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Talking tea parties at AEI, and on C-Span, 2 p.m. ET

I'm off to discuss whether tea parties represent "the future of politics" at the American Enterprise Institute, alongside pollster Kristen Soltis, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, and "Liberal Fascism" author Jonah Goldberg. You can watch it on C-Span 3, and/or you can read a draft I put together of my remarks -- I might deviate a bit from them, but they're the points I want to make. Read them below the fold.

We're really answering two questions today. One of those questions has such an obvious answer that we can handle it right now and move on. "Is there a revolution afoot among average Americans mobilized by the power of the Internet?" Yep. Thanks for coming!

The tea parties would never have been possible without a few technological breakthroughs we've grown completely used to. The first was the explosion of broadband coverage. In 2003, a Pew Internet study found that 57 percent of all Americans still accessed the internet by dial-up. That was the era of the liberal netroots, as Democrats and critics of George W. Bush in cities and college towns logged on and formed blogs such as Daily Kos, donation sites such as ActBlue, and whatever the Howard Dean campaign was supposed to be. The fast Internet was for liberals, especially young liberals. And sometimes urbanite conservatives.

Skip ahead to the rise of the tea parties. According to a 2009 survey by the FCC, 91 percent of people living in households with an income of more than $75,000 have broadband. In households making $20,000 or less, the number is 40 percent. For any of us who remember the kshhh-kishhh-beep of dial-up, that's a staggeringly high figure. And it's a useful figure when you realize that the tea party movement on the ground is led by people making something closer to $75,000, who live outside of the blue oases of New York, Washington, etc.

I've been covering the tea parties since February 2009, so I saw this happen. The first Washington tea party was held a few blocks from here, the White House. It was the brainstorm of two twentysomething conservative activists, J.P. Freire and John O'Hara, who saw Rick Santelli's rant -- I don't think I need to explain what that was -- and created a Web site called New American Tea Party, which they used as a hub to get people to come to the event. Freire, who did some punditry for Fox News, promoted it on the air. They had no idea how many people would show, because D.C. conservatives do things like this all the time and attract the same group of like-minded, cosmopolitan activists. But this event drew in hundreds of Virginia and Maryland activists, many in their 50s and 60s, who told me they heard about it online and decided to participate in their first protests.

There are numbers to back up these anecdotes. According to a April 2010 CBS News poll, 56 percent of tea partyers make more than $50,000 (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20002487-503544.html), three-quarters of them are older than 45, and most of them live in the South and West. These are, in other words, people who have only recently become really integrated online, discovering that they can find their own news and their own social groups.

This isn't new information to any of you. And the words "social media" or "personal democracy" initiate a deep, deep sleep. But I really think this stuff is essential to explaining the rise of the tea parties and incredibly important in determining whether this movement will survive, or whether another movement like it could rise up without anyone predicting it. I don't think the tea parties represent a brand new force in our politics. They represent a shift in control of politics. They represent the fantastically successful and rapid reorganization of the conservative movement, made possible by technology, media and think tanks that keep that movement in line.

Yes, when we talk about tea parties we're talking about the conservative movement. Gallup and other polls tell us that 40 percent of Americans, cutting across all parties, identify as conservatives. And the tea party is clearly a subset of that 40 percent. They are independent of political parties in the way that Lou Dobbs is independent of the political parties -- they dislike government as conservatives who want it to be smaller except when defending the country and protecting the border.

So, am I arguing that the tea party is smaller and less significant than it's made out to be? Not at all. Tea partiers sometimes acknowledge that they're not really representative of the rest of the country by quoting Sam Adams: "One man with courage makes a majority." They are part of a grand tradition of American political movements that succeeded without actually winning political majority support, because -- whether they know this or not -- they don't need to win it. All they need to do is organize, online and in real life, and convince the political class that in order to survive, they have to listen to them.

That gives us the answer to our second question. The tea parties represent the future of politics -- the immediate future, anyway -- because they have bowed the Republican Party to their will and come pretty far in pulling the Democrats and the press away from the sort of bold progressivism you saw after the 2008 elections.

Look at the Republican Party first. Two years ago, before the tea parties, at a pretty low ebb of GOP activism, most Republican members of Congress voted for George W. Bush's agenda items -- even, in some cases, when they disagreed with them. Nearly half of Republicans in the House and Senate voted for TARP. The conversation on the right -- and I expect Ross to speak to this -- was about how Republicans might adapt and outthink Democrats as the nation slumped into a recession by proposing market-based reforms along the lines of what Bush had done during his presidency. I remember being in rooms with Republicans late in 2008 and early in 2009 and hearing frustration with how little they had to offer.

Cue the tea parties. For the first time, they provided a way for the scattered activists who help elect Republicans to organize as a powerful-looking, switchboard-melting force on an issue -- economics -- that had not previously seemed like the motivator that immigration is, or abortion is, or gay rights are. They demanded that Republicans offer the Democrats nothing. Republicans abided by that.

Over the course of 2009, tea party activists discovered that there were plenty of people and think tanks who agreed with them, and who were just as frustrated by the GOP's lack of fealty to strict constructionist, anti-tax, government-shrinking ideology. The think tanks -- Cato, Mises, Heritage, AEI -- had been hitting these notes for years, discussing them in magazines and talk radio and on Fox News, and failing to motivate conservative activists on anything but a few small issues, like repeal of the estate tax. They discovered what they'd been hoping for years, that the people who read their research or gave them money could become political actors, too.

I watched all of this happen up close. I came out of Reason magazine and covered Ron Paul's 2008 campaign, so I remember how recently it was that small government activists who could care less about social issues or the fate of the GOP daydreamed about some sizable uprising for their side that was never going to happen. Remember those big stenciled signs, "Ron Paul Revolution"? The people who designed them were being honest, but they had a slightly snobbish view of their fellow Americans -- they doubted that enough of them could become fundamental opponents of big government. The tea parties, just by activating all those people who wouldn't have got involved in politics four, five years ago, proved them wrong. And that's how a minority of conservatives started to bring our politics back to the right.

Look at the Democrats, who are more responsive than Republicans to the bellowing of op-ed pages and cable news. There is always a strain of commentary critical of deficit spending, in good and bad economic times. But the existence of the tea parties meant that op-ed writers, political reporters, and even business reporters spent much of their time reporting and explaining the anger of a subset of voters over deficits and health care. It didn't matter that they were, sometimes, a minority. They rattled the confidence of Democrats who'd come into power with the biggest majorities since the 1970s.

I doubt that the tea parties themselves are the future of politics. Eventually, we hope, the economy's going to cease its downward flushing momentum and we'll start growing out of the the recession. Radical movements don't play well with economic recoveries. And the lack of interest on the right in social issues -- the other day, Mitch Daniels called for a "social truce" until conservatives can take back power -- is going to be hard to maintain in a situation like that.

It's the way that tea parties work that's going to last. I'm talking about the boring social network element, but I'm also talking about the remarkable lack of respect or awe that tea partiers have for politicians. Those images of people shouting down and mocking their legislators last August, and after, shifted our expectations for how we should defer to politicians.

By David Weigel  |  June 9, 2010; 1:39 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Election , Media , Tea Party  
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