Tens of thousands of Americans gathered on the National Mall on August 28 for a massive demonstration organized by television talk show host Glenn Beck. Though billed as a nonpolitical event celebrating religious faith and the military, attendees turned out in force as supporters of the Tea Party, a collection of disparate groups and individuals united by their opposition to government regulation, taxation, and illegal immigration. The movement has startled political observers by its speed in coalescing into a decentralized but powerful political force; in a New York Times/CBS News poll in April, about 18 percent of Americans—predominantly white, over 45, and who traditionally vote Republican—identified themselves as Tea Party supporters, often as disgusted with the GOP establishment as they are with the Democrats. Since the movement began to gain strength a year ago, Tea Party voters have helped defeat veteran Republican politicians like moderate Mike Castle, who lost in the senatorial primary in Delaware to social conservative Christine O'Donnell.
The media have treated the Tea Party as big news. But the story of its genesis is as old as the nation. Americans today get involved politically for the same reasons they always have: to effect change. After French observer Alexis de Tocqueville made his famous trip through the United States in the early 1830s, he wrote: "In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others."
Though Americans are notably suspicious of government and politicians, and don't vote in overwhelming numbers (just 56.8 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election, up slightly from 55.3 percent in 2004), millions still find ways to participate in the democratic process and press ideas that are important to them. Often, like-minded citizens join together to leverage their influence despite small numbers or other disadvantages.
Such was the case with the families of the victims of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed on the night of Feb. 12, 2009, as it made its descent to Buffalo Niagara International Airport. The crew failed to make adjustments for icing conditions, causing the plane to slow dangerously, and the pilot fatally responded by pulling the nose of the plane up. All 49 passengers and crew members were killed, as well as one man on the ground.
The families and friends of the victims would later discover that federal safety regulators had tried unsuccessfully for decades to address the problem of inadequate flight training procedures, particularly on commuter airlines, whose pilots received far less training than those of major carriers. Outraged relatives further learned that their family members were not flying on Continental, but on Colgan, an affiliated regional carrier that operated the Continental Connection flight. At the time, airlines were not legally required to inform passengers of the substitution.
Together, the family members studied up on the aviation industry and worked with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, to coordinate their lobbying strategy. They traveled to Washington repeatedly, armed with photographs and statistics, and called on more than 100 members of Congress, urging them to compel the Federal Aviation Administration to set higher safety standards for regional carriers. Group members regularly sat in on congressional hearings (some even quit their jobs to do so). In August, President Obama signed the resulting Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act into law. The act raises the required number of flying hours for entry-level pilots from 250 to 1,500 and requires major airlines to disclose the names of any regional air carriers on a customer's itinerary before he or she buys a ticket.
Historically, the civil rights movement illustrates how one person can move society by inspiring like-minded Americans, even when they have a disadvantage at the ballot box. In Montgomery, Ala., on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old black seamstress and secretary for a local NAACP branch, refused a bus driver's order to give up her seat to a white passenger. Parks was jailed, and black ministers, meeting with congregants, responded by organizing a boycott of the bus system. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the 26-year-old pastor of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, used his offices to mimeograph fliers that volunteers distributed to many of the city's 50,000 black citizens. Thousands joined the bus boycott, drawing national press coverage. Just six months after the fateful bus ride, a panel of three white judges in federal district court ruled against the segregated seating in Montgomery—a decision later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. "We have discovered a new and powerful weapon—nonviolent resistance," King told a meeting of the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery after the high court ruling.