I’ll admit it. I didn’t think the “tea party” movement had legs. Having spent a lot of time in Olympia over the last twenty-some years, I’ve seen my share of organized (and disorganized) protest rallies. From a few dozen disheveled folks standing in the rain at the foot of the Legislative Building to several thousand disciplined advocates chanting in rhyme – it’s all part of springtime in the state capital.
Shortly before noon yesterday, I was on the phone with a colleague with a long background in union politics. He described the scene, sounding surprised at what appeared to be a legitimate grassroots outpouring. The crowd continued to build. Then I heard the official estimates of nearly 5,000 protesters.
At the risk of being (legitimately) accused of “retrotalk” I’m going to invoke the old Buffalo Springfield lyric: “There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” And I think state and national political leaders would be well-advised to pay attention to it.
As they have since Rick Santelli’s famous rant launched the Chicago tea party last February, pundits on the left have dismissed these rallies as the product of, well, a vast right wing conspiracy orchestrated by corporate lobbyists and conservative mischief makers. While there may be some links, I have to say it’s just not that easy to get thousands of folks riled up enough to take a day away from work, make an uncomfortable journey to the state capital, and face the likely disapproval of at least some of their friends and neighbors. Too many folks won’t even cross the street to attend their neighborhood political caucus.
No. This spring, a lot of us are worried about the direction of the economy, the prospect of trillions of dollars of debt being passed on to the next generation, the security of our jobs, unsustainable public spending, and a rising tax burden. Those concerns are not allayed by statistics assuring us that our tax burden isn’t as high as we think or appeals to protect important public programs. We’re seeing the beginning of what may be a more assertive populism, one that doesn’t limit its expression to the easy tools of initiative and referendum and the annual “no” vote. It happens here periodically. In 1993, after lawmakers passed a tax hike, voters turned out to support the Initiative 601 tax limit, which lingers still. More interesting, though, is how that 1993 ballot issue carried its momentum over to the 1994 general election, handing Republicans substantial legislative victories.
Yesterday, we also got a glimpse of a possible tax increase to be placed before the voters. The timing could not be worse.