Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tax day tea parties

Out of curiosity and not for a story for the paper, I spent part of my lunch hour checking out one of today's three scheduled tax day "tea parties" in Redding, Calif., near where I live.

It was no doubt much like the hundreds of other rallies in small- to mid-sized towns across the country. A couple hundred people lined the street in front of Redding's city hall, which has been derisively called the "Taj Majal" because of its ostentatious design and presence. Some of the demonstrators carried signs in a silent march around the building.

Because of the date, these gatherings have frequently been described today as "tax protests," and there was certainly no shortage of that at the Redding rally. One participant told people that the tax code would take you about 300 hours to read, but by the time you were done reading it, it would have changed.

The conversations I heard among the demonstrators covered a plethora of subjects, not just taxes. One person mentioned something he'd seen on Glenn Beck's program; another said he loved Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who asserted his support yesterday for state "sovereignty" under the 10th Amendment; and a woman talked about an argument she had with President Obama supporters about the concept of "Democratic socialism."

Several people were passing out leaflets for another protest planned for tonight at the Sundial Bridge, a recently built Redding landmark that has also been the object of some government-spending angst. They're going to dump tea into the Sacramento River; what strikes me as funny is that the packages will be sealed so as not to irk environmentalists or the government, according to a local newspaper report. Somebody's going to dump fish feed into the river, though. (What was that purported John Adams quote about having to offend somebody?)

"We just want to make a point. We don't want to hurt the fish," one organizer told me.

I saw signs that opposed abortion, illegal immigration and big government. Other signs read, "Taxed Enough Already," "Stop spending," and "Tea'd off."

What I didn't see, however, was any sign that today's tea party protests will have a lasting effect. There were no petitions going around, nobody was signing people up for this organization or that, etc. That was my curiosity -- whether these protests were a one-day flash-in-the-pan opportunity to vent, or whether they were the start of a larger movement.

Granted this was Redding, and there may have been more signs of activism at some of the big-city rallies. I heard on the radio that some politician was drumming up support at a Sacramento rally to recall a legislator that had sponsored tax increases.

Wall Street Journal columnist Glenn Harlan Reynolds believes there is a budding movement. He writes:

Will these flash crowds be a flash in the pan? It's possible that people who demonstrate today will find that experience cathartic enough -- or exhausting enough -- that that will be it. But it's more likely that the tea-party movement will have an impact on the 2010 and 2012 elections, and perhaps beyond.

What's most striking about the tea-party movement is that most of the organizers haven't ever organized, or even participated, in a protest rally before. General disgust has drawn a lot of people off the sidelines and into the political arena, and they are already planning for political action after today.

I didn't see much of that in Redding, though, at least at the first of its rallies. And you would figure smallish towns like Redding would be the hotbed of the kind of populist uprising that the organizers of these tea parties want.

Only time will tell if this movement has any legs. But most movements increase their supporters by working within the political system with meaningful proposals for change, not through wistful talk of secession or storming the halls of Congress.

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