Who Supports the Tea Party? An Interview with Dallas Tea Party Organizer Ken Emanuelson
Since the last Tea Party organizer interview posted here, the Tea Party has been praised for its tenacity in demanding that Congress hold the line on spending, and credited with the fact that the debt ceiling deal does not include new taxes. Yet the capacity of the Tea Party to flummox even Republicans was in evidence when the Party’s 2008 Presidential candidate mocked Tea Party members as “hobbits” in a speech criticizing fiscal conservatives’ determination to hold the line on spending and taxes in the recent budget negotiations, pointedly refused to apologize for his remarks when confronted, but days later defended the Tea Party against Senator Kerry’s characterization of the recent S&P downgrade as a “Tea Party downgrade”, saying that the elected Republicans had a mandate to oppose taxes and spending.
The Tea Party’s influence today in America’s political realm (and included in that term are the related organizations such as the commonsense conservatives, tea party patriots, and a whole host of related fiscally conservative groups around the country) is unmistakable.
This series of interviews elucidates who these people are, and what they are trying to do.
Debbie Georgatos: Hi, Ken. Thanks for talking with me today. Tell me a little about yourself, starting with your educational background and your work experience.
Ken Emanuelson: I hold a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from the University of Arkansas, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Texas School of Law. Right now I am working as a patent attorney.
Debbie Georgatos: I know you’re involved in the Tea Party at this time. What is your background in politics?
Ken Emanuelson: My first interaction with the political process was when I was nine years old in 1980. My desk at school had on it my hand drawn Ronald Reagan posters. That was kind of the beginning of my political (life). My friends didn’t understand it when I told them they should all vote for Ronald Reagan. My parents and teachers thought I was a little obsessive, I think.
Debbie Georgatos: Why did you like Ronald Reagan at that time?
Ken Emanuelson: I didn’t know that much about Ronald Reagan but I knew about Jimmy Carter, and I really couldn’t stand Carter and his sad, defeatist vision of America. I remember the 1970’s as a time when America seemed to be falling apart, and we had a President telling everybody it’s all downhill from here…America’s time is over. Maybe he didn’t say those words, but that was the message that I got from this person who was supposed to be our leader…that America is really not that special in any way, that America doesn’t offer anything particularly unique, that it’s just one country among many. That was offensive to me as a child, because I believed in America.
So then Reagan came along, and he said, “I don’t know what that guy is talking about.” It’s not to say that there are not other good countries in the world….but what we have here in America is special.
That whole American exceptionalism thing…that’s what clinched it I think …that there are these basic ideas…even when I was young, I had some concept about individuality, and that the government should keep things in order, you can’t have chaos, but for the most part, whether you win or lose, succeed or fail, it’s on you as an individual person. And that was a big part of what America was to me.
Fast forward to 1992, I was a College Republican, and later became the President of the chapter, and the choice was between Clinton and George HW Bush, and I supported Bush.
Debbie Georgatos: How did you get involved in the Tea Party?
Ken Emanuelson: To a certain extent what I’ve been doing for as long as I could vote was the same as I’m doing now with the Tea Party. We didn’t call it Tea Party back then, but it’s the same effort. You may be familiar with a group we had and still have called the Grassroots Citizens of Dallas County, which was a group originally started by Tom Pauken. They were a bunch of Goldwater/Reagnite types. That was Tea Party before they called it Tea Party. They’d bring in all the politicians and they’d grill them. Everyone knew you’d better have your ducks in a row before you go talk to them. To me that was Tea Party. We just didn’t call it that.
And that Grassroots Citizens of Dallas was the springboard for the Tea Party. Early on, we had joint meetings of Tea Party and Grassroots Citizens.
But in terms of the Tea Party and what drew me to that, it was sparked by Rick Santelli and that famous rant on CNBC in February of 2009. That inspired me.
We’ve had plenty of reason to protest what’s gone on since 2008, but the Tea Party’s critics have a point when they note that when the Republicans and George W were spending too much, we weren’t out there in the streets then. We should’ve been out there and we weren’t. When the Republicans were out there running up the debt, we should have been saying the same things that we’re saying now.
