Few things are more confounding to liberals and progressives than the rise of the Tea Party movement, and the media’s infatuation with it. Just as we breathed a sigh of relief with the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s 44th president, after eight disastrous years under the reign of Bush the Younger, in swept a furious wave of misanthropic pique.
Really, we shouldn’t have been surprised. Just as a recession hit of unprecedented force, yielding high unemployment, conservatives found themselves sidelined, Obama’s triumph coming on the heels of the Democrats’ congressional victories of 2006. That partisan change would have been enough to make conservatives ornery, but the cultural change represented by the nation’s first African-American president struck fear into the hearts of many -- especially after liberal San Franciscan Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to wield the gavel of the Speaker of the House.
The inevitable backlash against such a sweeping shift, shepherded by an array of corporate-funded entities, culminated in the creation of the Tea Party movement -- a dangerous brew of resentment and fear that threatens to roll back the majority the Democrats enjoy in the House of Representatives, and set the nation on a path to a right-wing government even more restrictive and regressive than that of the Bush era.
But bad economies create bad politics, notes economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman. Economic downturns traditionally, over the course of history, usher in swings to the right, Krugman writes. The administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an aberration in this regard, and, perhaps, as Michael Tomasky suggests, in the course of American history. But since the Great Depression offers our most recent experience of severe economic crisis, its story is etched in the progressive mind as the narrative for how the nation naturally responds to economic catastrophe.
More than a year ago, Robert Reich warned of the vitriol we see today from the Tea Party movement, as well as its likely targets. “Make no mistake: Angry right-wing populism lurks just below the surface of the terrible American economy,” Reich wrote, “ready to be launched not only at Obama but also at liberals, intellectuals, gays, blacks, Jews, the mainstream media, coastal elites, crypto socialists, and any other potential target of paranoid opportunity.”
We must not make the mistake Reich warned us about; we ignore the emergence of the Tea Party movement at our peril. We are the ones they’ve been waiting for.
The impulse to dismiss the Tea Party movement is understandable, especially given the kook factor (something that every grassroots movement has). The wacky signs, the crazy rhetoric about health care as some form of tyranny: How could this add up to a force able to defeat the massive coalition that led to President Obama's election?
Charles P. Pierce, writing at Esquire’s blog, expresses this view with his claim that the Tea Party movement isn’t really a movement at all, but rather “the kind of noisy paranoid lunacy that used to be stapled to lampposts, or hollered about by people you would avoid in the public parks.” Some of that is true, but it also feeds an attendant denial of the kind of damage such a movement -- or non-movement, in Pierce’s view -- can do.
Ultimately, the same forces that launched the Religious Right in the 1970s lurk behind today’s Tea Party movement, aided and abetted by Fox News, corporate-funded organizing groups and far-right players within the Republican Party -- forces which, taken in aggregate, constitute a sort of Tea Party, Inc. They have money. They have power. And they know how to get more of both.
Day after day, the themes favored by the billionaires and political operatives who mobilize the Tea Partiers are hammered with ruthless repetition not only by Glenn Beck and the rest of Fox News, but also by Rush Limbaugh and hundreds of radio talk-show hosts and right-wing syndicated newspaper columnists. And now those themes are finding their way into mainstream media as journalists feel compelled to address them in their reporting.
Over the course of the last 30 years, conservatives have held more years in power than liberals and moderate Democrats. But the men behind the right-wing fury don’t just want their power back; they want more of it than they’ve ever had before.
The right is patient, but it is not kind. Its leaders are content to take a long path to their goal of grabbing all the marbles. In the 2010 elections, they may win a few and lose a few, but in these two things they will succeed: moving both the civic discourse and the Republican Party further to the right.
Through the launch of successful primary challenges in key races for the U.S. Senate, they’ve introduced ideas far outside the mainstream of American political discourse: elimination of the Department of Education and the Federal Reserve, the outlawing of abortion under any circumstances. These ideas have never before had the breadth of coverage granted by national media to important electoral contests. Absurd as they may seem now, they may seem less so if liberal governance fails to heal the economy.
As progressives and liberals seek to make sense of the Tea Party movement, a handful of myths have emerged to explain the wishful thinking about the movement’s supposed inability to gain the kind of power that could set us back decades. Some are excuses for inaction, some are fantasies born of denial and some are simple simple misreadings of the times. Here are seven emerging themes for not taking the Tea Party movement seriously, and why they are wrong.
1. The Tea Party movement is largely a creation of the media, which devotes too much coverage to the Tea Party's small constituency of malcontents.
