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The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: "No room! No room!" they cried out when they saw Alice coming. "There's plenty of room!" said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table. ...
"It wasn't very civil of you to sit down without being invited," said the March Hare.
"I didn't know it was your table," said Alice; "it's laid for a great many more than three."
— From A Mad Tea Party, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll
The tea party we've heard about over the last year or so in our own political fairy tale is a "mad" one, too, with more than a few folks sitting down without being invited.
This movement, if that's what it is, has taken on many forms and issues, with rivulets of its various causes trickling into all aspects of public life. And for that reason, it remains very hard to define.
What began last year as an anti-tax, anti-health reform, anti-government crusade has congealed around the general notion that the political class has stopped listening to the folks who hired them and pay their salaries. And in that sense, we may be on the cusp of something significant in our political culture.
While the tea party movement is national in scope, at the grass-roots level those disenchanted with how government responds to the people have found their voices as well.
Locally, we have seen Clermont residents rise up to complain of their treatment at the hands of the Hall County government over the location of a new library. In Gainesville, meanwhile, plans to eliminate skateboarding downtown prompted a quick response by those afraid a new ordinance might be too broad in scope and have far-reaching consequences.
Perhaps no local group has been as vocal about its frustration with government inattention as local property owners along Lake Lanier. For years those concerned about the lake have complained of its mismanagement by the corps of engineers.
Their complaints that the government agency responsible for controlling the lake ignores those to whom they should be responsible echoes the cries of tax party participants across the nation.
These local issues and how they are resolved are important, but are only part of the equation. What counts more in big picture than lakes, libraries or skateboards is the idea that residents are becoming more involved in the governmental process. They have let their elected leaders know what is on their minds in ways that cannot be ignored.
At every level, the American people are demanding to be heard, and they are not content to wait to voice their opinions at the ballot box when election time comes around. They want to be part of the dialogue, not disenfranchised spectators.
The genesis of the national "tea party" movement is just that: Government officials no longer respond to those they are supposed to serve. And in a representative democracy like ours, those lines of communication are vital if we are to keep our society functioning.
Many lament the fact that our national and state leaders serve special interests first and the public only when they get around to it.
Corporations and other moneyed groups fill politicians' pockets with cash at election time, then hire expensive lobbyists to push their agendas once their paid-for puppets take office. It's a system we have tried to reform time and again with myriad laws and regulations. That's a worthwhile effort, but as we've discussed recently, it's a hard link to break when both sides have so much to gain from their relationship.
Yet a key reason special interests have so much sway in politics is that the people often tune out once their voting duties — those who do vote — are done. We elect leaders and ignore them for two, four or six years until they're ready to run for office again. In the meantime, special interests have their ear and get their way.
This is where citizen activism, be it tea parties or just local residents banding together, can have a lasting long-term effect. When an officeholder's constituents get fired up over something, he or she has no choice but to heed their concerns. For all the money and influence they glean from elsewhere, they still need the votes of average folks to gain office.
Our political system has become ever more divisive as politicians play to the fringe elements, simply because that's where all the passion lies. Conservatives curry favor with evangelicals, neocons, big business and the talk radio crowd; liberals cater to unions, Hollywood, academia and the TV talking heads.
Their chief focus is on energizing the "base" on Election Day. Meanwhile, the majority who occupy the middle ground must shout to get anyone's attention.
Well, they're shouting now. The only way government is going to be more responsive to our needs is to make sure they hear what those needs are, and not just in an election year.
You want to be part of it? Then call and write your representatives in Washington, Atlanta and at city hall on a regular basis, about big issues and small ones. Attend meetings and tell your government employees to their faces what you want from them. The squeakiest wheels will win the day.
Whether one agrees with the goals of the tea party crowd, the idea that more Americans are becoming politically active can only be viewed as a positive step. The same goes here in Northeast Georgia when local governments take action that fire up the vox populi.
The issues and the politicians will change over time. But if this thread of citizen involvement can continue, we'll be on the way to creating the kind of government that serves us all more effectively.