And that goes to what the Tea Party is all about…it doesn’t matter if you are Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter what group you are with…you set up your own principles. If you say you are going to be a Marxist, then go be a Marxist. But if you claim to be for the free market, if you claim to be for individual responsibility, and you think the government needs to get out of our way, then when you go out to Washington or down to Austin, act and vote like you believe that.
And if you don’t, we are going to be there saying, reminding everyone, “you campaigned on individual responsibility, and a balanced budget, and the free market, so how do you defend this big government boondoggle that you just voted for?”
I’ll give you an example. We have T. Boone Pickens’ energy plan out there for natural gas and we have all of these Republicans signed on to it. Well these guys are the same ones telling us not too long ago that ethanol subsidies are not good because they interfere with the free market. So is it really about energy subsidies distorting the free market, or is it just that the corn industry doesn’t have that much influence in Texas? Because if it is really about that the corn industry is more influential in Iowa than Texas, just say that. Just be honest about it and don’t pretend you’re guided by some core free market principles that caused you to support it or oppose it.
Debbie Georgatos: What are the top tenets of the Tea Party?
Ken Emanuelson: A lot of groups have crystallized it down to three principles. A lot of groups promote limited government, fiscal responsibility and either constitutionalism or the free market…it varies a little on that third principle, depending on the group.
Locally and more broadly in Texas, we’ve got five core principles…limited government, fiscal responsibility, personal responsibility, the rule of law and national sovereignty. Those are all core American principles, and in my opinion they really distill what Santelli’s rant was all about.
Santelli didn’t really touch on national sovereignty, but those other four principles were what his rant was all about.
I think what got people so upset about the bailout were these stories of people not paying their mortgages, and getting bailed out. For the most party we’re not talking about people who just got a little behind; we’re talking about people taking on obligations they had no dream of meeting in the first place, and yet they were still doing it and we were going to bail them out.
And we were rewarding the behavior not just of those who bit off more than they had any hope of chewing; we were rewarding the behavior of the banks that issued that credit to those people knowing full well that they wouldn’t be able to pay those mortgages.
Debbie Georgatos: Why do you think the Tea Party became so popular?
Ken Emanuelson: From my perspective, the Tea Party represents a revival of the fundamentally American ideas that took hold in the 1960’s as the Goldwater movement. It’s not all the same people, of course-- although I know some who are in the Tea Party who’ve said they were part of the Goldwater movement. These ideas came back up again in the late 70’s, during the Reagan Revolution. Ideologically, the Tea Party traces its lineage back to the Goldwater and Reagan movements, and before that to Mises, Hayek, Schumpeter, Bastiat, Adam Smith, and so on. These ideas are not new. Tea Party is just the name we put on it today.
Reagan and Goldwater made these points that the Tea Party is making again today, that candidates have to stand for something. Democrat “lite” is not a winning agenda for the Republican Party. And further, the candidates cannot say they stand for certain things and then get in office and do none of that, or very little of that. If they do that, people will say the Party has a great sales pitch, but the product doesn’t meet the standards the candidates are setting out for themselves.
The Democrats do it as well, of course, except in reverse. They sell a kind of moderate view and then govern to the left. If you listen to things even Barack Obama said in ’08, things all over the map, and inconsistent, and he was able to get away with that, but one part of his message was fundamentally conservative. He was going around saying that we need to get the deficit under control, we need to get spending under control, and then look at his track record---he has been awful on that score. The point is, the Democrat strategists were smart enough to use plenty of conservative talking points in the campaign.
History shows us that when the Republicans actually do what they say they are going to do, the people respond. I mean, look at Reagan…once he got in office he actually pushed forward with what he claimed he was for. And the American loved him. In 1984, he won every state but one!
Debbie Georgatos: Why don’t more Republicans stick with what they ran on?
Ken Emanuelson: Because it’s hard.
They’ll tell the people at home we are going to balance the budget, get the budget under control. They get down to Austin and they find people who like a big budget.
So you have a conflict there between what the lobbyists and special interests want, and what the folks back home want. And politicians find it easy to do what the lobbyists want, and as long as the people back home are not paying any attention to it---they can get away with it. Same in Washington.