There's little doubt that media hype has played a significant role in both the growth and coverage of the Tea Party movement. But that does not negate the potential impact of this anti-government tribe on American politics or governance, as Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum believes. Rather, the role played by media in amplifying the Tea Party message simply speaks to one means -- the major one, perhaps -- by which the movement has grown. And now media are beginning to internalize some of those themes in their own assessments of the Obama administration, such as the obsession with reducing the federal deficit in an economy that, if history is any guide, will require serious deficit spending to repair.
Those who count supporters of the Tea Party movement as a small cohort within the American populace often cite, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Cynthia Tucker does, the finding from the New York Times/CBS News poll that Tea Party supporters account for 18 percent of the general population. If that's evidence of their irrelevance, than liberals may as well count themselves out of the realm of political influence: The same poll shows that liberals make up a mere 20 percent. (The survey did not offer a designation for "progressive," so it's presumed that liberals and progressives are lumped together.)
When it comes to the Tea Party movement, the media comprise the message, as much as carry it. The structural role that media play in amplifying, growing and maintaining the movement has elements that set it apart from other movements, due to the role played by Rupert Murdoch and his two flagship U.S. properties: Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.
The personalities of Fox News and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal do more than magnify the Tea Party movement's messages; they are communications strategists that reinforce the movement's themes with cogent framing and clever wordplay, delivered incessantly across all forms of media in their purview and outside of it.
These media figures also function as movement organizers. Fox News targets the individual viewer and activist, repeating Tea Party themes relentlessly and spewing disinformation about progressives and the Obama administration, but also recommending courses of action, such as marching on Washington. Glenn Beck is Rupert Murdoch's community organizer. It doesn't matter to Murdoch how many advertisers Beck loses through his outrageous accusations against progressives or the White House; the deregulatory agenda Murdoch stands to gain through Beck's success with viewers could reap the media mogul billions more than the paltry millions to be gained through advertising on Beck's Fox NewsChannel show. (As the CEO of News Corporation, the parent company of Fox and WSJ, Murdoch's interest in deregulation extends to the financial industry, and just about every other industry in which his personal billions may be invested.)
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal editorial page carries the Tea Party message to elites, via columnists such as John Fund and Stephen Moore, who leverage their own perches at the Journal to appear, in the guise of experts, on television and radio news programs beyond the Murdoch empire.
The relentless repetition of Tea Party messages by Murdoch's minions, be they tropes about deficit spending or allegations of presidential ineptitude, seeps into the non-Murdoch media when they cover the controversies cooked up by Fox and WSJ. Even the New York Times is displaying symptoms of psychological infection, as my colleague Joshua Holland points out.
Progressives have no media structure that parallels Fox and the Wall Street Journal, and the nature of capitalism and for-profit media all but ensure they will not. Just because it features liberal and progressive program hosts and personalities, MSNBC is not a parallel entity to Fox NewsChannel. MSNBC is owned not by a progressive billionaire who seeks to impose the progressive agenda on the world. It is owned by General Electric, an immense corporation (and defense contractor). For GE, MSNBC is a profit center: the ideological bent of its liberal cable newschannel is the result of astute market research. Until MSNBC went liberal, there was a void in the market for a newschannel liberals could call their own.
Neither does the New York Times offer a parallel to the Wall Street Journal. It may have a largely liberal editorial board and op-ed page, but the New York Times is a paper of record for the nation on all manner of subjects whose readership includes elites of all sorts, not just the liberals who take comfort in the columns of Paul Krugman or Frank Rich. The Wall Street Journal, though national in scope, targets readers largely interested in business and finance -- the community that stands most to gain from a Tea Party triumph.
If anything, the media's role in fomenting and organizing the Tea Party movement is the number one reason to regard the movement as serious threat; not one to be used to dismiss it.
2. The Tea Party movement is not an authentic grassroots movement; it's the creation of astroturf groups.
Actually, no. The Tea Party movement began as an authentic grassroots uprising, the result of real, on-the-ground resentment against the government (for the bank bailout), the new African-American president and the falling fortunes of middle- and working-class white people in the devastated economy. Corporate-funded astroturf groups such as FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth saw in this burgeoning resentment the means to undermine progressives and to pave the way for enacting an anti-regulatory agenda that could spell billions in new profits for corporations and the financial industry at the expense of everyday people. And so they got busy, initially organizing the discontented in opposition to the health care reform legislation passed earlier this year.
