It seems to me that one reason the political establishment snickered so much at the tea parties last week was that so many of the events looked amateurish. For instance, the crude handwritten signs carried by the tea partiers were clumsy-looking compared to the professionally printed placards handed out by union organizers and advocacy groups at May Day rallies, antiwar protests, Earth Day confabs, and pretty much every other “good” protest of the last 40 years. As fans of P. J. O’Rourke have been pointing out, while the Left has created a sizable protest-industry over the last half-century or so, conservatives have had these things called “jobs.”
But that’s not entirely fair, since many left-wing protesters have such activities written in to their job descriptions. Unions, almost by definition, are professional demonstrators taking to the picket line whenever they don’t get their way. Whenever Washington seems poised to do something un-progressive, the appropriate special interest group has a phalanx of grannies, moms, left-behind children, cancer survivors, three-legged dogs, asthmatic cats, and men who have suffered erections lasting longer than four hours but failed to visit the emergency room like the voiceover guy in the Levitra commercials told them to. No less than the current president of the United States once had a gig working as a trainer for ACORN, the Cirque de Soleil of professional agitation.
Meanwhile, what we used to call the “silent majority” of Americans don’t really know how to do people-power (personally, it’s one of the things I like about them). With the exception of the occasional pro-life march, the Right is generations behind the Left on this stuff, which is one reason why they found it necessary to go back to 1773 — the original Boston Tea Party — to find a useful precedent.
The interesting question for me is whether the mainstream press understands any of this. Last week, I did a lot of TV about the tea parties and talked to a lot of professional reporters and liberals and read up on this stuff more than I normally would. It seems to me that there’s a lot of confusion out there. Some folks clearly think the tea parties are a GOP ploy, and therefore mockable as astroturfy faux populism. Others think it was real right-wing populism and therefore very scary and racist (see Janeanine Garofalo for some very highly distilled idiocy on this point). But what you don’t hear much from critics of the tea parties is any acknowledgement that most of the major rallies and protests from left-wing groups over the last few decades have been mostly orchestrated affairs by Democratic-affiliated groups and very professional protesters. In other words, whether they believed the tea parties were real or fake, there seemed to be an undercurrent of scorn stemming merely from the fact that conservatives haven’t polished their act nearly so well as the Left has.
As an inactivist, I think the amateurishness of the protests is something to take pride in. Protesting isn’t supposed to be a way of life.
Update: This post on Ten Things You Didn’t See At the Tea Parties is nice confirmation of the above, or at least points 1 thru 9. Point #10 is, well, yucky.