Debbie Georgatos: What are the Tea Party’s methods to try to prevent politicians from straying from the conservative ideas they ran on?
Ken Emanuelson: Everybody has his or her own approach. I can tell you my approach and that of people I work with a lot. We’ve worked to develop relationships with people who have been watching the legislature before there was a Tea Party movement.
Interest groups have their own interests---so you may agree on things and not others. So Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans might send something out that I’ll send along to our lists, but that doesn’t mean I’ll always be on the same side as Michael Sullivan on every issue. Same with Peggy Venable and Americans for Prosperity, or any of the other groups we align with.
The key is to find those allies that you can agree with enough of the time that you can cooperate and push together in the same direction. We’ve even had issues where we’ve aligned with some left wing groups….because they’ve had issues with…all these backroom deals that are negotiated in the middle of the night. Left, right, or center, nobody likes opaque government
So to keep the politicians’ feet to the fire, we’re lucky enough that we have groups that look at how these guys are actually voting. While we don’t take any one group’s opinions as gospel, we do say, “Empower Texans says this about this guy…AFP says this,” etc.
At the end of the day, we say to our members and to those folks who want to know what we have to say, it is your job to look at what those folks say..or what we say..and use your God-given intellect to make up your own mind.
Because if we get through this entire exercise, remove some incumbents, and put in some new people, but in the process we don’t manage to get passive citizens to become active citizens, that’s the same as throwing your line in the water, catching a fish, and handing it to somebody, and walking away. Today he’ll be fine, but unless you come back tomorrow and catch him another fish, he’s not going to be any better off than he was before he met you.
My own mission is not even to provide people with the information itself, my mission is to help people learn to find that information on their own, and spread it to their neighbors, so these newly-active citizens then help passive citizens become more active.
If there is one priority, it is to foster active citizenship.
Debbie Georgatos: Do you lobby with these interest groups too?
Ken Emanuelson: Informally, yes. But that’s one thing that people should know about the Tea Party movement. We don’t take official positions. We spread information, we get the word out, and each citizen, each member is responsible for deciding on their own where they stand, what they like, and what they don’t like.
So if AFP has an initiative and they let us know about it, we may very well send that along to our members and say “hey, AFP is doing this, so if you are interested in that initiative, call up Peggy Venable and tell her you want to help out”. So Tea Party folks may get involved but it is not necessarily any particular Tea Party group formally getting involved. It’s a collection of individuals working independently toward the same goal.
Debbie Georgatos: So you intend to persuade the policy makers, the lawmakers, by educating and informing grassroots, and getting them engaged and involved.
Ken Emanuelson: Yes. And we don’t, as a group, take formal positions on elected officials and say, “this guy needs to be booted,” or on a candidate “this guy needs to be elected.” I don’t make personal endorsements and I try to be careful not to say anything that could be construed as an endorsement.
Debbie Georgatos: Are you trying to grow the Tea Party?
Ken Emanuelson: Yes, but not by trying to grow a monolithic organization. The best way for us to grow is by dividing.
The best way for us to grow is to find more people maybe who are interested but who don’t have a lot of experience, who are very enthusiastic but perhaps don’t know quite which way to go. We’ll sit down with them and say “let me show you what I’ve learned.... here’s some information…” and then get them up to speed, so they build their own group.
I am a huge believer in neighborhood Tea Party groups. The Dallas Tea Party group, once we built up a big list, one of the first things we did was to start to section it off…find people in local areas who would take responsibility for those groups of members…and build a local group. The results have been great. If you look around North Texas, a lot of those groups started out as a piece of the Dallas Tea Party that we sectioned off.
Debbie Georgatos: What’s your formal role?
Ken Emanuelson: I’m a member of the steering committee of the Dallas Tea Party, but we have a saying that everyone in the Tea Party is a Tea Party leader. I don’t even like to give titles in an interview like this because ultimately we need to get to a point, and we are not there yet, where any citizen who has something on their heart, and wants to get it out to their neighbors, and wants to promote a certain set of information, has the resources and the skills, and whatever they need to get that out there. In the Tea Party movement, you become a leader by picking up a banner and moving forward. There are plenty of banners to pick up. Grab one and go.
