but failed in others. In 2015, the Tea Party and patriot movement’s top priority must be communicating and impacting public opinion and explaining why and how Tea Party principles can make America great again: creating jobs and economic prosperity, restoring rigid adherence to the U.S. Constitution, and restoring a strong America that can defeat serious national security threats.
With a reliance on divine providence again, let’s roll back this utterly destructive, unconstitutional government and welcome in a century or more of strong liberty leadership. Next step: We must explain our Tea Party vision and solutions for America.