Blogger Stephen Markley exemplifies a common strain of thought that this means that the Tea Party isn't a real movement, but that's just a matter of semantics. Whatever you want to call it, it does have real power and, at the ground level, comprises real people.
FreedomWorks and Americans For Prosperity organized the opposition to disrupt town-hall meetings devoted to the bill called by members of Congress in their districts, with FreedomWorks' Bob McGuffie actually offering a "how-to" kit on his Web site (PDF), Right Principles. Fox News hammered away, repeating lies about "death panels" for the elderly and abortion coverage in the bill. (At an Americans For Prosperity event AlterNet covered last August, personalities from either Fox News or the Wall Street Journal accounted for one-third of the 15 speakers on the roster for the conference plenary.) The organized Tea Party opposition helped to kill the public option, and created the pressures that yielded the current bill's sweet deals for insurance companies.
Columnist Cynthia Tucker would have you believe that the amplification by right-wing media of the contrived town-hall confrontations -- as well as subsequent Tea Party happenings -- render them to be so much hooey. "[I]ts loud, publicity-oriented antics draw news media attention, giving it more an appearance of clout than actual influence," writes Tucker.
But health care reform never was the main event for these groups; it was simply the best issue on hand at the time to organize around. Because health care is so personal, it stirs the emotions, especially of those whose distrust of government and the president run so deep. The real deal for the astroturfers is regulation of any kind -- particularly of the energy industry, but including the financial system, telecommunications and the Internet.
Both FreedomWorks and Americans For Prosperity stem from a now-defunct group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, founded by David Koch, heir to the fortune of Koch Industries, the nation's largest, privately held oil and gas company. Today, Koch chairs the board of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. While FreedomWorks claims that it receives no Koch money, it promotes Koch's agenda.
The success of FreedomWorks, AFP and Fox News in mobilizing the Tea Party movement has brought an army of political operatives and lobbyists to the gates, and given rise to new entities, such as the Tea Party Express, an organization born of the Our Country Deserves Better PAC chaired by Republican operative Howard Kaloogian, who spearheaded the recall of Democratic Gov. Grey Davis in California. Taken together, I think of these entities as "Tea Party Inc.," distinct from the grassroots right-wing movement they often successfully mobilize.
For a whole class of K Street lobbyists, political operatives and dirty tricksters, the Tea Party movement has become big business, if this anonymous account, said to be written by a Republican political consultant, in this month's Playboy is to be believed. Whether or not the author inflates his own importance and that of the Tea Party PAC he says he was hired to advise, there is truth in the author's claims of co-option of the movement by the professional class of political manipulators. But that doesn't make the Tea Party movement any less dangerous.
3. The Tea Party movement cannot win general elections.
Well, the jury's still out on that one. In the race for Nevada's U.S. Senate seat, GOP candidate and Tea Party victor Sharron Angle is giving Harry Reid a run for his money, polling three points ahead of the Senate majority leader, according to the latest Mason-Dixon poll, which was conducted in early June. In Kentucky's Senate race, the most recent SurveyUSA poll shows Rand Paul running ahead of Democrat Jack Conway.
On the other hand, Tea Party darling Marco Rubio, the GOP nominee-apparent, is in a tight race against the now-independent Gov. Charlie Crist for Florida's U.S. Senate seat. Crist had the backing of the Republican Party establishment in the GOP primary, but ducked out of the party before the contest took place because he appeared to be headed for a loss of the nomination to Rubio, due to the latter's strong backing from Tea Party Inc. Now straddling the middle, Crist is now narrowly leading in his attempt to win the seat as an independent, versus Rubio (who now has no real competition for the Republican nomination) and likely Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek.
But, really, all this is beside the point. The threat posed by the Tea Party movement is less about the next election than it is about the long-term fate of the republic. In 2010, the Tea Party movement and its astroturf manipulators will win a few and lose a few in the general election. Those, like Huffington Post blogger Jim Taylor, who see the Tea Party as a minimal threat will likely point to those losses as proof of the Tea Party's insignificance. The real game this year is the one they've played in Republican primaries, where Tea Party candidates have impressively knocked out establishment GOP picks. The game is being played to push the Republican Party further to the right -- to take power from the hands of establishment figures such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and put it into the hands of Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., beloved by both grassroots Tea Party followers and the barons of Tea Party, Inc.
Witness Kentucky, where the Tea Party-backed Rand Paul knocked off McConnell's pick, Trey Grayson (remember him?), in his own state's open U.S. Senate seat. The backing of Rand Paul by Tea Party, Inc. -- the constellation of Tea Party consultants, astroturf groups and the DeMint machine that operates at the national level -- was strategically designed to weaken McConnell's leadership credentials.
