In the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, there is a scene where the two protagonists are being followed at a distance by a posse. No matter what tricks they come up with — wading through a stream, riding over rocks — they can't shake their pursuers, leading Butch to spout the immortal lines: "They're beginning to get on my nerves. Who are those guys?"
Much the same sentiments are being uttered in some quarters today about the Tea Party movement. Just who are these people? Sincere Americans who want lower taxes and no government health care? Disgruntled nuts? Racists? God-fearing patriots? Libertarians? Ron Paul supporters? Conservative Republicans? Scared senior citizens? Saran Palin worshippers? All of the above, I'd say, in various combinations.
A little history: In January 2009, Graham Makohoniuk, a part-time equities trader, posted an invitation on the market-ticker.org forum to "mail a tea bag to Congress and to the Senate" to "everyone that voted for the [TARP] bailout."
The movement gained momentum and notoriety, spurred on by Fox News and conservative talk-show hosts. In fact, Fox almost became the "Tea Party network," so vociferous was its support for the group. The first protests were kicked off by a massive "Tax Day" rally in Washington, D.C. (How "massive" depended on whose reporting you believe.)
The summer of 2009 saw numerous rowdy and contentious "town hall" meetings with congressmen around the country. Legislators who supported the government's actions were shouted down. Some protesters were armed, though not many. Angry intimidation was the strategy.
Now the movement has morphed into an anti-health-care reform crusade, martialing its members to call for the repeal of Congress' recently passed health-care bill.
But while protests will almost always result in news coverage, no one knows how the passions of the Tea Party faithful will impact the November elections. History shows that third-party movements often backfire. In 1992, a very similar band of disgruntled Americans rallied behind Ross Perot — and got Bill Clinton elected to the White House. Ralph Nader performed the same service for George W. Bush in 2000. Since most Tea Partiers are already Republicans or a variation thereof, it remains to be seen if all the noise they are making will generate real change or just more noise — and ratings for the right-wing media.