Could the best days of the Tea Party and the anti-tax movement already be behind them?

That was my impression coming out of Friday’s Tax Day rally, held on the north steps of the Capitol in Hartford. I hadn’t been sure of what to expect. After all, there are plenty of stereotypes of Tea Party rallies as noisy, angry affairs, filled with ignorance, racism and passion. None of that, save perhaps some ignorance, was on display in Hartford Friday. In fact, the whole thing felt less like a rally than a pro forma airing of grievances, or perhaps a clever sign competition with a few speakers.

The gathering itself was surprisingly small. After all, there’s definitely a lot of angst in Connecticut now about taxes and spending, so I’d expected this to be a bigger draw. Apparently not. I couldn’t help but think of the massive protests which greeted Lowell Weicker after the income tax passed, and how minuscule this was by comparison. What’s changed in that time? Is it that the opposition is less organized? Have people stopped tuning in to Connecticut issues? Is the whole Tea Party thing kind of a turn-off?

Because the rally didn’t have a wide appeal, what was left was essentially the Tea Party flavor of the grassroots right, which in Connecticut is neither big nor popular. The crowd was largely white, skewed older and were almost universally very concerned about high taxes and spending, none of which is a surprise. But what did surprise me was how subdued they seemed. People wandered around waving their signs or flags and posing for pictures (there was a relatively decent press contingent there—I even spotted a British reporter interviewing a couple), but out near the edges of the crowd, people weren’t really focusing on what the speakers were saying. I got the sense that most of the people in attendance were annoyed, worried and a little depressed about the state of government spending and taxes in Connecticut, but they weren’t particularly angry or passionate. Not even the foam rubber pitchforks could make this seem like much of a revolution, or even a movement.

Many of the speakers played to their audience. One read a message from Michelle Bachmann, which received polite applause and cheers. Another informed us that the United States was a police state, and later talked about the new world order and condemned the United Nations. At least one suggested that Malloy’s tax hikes were “the biggest tax increases in Connecticut history,” a line that bears some checking up on. Unions and greedy liberals were the predictable villains.

Tom Scott cheered the recent special election victory of Sen. Len Suzio in Meriden, a rare Republican win in a state that has seen precious few of them lately, and encouraged attendees to imagine what it would be like if there were 19 senators just like him. “It is doable,” Scott insisted. But even the people in the crowd, some of whom weren’t displaying a strong connection with reality at the time, seemed to sense that it wasn’t.

It has to be a frustrating time for the Tea Party. In Washington, House Republicans are compromising with the hated Obama on the budget and may yet allow the debt limit to be raised. Here in Connecticut, Democrats likely have the votes to pass big tax increases as part of an effort to close the budget gap. The big wins of last year are already fading from memory, and no one seems all that excited about 2012. Unlike 2009 and 2010, there is no one single bill to rally against, no one unifying task.

Yellow banners flew, old friends chatted, speakers were applauded and signs hoisted, but flags, clever pictures and unfocused anger don’t make a movement. The Tea Party helped make some big gains in 2010 (though not in Connecticut), but now they’re struggling to remain relevant and cohesive now that Republicans are part of government in Washington. Their potential role in the 2012 election and beyond looks shakier than ever.

Susan Bigelow is the former owner of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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