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Do anti-Trump protests really compare to 2009 Tea Party?

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It’s tempting to compare widespread, influential movements to the Tea Party’s formation in 2009. It was done in 2011 with Occupy and in 2015 with Black Lives Matter.

Now, the 2017 protests against President Trump’s administration are being benchmarked against the Tea Party movement, with observers wondering if a durable political movement will form, elect a congressional class of protest representatives in 2018 and resist the Trump administration’s policies for the next four years.

While it is too early to answer those questions with any precision, the volume of protests thus far this year suggest it is a worthwhile one to consider. To do this, two important dimensions of the tea party are worth considering.

First, from its earliest days, the Tea Party was defined by bold imagery and clear symbolism. The immediate naming of the movement and use of images, such as the coiled “Don’t Tread on Me” snake, alluded to popular notions of American history. These communicated an easily understandable political message of personal freedoms and liberty.

And, while many of the strategies used by the Tea Party were directed at opposing President Obama at every turn, the movement’s messaging suggested broader ambitions for political change and an overhaul of Washington.

Second, the Tea Party wasn’t limited to clever messaging. One of the most interesting aspects of the Tea Party protests of 2009 and 2010 was the association with the formation of a vast network of new organizations, some formal and others informal or virtual.

{mosads}As political scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson showed, nearly a thousand Tea Party-related groups formed within a year of Obama’s election. Some were closely affiliated with existing national organizations, like FreedomWorks, while others were brand-new and loosely tied to new national political networks, such as Tea Party Patriots or Tea Party Nation.


These organizations quickly formed and then drew loyal members. Based on the best recent data, membership in the major Tea Party organizations expanded rapidly from 2009 to 2012, but continued to grow, though at a slower rate, through 2015. As a result, the Tea Party has been a durable political movement, able to rely on this national network of organizations to mobilize voters to support candidates and a largely conservative policy agenda.

Thus far, it is hard to see the clear messaging or the organizational formation associated with the Tea Party in the 2017 protests.

To be sure, the Women’s Marches in January drew millions of supporters of women’s rights, likely more than the Tea Party protests in 2009 (Erica Chenoweth maintains excellent original data at the Crowd Counting Consortium). Subsequent protests supporting immigrants and voting rights and opposing the refugee executive order have regularly attracted large crowds. The recent round of town halls held with members of Congress also seem to be drawing record numbers of constituents.

While many of these protests are targeted at the president, a unifying message or image has not set. Given the variety of concerns expressed — from reproductive rights to immigration policy to healthcare to LGBTQ rights — this may not be a bad thing. Yet this recent period of protest doesn’t yet have the common and consistent messaging as the Tea Party did.

Additionally, while the crowds have been record-breaking and hundreds of civic organizations have been involved in the careful planning of each event, there does not appear to be the same creation of new organizations as we saw in 2009 with the Tea Party.

Now, we are just two months into 2017, and at this point in 2009 few of the Tea Party organizations had moved beyond a quickly designed website. Nevertheless, if new organizations were essential to the Tea Party’s influence, that has not yet defined what is happening today.

In 2009, many commentators focused on whether the Tea Party was a truly authentic grassroots movement or a manufactured Astroturf one. I’ve argued in the past that it was both: an expression of real concerns by citizens organizing around kitchen tables and in local town halls, as well as a well-orchestrated communications strategy supported by major political money.

In 2017, I suspect the same could be said of the recent protests. To be successful, political movements need money and people. Political success comes from organizing and effective strategy.

The important question today seems to be not whether the protests are Astroturf or grassroots, but whether they will build the durable institutions needed to be sustain political action over the next four years.

Following the direction of the Tea Party is one option, but not necessarily the only way forward for protesters.

Heath Brown is an assistant professor of public policy at the City University of New York (CUNY), John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of “Tea Party Divided: The Hidden Diversity of a Maturing Movement” (Praeger, 2015).

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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