What Next for “Tea Party” Activists?

Following the recent “Taxpayers March on Harrisburg,” as well as recent health care protests in Washington DC and elsewhere, a grassroots organizer posed the question, “what should we do now?” Here are a few thoughts for the tea party movement.

Protest is not enough. Repeated protests and rallies can simply be ignored, and wear out activists who want to attend. Furthermore, events with unclear or mixed messages fail to advance the effort. And “Obama is Hitler” comparisons (even when they come from 7-time Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche), make the entire movement look bad. Here are some suggestions for tea party and 9/12 activists.

  • Strategic involvement in elections. Politicians tend to react only when their electoral prospects are at stake. While protests can strike fear into elected officials, they will only be successful when the movement shows it can influence election outcomes. Strategic involvement includes recruiting candidates for office; getting involved in primaries, particularly in districts where Democrats or Republicans dominate; supporting third-party candidates when neither major party offers a viable alternative; putting candidates on the record for what they support; and researching and exposing incumbents’ voting records.
  • Focus on state and local issues. Sure national health care, federal deficit spending, Cap & Trade, Card Check, and countless other national issues remain important, but state and local issues should not be ignored. State budget battles, corruption in state and local government, local property tax hikes, and eminent domain abuses by local authorities have largely been ignored at tea parties. State and local governments spent about $3 trillion last year, nearly matching the federal government. State and local governments have almost 15 million full-time employees – about six times the federal civilian payroll. State and local policymakers have vast powers, and yet activists can have greater influence on local issues.
  • Push a policy agenda. Opposing higher taxes and bigger government is needed, but you can’t beat something with nothing. Simply saying “no” to bad ideas, or even championing “following the constitution” is not adequate without tangible ideas average citizens can get their heads around. The movement needs to do a better job of identifying and championing policy alternatives. Some ideas I think most can support include:

    1. Spending Limits – The first step to stopping out-of-control government spending is to limit the growth of government. Strict limits on the growth of government spending or taxes – such as tying it to inflation and population – would protect taxpayers, focus lawmakers on eliminating waste and pork, and also trigger economic prosperity. There have been proposals to limit federal spending, but tax and expenditure limits can, and have been, implemented at the state and local level, via voter referendum.
    2. Spending Transparency – Many states have enacted online databases of state spending, and even some local governments and school districts have done the same. Pennsylvania lags behind on this front, though legislation is moving in the state House. Transparency databases allow taxpayer to see where their money is being spent; help to eliminate waste, fraud and corruption; promote greater competition for government grants; and cost little to build. Of course, even with greater access to information, activists still need to be vigilant, taking opportunities to read and report on state and local government spending and corruption at places like SunshineReview.org.
    3. State Constitutional Convention and/or Initiative and Referendum – Given the rampant corruption in state and local government in Pennsylvania, there is a clear need for government reform. Term limits, a part-time legislature, redistricting reform, and numerous other reforms – both good and bad – have been proposed, but it is clear that few of these reforms will happen if we rely on lawmaker to reform themselves. A state constitutional convention and allowing Initiative and Referendum in Pennsylvania are ways to return power to the people, creating additional checks on the abuses of elected officials.
    4. Interstate Competition in Health Care – While we have outlined many policy recommendations in health care as an alternative to national takeover, allowing interstate competition is one that has started to catch on among lawmakers and pundits. One estimate suggests interstate competition would reduce the number of uninsured by 25 to 33%.