Stephanie's Political Arena

Critiques and Perspectives on National Politics and More

Happy Tax Day 2011!

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Tea Party Rally 2010 in Madison, WI

It’s that time of year again!  Time to file those tax returns and, for some of us, look forward to a nice refund from Uncle Sam (not to mention breathe a sigh of relief that the federal government didn’t shut down and potentially delay those refunds).

We celebrated Tax Day here in Madison, WI the only way we know how to celebrate up here – by having a rally.  Only this time, the rally was organized by the Tea Party as opposed to the labor unions (though members of the latter group did make an appearance).  Sadly, I was buried under homework at a coffee shop the entire day and missed out, but I did acquire quite a bit of feedback (and photos) from friends who attended the Tax Day rally, which was highlighted by an appearance by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin

Photo by David Summers

Both Tea Party members and labor union supporters braved the blowing snow and frigid temperatures in gathering at the State Capitol to listen to (or interrupt) speeches delivered by local activists and Palin.  During her keynote speech, Palin stressed her support of Governor Scott Walker, who has been in the national spotlight over collective bargaining reforms he introduced earlier this year.   

Madison is one of many cities across the nation where the Tea Party held rallies throughout the weekend.  Only within the last two to three years, the movement has gained a substantial amount of strength and influence – particularly during the 2010 election cycle – while generating an equal amount of controversy.

At about this time last year, I was working on a multimedia project for one of my classes that focused on the Tea Party, particularly its growth in Wisconsin.  I was unsuccessful in getting this published at the end of the semester, so I’ll share the final product below (I did create a slideshow to accompany this story, but for some reason it won’t upload to this site – feel free to check back later when I hope to have figured out how to post the slideshow!).

It’s Tea Time!

How the evolution of the Tea Party revolution is reshaping the American political landscape and what it could mean for the future of American politics.

By: Stephanie Kundert

MADISON – On April 15th – Tax Day – an estimated 8,000 people gathered at the Wisconsin State Capitol for a Tea Party.  But, this was not the typical English-style tea party where Earl Grey and muffins were served to the guests.  It was a rally in protest of government taxes and spending that is part of a rapidly growing movement in Wisconsin and throughout the rest of the country.

“The people of the Tea Party believe that smaller government is better government,” said Erin Decker.  A homemaker from Kenosha, Decker attended the Tea Party rally with her kindergarten-aged daughter, Eleanor.  “I think the government has gotten too big and is encroaching upon our personal liberties too much,” she added.  She also believed that the experience of attending the Tea Party rally would provide her daughter with the “best government education.  Better than any school could ever teach.”

Decker’s friend Kathy Carpenter, also from Kenosha and is unemployed, agreed with Decker.  “It is about smaller government, but it’s also about better government.  It’s about electing people who’ll listen,” she said.

The Tea Party rally featured a number of speakers such as Mark Block, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Chapter of Americans for Prosperity; Paul Kern, a radio talk show host from Racine; Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson, a potential candidate for U.S. Senate against Russ Feingold; Vicki McKenna, a conservative radio talk show host for 1310 WIBA in Madison; and former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson.  The primary message of nearly every speech focused on “too much government” as the speakers admonished both the Obama administration and the Doyle administration for health care reform, the banking and auto industry “bailouts,” taxes, and budget deficits.

“It is time, ladies and gentleman, for all of us to come together and take back our state and take back our country,” exclaimed Thompson, who delivered a rousing speech to the Tea Party attendees. 

McKenna later added during her speech, “This is an amazing time, a remarkable time in our history… You know for the first time what you want from this country and what you demand from this government.” 

The “driving force of the Tea Party movement in Wisconsin,” as described by Block, McKenna said during an interview, “This is the most extraordinary grassroots movement I’ve ever seen.”  She initially became involved with the Tea Party movement in February of 2009, when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli declared and organized a Chicago-style “Tea Party” rally with the Chicago Board of Trade to protest against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (also known as the federal economic stimulus). 

She played clips of Santelli’s remarks on her radio show, prompting listeners to call in and declare that a Tea Party rally should be organized in Wisconsin.  McKenna and Block then worked together in organizing a rally that was ultimately held at the State Capitol on April 15, 2009.

“The Tea Party on the 15th [of April, 2009] that we sponsored was beyond anybody’s wildest imagination of a turnout,” said Block.  “We had expected on the best side [that] 2,000 people would show up…8,000 showed up.”

Since that first rally in Madison, Block described the “popcorn effect” that spread throughout Wisconsin.  He said the people who had attended the rally went back to their communities and began organizing more Tea Party groups. 

“These things started happening from the bottom up across the state,” he added, crediting the internet, Facebook and Twitter for aiding in the advancement of the movement throughout Wisconsin.

Soon, Tea Party rallies were held in places like Balsam Lake (with a population of 650 and a Tea Party rally turnout of 300), Appleton (3,000 attended), Fond du Lac (2,000 attended), Sheboygan (4,000 attended) and Prairie du Chien (750 attended), according to Block. 

During the summer of 2009, the Tea Party movement gained significant momentum as “the health care debate reached its fever pitch,” Block explained.  During the Congressional Recess in August, Wisconsin Congressman Steve Kagen held a townhall meeting in Green Bay where more than 700 Tea Party activists attended and angrily demanded reasons behind his support for policies such as the stimulus and health care reform. 

The townhall meeting was replayed by nearly every national media outlet, resulting in the month-long trend of angry activists appearing at other Congressional townhall meetings across the country.  U.S. Senator Russ Feingold had similar experiences as Kagen with his townhall meetings, particularly in Pewaukee.  Other members of the Wisconsin Congressional Delegation, such as Tammy Baldwin, David Obey and Ron Kind, chose not to hold townhall meetings during the recess; rather, they arranged conference calls with their constituents.

