Tea Parties are a new Great Awakening 

This past weekend’s National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tenn., made it clear that the Tea Party movement is part of something bigger: America’s third Great Awakening.

Prior Great Awakenings, in the 18th and 19th centuries, were religious in nature. Unimpressed with self-serving, ossified and often-corrupt religious institutions, Americans responded with a bottom-up reassertion of faith and independence.

This time, it’s different. It’s not America’s churches and seminaries that are in trouble. It’s America’s politicians and parties. They’ve grown corrupt, venal and out of touch with the values, and the people, that they’re supposed to represent. So the people, once again, are reasserting themselves.

Most of the attention focused on this weekend’s convention seemed to involve the keynote speaker, Sarah Palin. But the key phrase in her speech was this: “All power is inherent in the people.”

And the biggest action item that she presented to the crowd wasn’t to support Sarah Palin, but to challenge incumbents in primary races. Primary battles aren’t “civil war,” she said. They’re the kind of competition that produces strength in the end.

This seemed to resonate with what I heard from conference attendees. Again and again, I heard from Tea Party activists that they were planning to take over their local Republican (and, sometimes, Democratic) Party apparatus starting at the precinct level to shake things up.

The sense was that party politics have been run for the benefit of the party insiders and hangers-on, not for the benefit of constituents and ideals. And most of the conference, in fact, was addressed to doing something about that, with sessions on organizing, media skills and the like.

Even the much hyped counter-Tea-Party protest, featuring three activists from the Tennessee Tea Party Coalition, underscores this point. Despite their small numbers, they drew a large press gaggle hoping to get some negative energy going.

I watched as Knoxville Tea Party organizer Antonio Hinton — who drew the largest crowd, perhaps because he’s black or perhaps because he’s an excellent speaker — was asked repeatedly by the press to say something negative about Sarah Palin or the National Tea Party Convention, but he called Palin “a breath of fresh air.”

And Hinton stressed that he and his cohorts — representing a collection of several dozen Tea Party groups around Tennessee — weren’t so much there to complain about the convention as to point out that there was a lot more to the Tea Party movement than that one meeting.

They were right. The Tea Party movement is bottom up, not top down. Lots of Tea Party people think well of Sarah Palin, but people I’ve talked to, both there and at other events, aren’t looking for a charismatic leader.

Accustomed to major-media treatment that strongly implied that anyone favoring small government must be some kind of fringe wacko, they’re discovering that lots of people feel the way they do, and that they can wield a lot of power if they try.

In less than a year, the Tea Party movement has gone from a few spontaneous protests against Obama’s stimulus bill to a nationwide phenomenon rating major media coverage, with several political scalps on its belt.

It’s fun to put on a protest rally for the first time and have it work out, but it’s even more fun to elect — or defeat — a candidate. Or, as Tea Party activists are beginning to do, to run for office yourself.

In the next couple of years, these multitudes of virgin political operatives are going to acquire considerably more experience and self-assurance, which means they’re probably going to become considerably more effective. Politics may not be the same when they’re done.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds covered the National Tea Party Convention for PJTV.com. He blogs at www.instapundit.com.

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