The Tea Party seems to slowly be realizing its true strength; that it may in fact be a 'silent majority', and not just a large minority. How is each Tea Party supporter to know, really, how deep and how wide is the support for small-government fiscal conservatism? We are, by nature, averse to shouting loud our opinions, for all to hear.
For decades--most of the twentieth century, in fact--people who have just wanted government out of their lives have had only sporadic representation in government, especially on the national level. The question was not, "Is government too big?" It was, basically, "To what end do we direct the spending?" Goldwater stood no chance in his era; whatever Reagan's underlying goals, he was undercut by the geopolitical necessity of the Cold War arms race; even much of the 'Contract with America' of the GOP Congress of 1994 was more about a particular flavor of government-sourced populism than about actually reducing the intrusion of government into private life.
What if this is about to change?
"What if," Tea Partiers seem to be asking themselves, "there are more of us than I think? What if it's not just me, my family, and those few people I know in the neighborhood? What if ... we can actually do this?" Each of us only sees a small piece of the picture--none of us knows the full scale of the amassed discontent--what if it is enough? What if we are many enough?
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Over the summer, I visited Minuteman National Historical Park, near Lexington, MA, with my wife and in-laws. The park commemorates the entire span of events from the night rides of Paul Revere and his companions, to the march of the British troops out to Concord, the "shot heard 'round the world," and the running firefight most of the way back to Boston from Concord that, looking back, we now mark as the start of the armed portion of the American Revolution.
The American colonists had great discontent over the perceived injustice of British rule - punitive taxation without representation in Parliament and intrusive laws attempting to reduce the possibility of revolt. The British march out to Concord was in support of one of these laws: the soldiers were to locate and destroy a large cache of muskets & ball, gunpowder, cannonballs, tents, and other militia supplies that was suspected (rightly) to be located in Concord. The "shot heard 'round the world" took place at the Old North Bridge, which crosses the Concord River north of the town center, as the British troops were beginning their return march after failing to locate the stockpile.
At the park's visitor center they have a short multimedia presentation (video, animated maps, etc.) that sets the scene vividly. Paul Revere's ride with William Dawes forewarned the colonists that the British 'regulars' were on the march. Tensions were raised even before the troops reached Concord: a tense standoff in (IIRC) Lexington had ended with the regulars firing a musket volley into a group of colonial militia, killing and wounding several, though there was no return fire from the militia. Further, as the regulars were searching the area across the Old North Bridge, a fire had (accidentally, as it happened) started on the roof of one of the buildings in Concord Center. The militia knew that the regulars had demonstrated a willingness to draw blood, and didn't know whether the rising smoke was intentional or accidental.
As this group of regulars moved to re-cross the Old North Bridge and rejoin the main body before beginning the march back to Boston, they were confronted by militiamen. In the midst of the tense standoff that resulted, a British regular fired a shot despite a 'hold fire' order. Haltingly, some of the militia returned fire. More of the regulars fired. In the end, the commander of the militia unit gave the official 'fire' order. The remaining regulars fell back, then broke and ran under the fire of the militia. By this time, thousands of colonial militia had converged from surrounding towns, and the rout of the British regulars continued. By the time the remnants of the force of regulars regrouped with a body of troops sent out from Boston in response to the militia assault, they had suffered grievous casualties at the hands of a tens-of-thousands-strong militia force. The American Revolution had begun.
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One of the most remarkable things about the presentation (and, notably, something that never really sunk in even after years of repetitive presentation in school) was the sense of uncertainty on the part of the colonists. We are able to look back at these events and say, "This is the moment when the American Revolution began." In the moment, though, the tension on the part of the militia in sort of a, "What are we doing? Do we have a chance? Is this, at all, a good idea?" fashion was palpable in the retelling of the events. I seriously doubt that those militiamen making the initial charge across the Old North Bridge had any real sense of the dramatic progression of events that was to follow. The tale of the unfolding battle seems one of people gradually growing in confidence in a cause that to them was, or became, deeply righteous.
Perhaps they were asking themselves this same question as the Tea Party seems to be: "What if ... we are many enough?" Perhaps we are seeing this in, for example, the nearly $1 million donated to the Christine O'Donnell campaign, as of this writing. Perhaps we are seeing a 'second American Revolution.' Perhaps, on November 2nd, we will be amazed to witness "the vote heard 'round the world."
Update, 19-Sep-2010: Forgot to mention Scott Brown, starting things off in January. Also, less than a week after winning the primary, donations to O'Donnell's campaign