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As Tea Partiers Descend on Washington, Ideological Divides Apparent Between Grassroots and Organizers


Glenn Beck speaks on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the Restoring Honor rally on Aug. 28. (Patrick Caldwell)

When Glenn Beck scheduled a mass rally for Aug. 28 in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, many were skeptical of his claim that the proceedings would be fully nonpolitical, especially with former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin scheduled to speak. To the surprise of his liberal critics, Beck held largely true to his word at Saturday’s event, the Restoring Honor summit. Palin spoke primarily as the mother of a combat veteran. Beck discussed the country’s founding fathers at length, but barely mentioned today’s politicians or parties. Attendees largely heeded Beck’s call to leave all political signs at home. One message rang loud and clear throughout the speaker system lining the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool: America is a godly nation, and preferably of the Christian variety.

[Congress1] Across town, the previous day, Tea Party organizers held a markedly different meeting. Americans for Prosperity (AFP) hosted the Defending the American Dream summit. It left history and religion almost entirely behind, instead focusing on taxes, the scope of governmental regulation and organizational efforts to support “free-market” candidates in the upcoming midterm elections.

These two events presented a fractured picture of the nation’s farther-right grassroots-focused politicos, blanket-termed the Tea Partiers. Supporters of the movement often describe it as an uprising of the people, and it is popular: Though estimates vary, the Restoring Honor event likely drew at least 80,000, and thousands gathered for AFP’s conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel’s ballroom. But beyond popularity, the similarities between the rallies were few. Restoring Honor proffered grand statements on the country’s religious nature and the need to return to an ideal of traditional American values. AFP burrowed down on the anti-governmental regulation topics that animate business executives.

AFP’s position as one of the main monetary backers of the Tea Party is well established by this point. Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch bankroll AFP, which just launched its Remember November campaign to sway the midterm elections, kicking off with a $4.1 million ad buy targeting two dozen congressional Democrats. At Friday’s summit, AFP offered activist-training panels and set up a phone bank so that conference attendees could stop in to make calls throughout the day.

Restoring Honor, on the other hand, was heavy on inspiration, filled with religiously themed stories of individual triumph. Few lines received louder applause than mentions of God or Jesus. The whole event had the atmosphere of a televised megachurch sermon, only with a little more patriotic discussion and more flags.

Beck himself credited the success of the rally to God answering his prayers. The event was hosted as a fundraiser for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a charity that provides education funds to the children of soldiers who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Beck described a moment when he prayed to God, worried that there was no possible way the event would reach its fundraising goal near the scheduled date. Just two days later, Beck said, without his mentioning his concerns on air or to friends or family, the required $600,000 in donations came through.

“I come to you as someone that will declare their principles and their values. We can disagree on politics, we can disagree on so much. These men and women here don’t agree on fundamentals. They don’t agree on everything that every church teaches. What they do agree on is God is the answer,” Beck said near the end of the rally.

Speaker after speaker lamented the current state not of politics, but of culture: America needs a return to tradition, to the ideas and ways of the founding fathers. While there were fewer political signs and colonial garb than at past Tea Party gatherings, the Mall was a sea of flag paraphernalia. Red, white, and blue were the dominant colors as far as the eye could see.

AFP’s summit, in contrast, was a largely business-casual affair. Panels drilled down on topics such as how to discuss economics with your friends or the threat of Democrats passing legislation during a lame duck session. There were panels like “Free Speech vs. Media Reform,” “Finding Common Ground with Local Chambers and the Business Community” and “State Budgets in Crisis.” The closest the proceedings got to rabble-rousing was a breakout session titled “Repealing ObamaCare.”

Indeed, the social issues that have animated other rallies received scant mention. Washington Post columnist George Will, accepting AFP’s highest award and discussing education policy, noted that the focus should be on parent-child ratios rather than teacher-child ratios. But it went little further than that. Instead, the speakers discussed things like the estate tax and the looming expiration of the Bush tax cuts. When Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) gave one of the keynote addresses in the evening, some of the loudest audience applause came while she railed against the Obama administration’s interventions in the private market.

Still, the conferees in the hallways were happy to discuss more populist grist. Nancy Gingrich, a friendly retired woman who had traveled by bus from Georgia, readily listed her concerns with the Obama administration. Not only does she fully believe that President Obama is secretly a Muslim, Gingrich also questions whether Attorney General Eric Holder may be hiding his Islamic intentions as well.

And attendees such as Gingrich demonstrate that while the AFP and Beck rallies seemed polar opposites, they in fact represent two sides of the same political coin. Pundits are too quick to label the Tea Party movement a grassroots uprising, or a secretive operation funded by billionaire libertarians. As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle: The Tea Party movement receives support and guidance from organizational forces like AFP, but is comprised of folks like Gingrich getting on buses and showing up at rallies.

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