That said, as to my own personal mission, most of what I do is to train. I organize a lot of training sessions, bring attendees in, and bring in the best people we can find to share their knowledge. We did one recently where our media-training guy was former Fox News anchor Brian Wilson, who knew all about how to do interviews. He did the same training for our grassroots activists that he would do for a corporate leadership team. The training after that featured Andrew Breitbart talking about out-maneuvering the traditional media.
Debbie Georgatos: Media training-- meaning how to speak to the media?
Ken Emanuelson: Yes, how to speak to the media, how to reach out to the media, how to engage the media. These skills are critical, and activists need them to be effective.
Our whole point is to provide local activists whatever they need to foster their own active citizenship, and to get their help to bring in new people. So that’s how we grow—we build our members up and make our members into organizers. Once we have that going, though we’ll still be engaged and available in a support role, our continued individual activity is not critical to the movement. We replace ourselves. No one is indispensable.
Debbie Georgatos: What do you say to the media picture that the Tea Party is built on anger? Is that accurate?
Ken Emanuelson: No, this movement is absolutely not built on anger. When I said earlier I was drawn to Reagan, the reason I was drawn to Reagan is because I had this really emotional attachment to the country, and to American exceptionalism and to the idea of America as a “shining city on a hill.” It’s that love and that passion for this country that fuels the Tea Party movement. And that’s how many Tea Partiers see our country right now. We see it as something we love very much, and yet we are not sure that what we’ve known is something we are going to be able to hand off to the next generation. We’re frustrated and concerned to be sure, but that concern and frustration arises out of deep love for this country. That deep love for America is what fuels this movement.
Debbie Georgatos: Why are you concerned that we won’t be able to pass along the same country to the next generation?
Ken Emanuelson: In my opinion, the core issue is of course our level of debt. We are in a position where the only way we have been able to keep things going the way we have is because we get these ridiculously low interest rates from our creditors. And that’s a situation that you can’t count on. And when you start having to pay a more reasonable rate of interest, historically speaking, you have a serious problem. When you can no longer handle those payments, you have a serious problem because, if nothing else, your creditor has a ton of power over you. That’s probably the key issue, that we are continuing to run up so much debt, and there’s no plan to deal with it.
How many reports of the United States Treasury do we have to read that say that this situation is unsustainable? This is not something written by some conservative partisan in a right-wing think tank; this is written by the Secretary of the Treasury who is saying what we are doing we cannot sustain indefinitely.
So we have to think seriously about how we are going to change course. Changing course is always painful, but if we change course earlier it will be less painful than changing course later. There will be some pain in either case. How much pain do you want?
I don’t regularly say good things about our current elected Republicans, but I’m more than happy to give credit where credit is due. At this time you can no longer say “it doesn’t matter who gets elected” because at this time you at least have a core of people in the House of Representatives that are fighting to get this deficit under control. And you have another party that is paying a lot of lip service to it but anybody who is paying the slightest bit of attention realizes that they have no intention or any interest in getting that deficit under control. They are fighting against doing that.
The money that big government costs us is one thing, but it’s not the only issue. We’re also concerned about the scope of government control over our lives and our families.
Milton Friedman said you don’t get all the government you pay for and you should thank God for that. And it’s true---we don’t get all the government we pay for. Government is inefficient and we should be thankful for that. Because efficient government means a little bit of money goes a long way, and it empowers government to exercise a great deal of control over your life.
Debbie Georgatos: How do you join the Tea Party? Is there a membership card?
Ken Emanuelson: No…. in fact unless people choose to give us their name we don’t even have that. Generally, people sign up online with their email address and zip code, and DallasTeaParty.org is probably the most popular website to do that. If people do that, sign up, we put them on our email list and connect them with people in their area. They’ll also be plotted on a virtual map and they’ll get notified of things happening in their areas. The bulk of people don’t necessarily come to meetings regularly, but they stay subscribed to get the emails.
Debbie Georgatos: What’s the political affiliation of those who get involved?
