I had to chuckle Wednesday when I read The Wall Street Journal's resident liberal columnist, Thomas Frank, trying to belittle the hundreds of Tea Party protests planned that day nationwide as soft and lacking in conviction. The protests would be held, he said, "Unless it rains today. ..."
I had just stood outdoors in a relentless spring snowstorm to witness one of these "parties" in front of the Federal Building in downtown Salt Lake City. Several hundred people were there. They reacted strongly when one of the speakers said she would cut her remarks short "because of the snow." No, they shouted, we want to hear it all. And so they did. I saw a lot of people shivering, but I didn't see anyone running for shelter. And the speakers were drowned out regularly by the loud horns of cars and trucks whose drivers sympathized with the cause but had commitments to do other things.
What did it all mean? That question is hard to answer because these protests were disorganized. Despite what some on the left were alleging about the backing of corporations and others who stand to lose from Washington's current policies, these had the earmarks of a truly grass-roots movement — the type that couldn't have happened in the days before the Internet.
Each event had its own personality. Two pages over from Frank's column, author and activist Glenn Harlan Reynolds wrote of how in some states the parties were as much anti-Republican as they were anti-Democrat. The organizer of Knoxville's event "said that no 'professional politicians' were going to be allowed to speak, and he made a big point of saying that the protest wasn't an anti-Obama protest, it was an anti-establishment protest."
Salt Lake City's protest had a decidedly more Republican and anti-Obama feel to it. Rep. Jason Chaffetz told me afterward he had been invited to speak. Other speakers included Rep. Rob Bishop and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who quoted liberally (if that's the word) from the nation's founders.
That was a recurring theme. Pictures from around the country showed people in tricorn hats and with signs saying "Don't tread on me."
In Salt Lake City, there were several of the usual one-issue opportunists you find at any conservative rally, from Second Amendment supporters to people against illegal immigration. Someone handed me a flier urging me to read Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." But in nearly three decades of attending protests, I have learned you see those on either side of the political spectrum. You didn't need to know who John Galt was, however, to appreciate the level of anger at bailouts and nanny-state engineering that led to these protests.
"A post-partisan expression of outrage," is how Reynolds described it. Perhaps it is more accurate to say it was a way to fill the void left by no meaningful or articulate opposition to what is happening in Washington.
In a crisis such as this one, where one party is swept aside despite doing essentially a smaller version what the party that took power has done, political opposition has trouble finding a voice. For a history lesson, look no further than the 1930s. An op-ed by the Wall Street Journal's Bernard Kilgore, written on May 11, 1934, said the real problem back then was that opponents to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal lacked leadership and organization. "The opposition is neither united on an alternative program nor in a stand against any program at all (in the sense that such a stand would represent a move against the prevalent idea that the national government must always 'do something.')"
And there you have the meaning of the tea parties. They were ways for people to tell Washington to do nothing, at a time when neither political party seems willing to do so.
If the president's policies succeed, the protests probably will fade away. More likely, however, they will continue to smolder, fed by the oxygen of the Internet and radio, come rain, snow or sunshine.