The birth of the modern tea party movement has been a noteworthy and controversial political development. Much of the discussion thus far has focused on the movement in the abstract, from a national perspective. However, the tea party is made up of local networks of people, with specific motivations and beliefs. Indeed, the story of Scott Berry, a native and long time resident of Columbus, is a great illustration of how these beliefs motivated local people to start tea parties.
Political activism has been an important part of our democracy since its founding. The strength of local politics was one of the unique characteristics Alexis de Tocqueville noted about America”s democracy in his 1835 seminal book, “Democracy in America.” Tocqueville was fascinated with the town hall meetings he attended in New England and the seriousness with which Americans took political affairs and self-governance.
In the centuries since Tocqueville”s famous visit to America, the level of political activism has decreased significantly. At times of national crisis, such as the civil war or civil rights movement, citizens are engaged on issues, but, for the most part, political activity has become much more limited and apathetic. Hosting political rallies or attending town hall meetings or, for some, even voting are no longer considered important or necessary.
The presidential campaign of Obama started the shift back towards greater political participation. People, especially young folks, volunteered and knocked on doors and gave donations for a political candidate as never before. Then, in response to the bailouts (started by President George W. Bush) and the increased federal deficit (again started by President George W. Bush), people in large and small cities across the country suddenly begin to associate and rally with each other under the banner of the tea party.
In Columbus, a local tea party started when Scott Berry went to a website to learn more about the movement and decided to put his name and contact information to help organize a April 15 rally. While Mr. Berry grew up with a keen interest in politics – as a teenager he was adamantly against the Vietnam War and considered himself a strong environmentalist – his political activity mostly consisted of voting and talking politics with friends and family.
Over the years, Mr. Berry has been increasingly frustrated with the government. During his years in the furniture manufacturing business, he thinks numerous payroll and business taxes hurt his production and ability to expand employment. He has also had experiences with the Environmental Protection Agency that he felt were driven by bureaucratic control and personal feelings rather than stopping pollution. In addition, he believes both the Democratic and Republican party have rigged the economic system in favor of big business.
Mr. Berry”s frustrations reached a boiling point after the bank bailouts and passage of President Obama”s Reinvestment and Recovery Act; commonly referred to as the stimulus package. Since then, he”s been motivated to express and advocate his views. He”s attended national rallies in Washington D.C., helped organize rallies in Columbus, actively supported congressional candidates in the 2010 midterm elections, and even volunteered to poll watch on election day. Mr. Berry”s sudden activism has been bolstered by the feeling of support from millions of Americans across the country with similar views.
To decrease the size and spending of government, Mr. Berry believes the age for eligibility should be gradually increased for social security and Medicare. He also thinks people should have the ability to invest a portion of Social Security taxes into private accounts. Additionally, while Mr. Berry doesn”t think anyone should do drugs, he doesn”t think the war on drugs, despite the billions spent on it, has significantly reduced drug use. He thinks we should therefore legalize drugs but require drug testing for anyone receiving government benefits.
Whatever your political views, the rise of the tea party should be recognized as a reemergence of political activism. It should not be viewed as a singular moment in history but a part of a larger American tradition recognized by Tocqueville at our country”s inception. Civic and political engagement have been healthy for our democracy. Effective self-government takes effort and conviction. We should therefore hope the reemergence of political activism continues.
Scott Colom is a local attorney.