Ken Emanuelson: Somewhere around a half are Republican. And then a good chunk of independents, and maybe 10 to 20% Democrats.
No question that there are fewer Democrats and we want to work on that. You know Reagan was such an evangelist for principle over Party. If you ever read his speech he gave at CPAC, in I think it was 1976, called The New Republican Party, you could take that speech and re-work it just a little bit, you could give that speech today about the Tea Party. And he’s talking about people that believe what most Republicans believe, all the way down the line, but for whatever reason they don’t consider themselves conservative, or don’t take a label that you or I might recognize as right-leaning. But Reagan said if you are tired of your tax burden, and you think the government spends too much, and you think crime is out of control, and you’re upset about the government avoiding the tough issues, you’re my ally, even if you don’t take on the same label. Labels don’t matter. Ideas matter.
If you focus on the principles and on the issues, you’d be amazed how many people are with you. Polling data shows that, in Reagan’s day and it’s true today ….. the self-described conservatives are somewhere around 40%. And if you set aside labels and start breaking down the issues, and you’re looking at 60-80% of folks that adhere to the more conservative position on the key issues.
The Tea Party is just a group of citizens, frustrated with what’s going on, who want to change things in a positive way, consistent with traditional, core American principles. Most Americans want to push things back towards individual responsibility, individual initiative, free markets, the things that have served America so well for its entire history. If you’re in that camp, you are Tea Party whether you call yourself that or not.
Debbie Georgatos: What do you wish people knew about the Tea Party?
Ken Emanuelson: One of the best ways to look at the Tea Party is to look at the history of the conservative movement in America. Go back to the time during and after the New Deal. At that time the conservatives did not have an intellectual or philosophical base.
We had some early work on that, if you look back to Adam Smith…even back to the Romans and Greeks, they wrote about these principles, even Aristotle and later the Founding Fathers. But that philosophical foundation held by the Founding Fathers just wasn’t on the front burner at the time of the New Deal.
The New Deal created a lot of despair on the part of many conservatives. What you had was both Republicans and Democrats on board for this continually bigger government…both parties bought into it. And there really wasn’t much of a voice in opposition to it.
And then you had William F. Buckley opposing…I think he didn’t really believe he could stop the march of socialism, he just wanted to put on record, in no uncertain terms, that he opposed it. And William F. Buckley and others at National Review started something. Buckley was tapping into the earlier conservative thinking…the Founding Fathers and even going back to the classics. And these started to gain traction. And that’s in large part where the Goldwater movement came from, and it said to the Rockefeller Republicans “we’re not going to let you remake the Republican Party into ‘Democrat lite.’ ”
If the Democrats are all about collectivism and Big Brother, if that’s what you want, that’s ok, go with that, but we believe in the individual and in liberty. And of course Goldwater won the nomination but got destroyed in the general election.
But what did we get out of that? We got an actor who had gone around pitching for Goldwater, and got on the national stage, became governor of California, and he was pitching for the nomination (for President) of the Republican Party, and he had to fight all the way. And on his third try in 1980 he finally got it, for eight years, and the people would have elected him again, if they could have.
Reagan embodied in practice those ideas in modern times, more than anyone else, those conservative ideas. Reagan said you’ve got to sell those ideas…and you’ve got to deliver on them.
Reagan also said, unlike others in the Party, that there should be a big and visible difference between the parties.
From the early 1970’s forward, the Democrat Party has been under the control of people who can only be described as socialists. They maybe don’t call themselves socialists, but they are the active, big government, Far Left fringe. I look forward to a time when that is no longer the case. I look forward to a time when there is a difference in the Parties, but that we have two parties that both believe, fundamentally, in the free market system. Right now, we don’t have that.
So what I’d like people to know is that instinct that motivated William F Buckley, that same instinct that got people to work to support Goldwater, that said, “No we not going to be just one other Party that doesn’t have any real definition-- we’re going to be a conservative Party instead--we’re for the free market and individual rights and for personal liberty,” that same instinct that motivated people to say they are going to jump up and get behind Reagan-----that’s the same instinct that’s motivating the Tea Party today.