Wandering around in the crowd at the Capitol last Wednesday, it was tempting to engage in parsing the signage. True to the "grassroots" nature of the event, many of the Fox News-inspired participants made their own signs rather than use the prepackaged slogans provided by the principal sponsor, Americans for Prosperity. Many called for abolishing "the Fed," which seemed to be a central concern for many. Whether that meant the Federal Reserve Bank, the federal government, or the IRS wasn't clear. Groups wanting to recall Governor Doyle, President Obama, Representative Baldwin, and Dane County Executive Falk were in evidence, and the classic theme of "Don't tread on me" resounded in flags and banners. Aside from a few local police officers, I saw not a single black face in the crowd.
While Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus, Vicki McKenna, and a list of other Republican stalwarts did their best to ignore the party's massive losses in the last April and November elections and to pretend it was a nonpartisan event, the crowd managed to rouse themselves in boos and catcalls whenever the names of the evil Democrats in office were mentioned.
But the real anger seemed to be focused on anything that contained the word "social." Many signs denounced "socialists," which seems to have replaced "liberals" and "communists" as a boogieman de jure. Higher taxes were a "socialist evil" that "kill the American dream." Bound up with "the Fed," the national debt has become the symbol of the "social welfare" system that threatens "hard working" families, as in "Your (sic) putting my kids in debt!" The "your" referred variously to immigrants, taxers, government employees, current office holders, and, in the one-word summary that failed Dane County Executive candidate Nancy Mistele told me afterward, "entitlements." (Mistele was working the last dregs of the crowd well after most had left; apparently she thought her election was still winnable with enough turnout from outside the city of Madison.)
Two sign-carriers caught my attention enough to engage them in conversation. The first, a 24-year military veteran now living in Pardeville, was wearing a brown sweater with elephants marching across the chest and had a hand-lettered sign: "Your dog has birth papers, do you, Mr. President?" He went into an elaborate description of the typeface and design problems on Obama's birth certificate, which to him were proof that Obama was a "usurper" really born in Kenya, and that all decisions made by his administration were "null and void." Claiming that there were four Supreme Court Justices ready to vote to overturn the election on these grounds, he blamed the liberal "drive-by media" (a Rush listener giveaway) for ignoring this information.
The second sign carrier, from Fond du Lac, had tea bags hanging from his glasses and a sign with almost a dozen printed messages, ranging from "If your (sic) a socialist liberal politician you should be scared of me" to "the Obama nation is an Obamination," to "close the borders." While he was telling me how term limits should apply to congressional Democrats because they hold the majority, but not Republicans, one of the many Ron Paul diehards came near. When I asked the Fond du Lac teabagger (almost got through a whole post w/o using the term) what he thought of Ron Paul, his response was a sincere: "Who is Ron Paul?"
Jesse Taylor of Pandagon had the best summary of the tea parties:
It’s like taping a horn to a horse and waiting for it to alight on a magic cloud of stardust and pixies.
- Barry Orton