WASHINGTON — They heeded a pamphleteer's call for "manly opposition to the machinations of tyranny" — the 60 American colonists who stormed Griffin's Wharf and emptied 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. And with that, a revolution brewed.
Now, more than two centuries later, come the angry throngs of the modern-day tea party. They've gotten the nation's attention. Can they foment their own revolution?
The Associated Press reviewed tea party operations in almost every state, interviewing dozens of local organizers as well as Democratic and Republican strategists to produce a portrait of the movement to date — and its prospects for tilting this November's elections.
The bottom line
Though amplifying widespread voter anger at the political establishment, the tea party movement is unlikely to dramatically affect the congressional elections — unless their local affiliates forge alliances with Republican candidates. And how likely is that? Republican operatives look at the possibility of GOP-tea party collaborations with some anxiety, and many tea party activists frankly don't want to see them.
Born of protest and populism, the United States is a nation of movements — people galvanized by causes, summoned with the latest technologies. But none of those causes — not abolition, women's votes, civil rights or anti-war — was certain to succeed in its first fateful steps, or even to leave a lasting mark.
It's much too early for any long-term verdict on the tea party. Even defining what short-term success would be for its members can be a challenge.
Let's begin with what they're not.
They're sure not Democrats. But many aren't thrilled with the Republicans either.
The tea party itself is not a political party — and there are no signs it ever will be.
It has no single issue around which people rally. It has no clear leader who drives the organization's message, motivates followers and raises money. Indeed, the hundreds of tea party chapters and tens of thousands of its activists cannot agree on the most basic strategic goal: whether to influence the current political system or dismantle it.
The embryonic movement is not as much a force that drives public opinion as a reflection of it.
In the words of a senior Republican consultant: The tea party is a lot of noise, little muscle. But it has plenty of ability to make a scene: The consultant, who is directly involved in plotting the party's Senate elections strategy, insisted his name not be attached to that conclusion, concerned about alienating activists.
Many of those activists want nothing to do with political parties at all.
"The day there's an organized Tea Party in Wisconsin," said Mark Block, who runs tea party rallies in the state, "is the day the tea party movement dies."
America's tea party is a hodgepodge of barely affiliated groups, a home to the politically homeless, the fast-growing swath of citizens who are frustrated with Washington, their own state capitals and the two major political parties. Most describe themselves as conservatives or libertarians. They don't like the change wrought by President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress.
Last year's rise of the tea party closely tracked polls showing steep declines in the public's faith in government, confidence in the nation's future and approval of Obama and Congress. Government bailouts and Obama's trillion-dollar push to overhaul the U.S. health care system proved too much for people like Ralph Sprovier, a regional coordinator for Illinois Tea.
"We're regular people who are pissed off at our government — period, end of story," said Sprovier. "Defend us, don't spend more than we have, get the budget balanced and listen to what we say."
But listening doesn't guarantee understanding. Tea party regulars back candidates who support debt reduction. Or free markets. Or states' rights. Or civil liberties. Or tort reform. Or term limits. Or abolishing federal agencies. They champion some of these issues — but not always all of them — and sometimes many more. Generalizing the movement is a fool's errand.
This we know: Tea parties know how to produce crowds. In the footsteps of the pamphleteers of the 1770s, organizers use e-mail, social networking and other electronic tools to draw enormous numbers of disaffected Americans together. Some wear revolutionary-era garb and carry signs bearing the language of 18th century patriots — "Don't tread on me!" is a popular one.
But rally building is no big trick in the era of Twitter and Facebook, when people with cell phones can summon crowds from thin air for events as frivolous as snowball fights and bursts of song.
Beyond rallies, the movement thins out.
Too broke to buy a copy machine, a tea party group in Alaska plucked a copier from a landfill.
A chapter in Kansas lost its only laptop, and with it the group's membership list.
Unversed in media management, two local leaders suggested in a nationally broadcast interview that they favored abolishing Social Security. Democrats quickly assigned that view to the entire movement.
The organization seems strongest in places where lobbyists and GOP party operatives like former House Majority Leader Dick Armey pull levers. Their involvement hardly squares with the anti-political sentiment that drives grass-roots activists like Bill Hennessy.
"I'm not into politics," the Missouri rally organizer said.
That is one of many differences between tea partiers and past movements. In the 1990s, a period of voter disenchantment not unlike today, Ross Perot's supporters formed a third party. Perot lost, but he carried enough votes to influence two presidential races, and his positions on trade and deficit reduction remained in the political bloodstream.
Perot's former running mate, Pat Choate, says the tea party is far from establishing itself as a lasting movement.
"The real test, seems to me, is whether or not they decide to field candidates," he says.
For many, that's a tough sell.
"I've already been involved in party politics," said Gia Gallegos of Reno, Nevada, "I don't want another party."
Tea party groups lack the galvanizing issue that made the anti-tax movement a success in California decades ago.
"I understand what they're angry about because they're angry about some of the same things that I'm angry about," said Ken Khachigian, an aide to Republican presidents who is now a GOP consultant in California. "But it's a disparate force right now, and movements don't have an effect until they have some cohesion behind them."
It pains Republicans like Khachigian to concede that the movement is not leading directly to GOP gains.
"Republicans who assume this is a Republican effort or something playing right into the Republican playbook are making a big mistake," said Matt Schlapp, a White House political director in President George W. Bush's first term who currently advises congressional candidates.
The tea party gained political credibility after Republican Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts' special Senate election. But activists were not key drivers in his race. The question is whether tea party-affiliated voters would have backed Brown anyway, given that many are conservatives.
Upcoming GOP nomination contests will offer further tests. Republican strategists are keenly watching Senate GOP races in Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Kansas, Florida and Utah, where victories by tea party-backed candidates could tilt the party to the right.
In Arizona, former presidential candidate John McCain turned to his former running mate — tea party favorite Sarah Palin — to help stave off a primary challenge from the right.
In Florida, tea party darling Marco Rubio is making waves in his effort to upset Gov. Charlie Crist in the GOP Senate primary. But is that cause or effect? Republicans are wondering: Is the tea party bringing new voters, new money and new volunteers to Rubio or simply stirring his conservative base?
Republican strategists still hope that in the November general election tea party groups will align with the GOP to defeat Democrats. They want the movement to share its e-mail lists, raise money for the party and send its volunteers to the homes of likely Republican voters. That could make a difference in dozens of races.
But an awful lot of tea partiers don't give a hoot about the GOP. Their passion is railing against a corrupt system — what some would not blush to call the "machinations of tyranny."
"We know who we are against," said Justin Holland, organizer for the North Alabama Patriot Tea Party. "We don't quite know who we are for yet."
The same could be said of the tea-dumping colonists who protested British rule without knowing what might replace it — or even if anything should.
George Burton, a Minnesota electrician and history buff who dressed in period garb for a rally he organized in Brainerd, says he has long hoped to witness a Boston Tea Party-style uprising in America.
One, by the way, with no leader.
"That's the beauty of it," Burton said. "We don't take any orders from anybody."