Tea Partiers: Not all whackjobs

Encounters with Tea Partiers reveal movement’s authenticity

By Hannah Koch

I have a confession to make.

I skipped Sosc class to go to the Tax Day Tea Party downtown.

The irony did not escape me. In that same class I heard Glenn Beck called crazy, heard my left-leaning professor subtly praise Marx, and heard criticisms of the free market.

I got varying reactions when I admitted I was going. A friend said, “They’re all whacko.” Others gave me strange looks. One said, “Well, hopefully they’ll be more reasonable than the ones at home.” My Sosc professor wryly stated, “I’ve failed in my duties as a Marxist.”

But if the U of C has drummed one thing into my head, it’s this: Don’t trust secondary authorities. Find out for yourself. Use primary sources. Make your own interpretations.

So I decided to see for myself if the Tea Party was as full of whackjobs as everyone says it is. I decided if I was going to go, I was going to be hard-core about it—I needed to blend in with the crowd. I wore my Adam Smith t-shirt. I carried a sign with a classy side (the Revolutionary War–era Gadsden flag saying “Don’t Tread on Me”) and an un-classy side (“Don’t Steal: The Government Hates Competition”). I decided to go an hour before the event started to talk with people.

And what I saw surprised me. At 11:00, there was only a small crowd. But Daley Plaza gradually began to fill, until the crowd was more than a thousand strong. The event opened with the singing of the national anthem. I thought it was amazing that Tax Day could be reminiscent of the Fourth of July. It was pretty powerful, to be standing there with a thousand people, flags waving, all united in love of this country. One woman behind me said she got goosebumps.

All of the signs had to do with fiscal restraint and personal responsibility, and they ranged from “Fiscal Responsibility is the Corollary of Freedom” to Obama-as-Gollum saying “Your profits are my precious.” By far the most popular sign was “Don’t Tread on Me.” The majority of people were white, over age 50, although there were quite a few exceptions. I saw some families (with the kids carrying signs saying “Don’t Tax My Allowance”), twenty-somethings, Asian-Americans, and African-Americans. The speeches focused on changing Illinois politics, rather than national politics (most likely because a change on the national scale is rather far-fetched in Obama’s home state).

I began talking with the alleged racist, bigoted whackjobs. A young man, well-versed in history and political thought, complimented my t-shirt and asked if I was a classical liberal. His family owns a small business near O’Hare, and he was campaigning for a candidate for Cook County Board President. Is he a whackjob?

I ran into a middle-aged couple, the man holding a sign that said, “Smoke the Pork.” His wife had rented two school buses to ferry anyone who wanted to come from their suburb. I asked if they were an organized group. “Nope,” they said. “Just friends of ours.” I asked them why they were here. The woman said it was nice to know that other people believe the same thing she believes, so that she knows she’s not alone. Her husband put it more succinctly: “It’s group therapy.” Are they whackjobs?

I met a 75-year-old woman from Wilmette who said it was her first time at a political rally. After I told her that I was pre-med, she admitted that she was a retired physician. She had graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1944 (“long before you were born!” she said). She said very few medical schools were accepting women, which is why she went to Hopkins. Because of the war, med school was only three years. After she graduated she got married and had eight kids, so she only worked part-time. She was an incredible lady. Any feminist organization should be celebrating women like her: gutsy, forward-thinking, and independent. Is she a whackjob?

What struck me was the non-hierarchical nature of the participants. Yes, there was a central organization that got the speakers and officially ran the show, but none of the participants belonged to any official organization. Most people (including myself) had never been to a political rally before. They were simply a group of ordinary Americans.

The ideals I saw represented were not radical: fiscal responsibility, personal liberties, concern for economic growth. Most signs claimed to be harking back to the Founder’s principles—a laudable goal. It showcased a broader, mainstream concern that big government and big taxes will crowd individual freedom.

In the taxi ride home, we drove past Daley Plaza, and my taxi driver asked what the rally was for. I summed it up like this: “It is people protesting for less government spending and more personal freedom.” He said, “Those are good things.” Later, he said, “I wish I could do stuff like that.”

If even my taxi driver is inspired, it shows that the movement is not a bunch of racist bigots, but much more widespread.

The Founding Fathers would be proud.

— Hannah Koch is a second-year in the College.