Looking back over the past year, few things have done as much to alter the trajectory of American politics at the phenomenon generally referred to as “the tea parties.”

Headless, leaderless, the tea parties are not – in the sense they are traditionally understood – an organized political movement so much as they are a collection of people who generally agree on one key point: that President Obama and the Democrats who control Congress are assaulting liberty, that most basic and timeless of American values. They believe that the current administration wants to take America down the wrong track and in the wrong direction. And that has crowd that controls the process in Washington scared.

In a recent fundraising appeal Colleen Turrentine, the finance director for the Democratic Governors’ Association, made a point of telling potential donors that “These guys aren’t going away. They’ve proven they can raise millions in a matter of hours and they’re skewing elections across the nation.” And they have, much as the activity generated by MoveOn.org helped topple the Republicans from power towards the end of the Bush administration.

The tea party activists were a key component of the Republican wins in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races and in the special election in Massachusetts that saw Scott Brown defeat Martha Coakley. But that was only possible because they were part of a larger coalition that rejected the statist, “grow the government” programs being offered by the Democrats whom Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie and Brown were running against.

They are ordinary people, who want real solutions to the problems the nation currently faces. Solutions that depend not on the ability of the government to print money but on the values that created the nation, values like hard work, individual initiative and the common sense of the common man and woman. They revere the Constitution and its prescription of limited government.

The National Tea Party Convention, which happens this weekend in Nashville, Tenn., has come under fire because it is charging high prices and because the turnout, comparatively speaking, appears small: only about 1,000 people, long ago sold out, due to space limitations. The real convention, if one can use that term, occurred on September 12, 2009 – when hundreds of thousands of ordinary folk came from all across America by plane, by train, by bus and by car to march on the U.S. Capitol to say “No” to President Obama’s health care bill and to the loss of liberty that inevitably accompanies big government. The real convention occurs regularly, all across the country, when small groups of people come together at congressional town meetings to ask questions of their elected officials – questions, as we have seen, those officials are often unable or unwilling to answer.

From Nashville we will hear the same themes being annunciated all across the country. The government is spending too much money. The liberal special interests have too much control over the political process. Taxes are too high. Washington interferes too much in the ordinary lives of the average American.

These themes are both traditional and newly re-energized in the political life of the nation, one founded by a people wishing to be free and working together to throw off the yoke of government oppression.

There are some who see the possibility of a third-party arising from the ranks of the tea parties. Some see these activists and their energy as a way to upset the Republican establishment while still others see them as the vehicle by which the GOP will return to power. It’s unlikely that the Nashville convention will clarify which of these directions the tea party activists as a whole will take, because they are not in fact a single entity that has delegated authority to a thousand convention delegates. The tea party “phenomenon” is a genuine, up from the bottom collection of activists who represent the nation’s best political traditions, and they are poised to become the most influential new force in American politics since the Reagan Revolution.

Colin Hanna is president of Let Freedom Ring!