News & Features

At Tea Party Protests, a Question of Who’s to Blame

Demonstrators Rail Against Republicans and Democrats Alike

Midway through his April 15 radio show, conservative broadcaster Sean Hannity and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich were lauding each other for helping to foment the grassroots tax day “Tea Party” protests taking place at hundreds of locations throughout the country. Hannity and Gingrich gleefully framed the rallies as a reaction to the policies of President Barack Obama, but if the demonstrations in Kalispell and Polson were any measure, the ire of Flathead Tea Party protesters was directed just as much at mainstream national Republican figures like Gingrich and Hannity as it was for Obama.

“They seem to be trying to blame Democrats for what happened when a lot of this started under Bush,” Shawn Bailey of the Campaign for Liberty, an outgrowth of the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign, said at the Kalispell protest. “It’s not left, it’s not right, we’ve got to get back to the Constitution.”

Bailey said his group has been holding tea parties to protest high taxes, in the model of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, since 2007 and that the movement began there, and not with an on-air rant Feb. 19 by CNBC journalist Robert Santelli over a bailout for mortgage defaulters, as was widely reported.

That a CNBC financial reporter is credited for sparking the Tea Party protests is just one of many misconceptions and exaggerated characterizations of the demonstrations portrayed in the media during the weeks preceding April 15. Mischaracterized by some right-wing media outlets as being anti-Democrat, Flathead demonstrators – while clearly conservative or libertarian in their political beliefs – took pains to emphasize the nonpartisan nature of their frustration.

Similarly criticized by some liberal blogs as being tools of organizations promoting the rallies funded by industry and the GOP, the demonstrations in Polson and Kalispell were homegrown efforts. Polson residents Becky Upton and Annette Schiele organized the rally there, and Kalispell’s tax day protest didn’t appear to have any organizer at all.

Instead, both protests drew between 150 and 200 people each, many of whom held signs protesting everything from high taxes to federal bailouts to the Federal Reserve Bank to potential gun control measures. For some protesters, their frustration was aimed squarely at the size of the national debt, and fear that it could be passed on to future generations. Bill Cenis of Plains, and his wife Pat, attended rallies in Kalispell and Polson, where they brandished a sign reading “Our grandkids’ future hijacked by D.C. pirates.”

“Our government’s gotten out of control with the spending,” Cenis said. “Our grandkids are going to have to pay for it.”

Bob Young of Bigfork held a sign reading “Keep the Change…I’ll keep my freedom, my guns and my money.” The owner of the Echo Lake Café, Young said he was a Republican but has grown frustrated with a system where entrenched politicians are more concerned about getting re-elected than good public policy.

“They’re not worried about the long-term future of this country – it’s ridiculous,” Young said. “I hope they know that we’re going to throw them all out if they don’t change course here and start cutting back.”

But while many demonstrators had specific concerns, others seemed to be protesting authority in general. Also in Kalispell, Bruce Wann wore a mask of the British revolutionary Guy Fawkes, like the main character from the dystopian film and comic book, “V for Vendetta.” Standing on the sidewalk in front of the mall with a handgun stuck in his belt, he held up a sign reading “Nazi Checkpoint Ahead.”

Wann explained he hadn’t made the sign for the Tea Party protests, but instead regularly used it to warn motorists when local law enforcement set up checkpoints, which he believes represent unreasonable searches and seizures. Wann also railed against the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Federal Reserve and gun control legislation introduced in Congress.

“I’m not a supporter of the Nazis, I just see where we’re going,” Wann said. “We’re going back to Nazi Germany and fascism, with government running corporations.”

Similarly, at the Polson rally, where demonstrators braved a biting wind coming off Flathead Lake, speakers delivered both focused political critiques alongside others who indulged in broad diatribes against society’s decline.

Retired doctor David Myerowitz, who lives up the North Fork, expressed concern over ballooning national debt and the bailouts, and said other Obama policy initiatives, like healthcare reform and regulation of carbon emissions was “sure to destroy what is left of the economy.”

“Do we need better oversight? You bet we do,” Myerowitz said to cheers. “We may be the silent majority, but we don’t have to stay silent.”

But Myerowitz was followed by Gil Mangles, founder of the Miracle of America Museum, whose remarks ranged from encouraging people to stock provisions in preparation for “hard times” to railing against the American Civil Liberties Union and the teaching of sex education in public schools. Mangles concluded his remarks by urging the children present to open lemonade stands this summer as a way to learn how capitalism works.

The mixed messages conveyed at the Tea Party demonstrations have become common to protests on the left and right in the modern era. But James Lopach, chair of the political science department at the University of Montana, warns that a lack of focus can dilute a political movement’s impact. He lists three key factors that make political demonstrations effective: a sharply focused message; a clearly defined target; and grassroots passion on the part of protesters.

“If these things are present the chances of it being effective are much greater,” Lopach said. “If they’re coming from average citizens, average voters, they are more effective than if these groups are being manipulated by some larger interest.”

A fourth factor Lopach noted was the whether the protesters’ message was spreading. On that count, it remains to be seen if there will be more Tea Parties in the Flathead’s future, and whether momentum will swell toward the 2010 elections and beyond, but demonstrators present indicated such rallies were just getting started.

“I think this is a first go-around at this,” Young, at the Kalispell protest, said. “This is just the beginning.”

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