Thus, townhall meetings for the 2nd, 3rd, and 7th Congressional Districts were arranged by Americans for Prosperity and held in places such as Madison, LaCrosse and Wausau.  According to Block, 1,700 people attended the meeting in Madison, 650 in LaCrosse, and 1,400 in Wausau.  He said the turnout in Wausau was of particular significance because it is within the Congressional District of Congressman David Obey, who wrote the stimulus bill and is Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations.

When asked why he believed the Tea Party movement has gained so much attention and growth, Block responded, “People are starting to feel threatened… [and] they are taking action.”  He added, “I don’t think this [movement] would have happened had it not been for the Obama administration and the Doyle administration trying to push through radical policies so quickly.”

“The common theme [is] to the government: just leave me alone,” said Block.

Along with the media and grassroots organizations like Americans for Prosperity, academics have also taken an interest in the Tea Party movement.  University of Wisconsin Political Science Professor Ken Goldstein recently devoted a segment of his political talk show Office Hours to the Tea Party movement.  His guests for the show included UW Political Science Professor and co-founder Charles Franklin and UW Communication Arts Professor Stephen Lucas. 

First, the three academics addressed the key difference between the Tea Party movement and a political party such as the Republican Party.  “A movement is an organized collective of people seeking social, political, or economic change, usually outside of the established structures of government,” explained Lucas.  “By most definitions of a movement, the Tea Party would fit.”

Goldstein pointed out that while Tea Party activists share the same conservative base, “they’re not afraid to lash out at Republicans.”

Franklin agreed, stating that the demographic profile of a Tea Party activist does match with that of a Republican.  “But, if you put the movement in a bit of context, rewind the tape to early 2009.  Barack Obama is President.  All of the headlines are about a Republican Party in disarray: that it lost its brand [and] that it has no leadership.  In that vacuum, the Tea Party movement started to form and started to represent the anger at taxes, anger at government growth and deficits, pro-gun, pro-tax cuts, pro-shrinking-the-government.  All of those things emerged as a movement from the grassroots up.”

The key focus of the Tea Party movement, according to Lucas, is centered on economic issues.  “It emerged because of the bailout package and because of the stimulus package,” while the name Tea Party stuck because of the Chicago rally organized by Santelli.

While the movement has gained momentum and has resonated with a lot of Americans, Franklin is quick to point out that it is still in its early stages and is unknown to most people.  Through the most recent polling data, he has found that only a “miniscule” number of people actually participate in Tea Party rallies, yet a large number of those surveyed sympathize with the movement.  He found that on average, 16 percent of Americans know “a lot or a little about the Tea Party” and 9 percent identify themselves as participants in the movement.  Fifty-two percent know “little to nothing” about the movement, yet Franklin said 48 percent say they are sympathetic to the movement.  Those who sympathize with the movement will be the people to watch for, he explained.

In the meantime, even someone as active in the Tea Party movement as Block admits there is a mystery behind it.

“Those of us that are a part of the movement still don’t understand how deep this is,” said Block.  “But, for the first time in my political career – and I’ve been doing this for [more than] 30 years, there are people showing up and participating that never have in their life.”


Written by Stephanie

April 17, 2011 at 5:46 pm

7 Responses

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  1. I didn’t make it out to see Palin either, but it will continue to be very interesting to see what the next year and a half is like in Wisconsin, and how much attention we get from national politicians. Personally I like the idea of celebrating tax day by learning more or becoming more involved in the government (although this year, owing the government more than $400, all I am is grumpy!)

    Erin Podolak

    April 17, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    • Hey Erin! You betcha it’ll be an interesting year! 😛 I couldn’t resist. 😉

      I’m sorry to hear about the bill you have to pay to Uncle Sam. 😦 That’s no fun at all.

      I’m sure a lot of other people out there are feeling your pain as well – all the more reason to become more involved and/or more interested in government and what happens to all of that money paid back to Uncle Sam.


      April 18, 2011 at 2:10 am

  2. Nice article Stephanie. Interesting to see where we’ve come in the year since you wrote it. Can’t say I sympathize will all of the Tea Party’s actions, it is at the very least providing a pathway for people (who might not otherwise do so) to get involved and pay attention as some of the folks in your story say.

    And hurray! I got my tax refund yesterday.

    Tim Oleson

    April 18, 2011 at 1:39 am

    • Hey Tim! Hooray for your tax refund! Don’t spend it all in one place! 😉

      Thanks for your comments and, as I told Erin, there’s not better time than at tax time to become more interested and/or involved with how government works so you know how your hard-earned money is being spent.


      April 18, 2011 at 2:12 am

  3. My God! There are DOZENS of them. Just kidding;) I’d prefer if the government didn’t tax my paycheck more that Warren Buffett’s and more than dividends for Wall Street while deregulating carcinogenic and teratogenic chemicals in my tap water and air.
    Did you see Andrew Breitbart? He yelled at the Madisonians, and I quote: “Go to hell! Go to hell! Go to hell! You have been so rude! You want to divide this country!” What a sack of, well nevermind. Sarah smiled all the way through her speech, but she almost lost her voice because she couldn’t even hear herself screeching into the microphone over the Madisonians in the crowd jeering. So proud!

    Joe Doolen

    April 19, 2011 at 5:33 am

  4. Nice article Stephanie. So when is the Tea Party going to become an actual party rather than an interest group?

    Tom Mitchell

    April 19, 2011 at 9:33 pm

  5. I’m always fascinated with how social and political movements get their start. Thanks for sharing your story, Stephanie!

    Jenny S

    April 24, 2011 at 8:34 pm

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