Even if the Tea Party dons fail to win more than a handful of races with the candidates they've backed, they'll likely consider election 2010 to be a success for their purposes. In addition to weakening the GOP establishment, they'll have organized voters, compiling new lists of energized voters ready for use when the 2012 presidential primary season begins.
4. The Tea Party movement is actually good for the Democrats, because they look reasonable by comparison.
This is actually a variation on item No. 3, and it's just as short-sighted. A recent proponent of this theory is Nevada Democratic strategist Dan Hart. Sure, the apparent craziness of Harry Reid's opponent, Sharron Angle -- who wants to end Social Security and the Environmental Protection Agency even as she accepts the support of right-wing "Christians" who want to replace the U.S. Code of Law with the Book of Leviticus -- may make Reid look all the more reasonable by comparison, but many voters aren't feeling very reasonable these days. "A rebellious electorate embraces crackpots, and crackpots with certificates of election make public policy," Rutgers University Professor Ross Baker told Politico's Jonathan Martin.
But say the Democrats do benefit in 2010 by comparison with the candidates of Tea Party Inc. In the meantime, the Tea Party movement and its astroturfers continue to shift the Republican Party further to the right, and that's bad for everybody.
5. The Tea Party movement is destined to burn itself out.
I expect it to go on strong as long as Obama remains in office -- and it's quite possible that the present administration will be followed by the election of a right-wing Republican. Either way, if the Tea Party movement fades post-Obama, as American Prospect's Mark Schmitt predicts, its effect on America's political landscape may last for generations.
The Tea Party movement does not represent a new sentiment or set of ideas in American politics; it is merely a new expression of what was once called the New Right, which grew out of the failed 1964 presidential campaign of the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz. The men who formed the New Right also created the Religious Right, plucking the late Rev. Jerry Falwell out of the closed universe of Southern Baptists to front a national political organization called the Moral Majority. That organization had much to do with electing Ronald Reagan, long considered to be something of a political joke, to the White House.
The Moral Majority existed for a mere 10 years, but gave birth to a movement that continues to shape the Republican political landscape and holds the keys to the GOP's get-out-the-vote operations.
6. The Tea Party movement is disorganized and has no leader.
Those invested in diminishing the movement's importance point to its lack of organization and lucidity.
But those are exactly the reasons it remains so dangerous: anybody with a paranoid claim that seems plausible in the right-wing universe can pick off a portion of the movement, and with some money and moxie, mobilize a throng of foot-soldiers for his or her cause.
The mobilizer could be corporate-backed astroturfers, Rupert Murdoch's media empire, or a one-note organization such as the so-called constitutionalist Oath Keepers (an organization of people either currently or formerly serving in the armed forces and law enforcement who pledge to defy enforcement of laws they deem to be unconstitutional).
As certain commentators deride the Tea Party movement as being too disorganized to impact electoral politics on a wide scale, right-wing leaders, seeking to tap the rage and resentment that underlies this populist movement, are using the 2010 mid-term elections to organize for 2012 – a presidential election year. The right’s old hands – men such as Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, and Richard Viguerie, known as Ronald Reagan’s “postmaster general” for his direct-mail operation on behalf of 1980’s unlikely presidential candidate, are already on the ground, compiling databases and organizing local Tea Party groups to do electoral activism.
Campaigns that seem ridiculous to in-the-know political observers can provide the basis for potent voter mobilization efforts. Just witness the 1988 presidential campaign of Rev. Pat Robertson, whose losing bid for the Republican nomination yielded a data-mining bonanza that formed the basis of the Christian Coalition – the organization that laid the groundwork for the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” which in turn set the stage for George W. Bush’s ascension to the White House.
7. Tea Party supporters are all stupid, crazy or ignorant.
Except they're not.
According to an April New York Times/CBS News poll, the percentage of Tea Party supporters with college degrees substantially exceeds the percentage of those in the general population (23 percent, compared with 15 percent for the general public), while 33 percent of Tea Party supporters attended college without obtaining a degree, compared with 28 percent of the general public. They may be less educated than liberals, but that doesn't mean they're dolts.
When people find their notion of reality upended by actual events (say, the near-collapse of the economy of the world's wealthiest nation, in which you happen to live), they reach for explanations that don't contradict their fundamental principles (such as a belief in so-called free markets, or the equation of capitalism with democracy). This is the classic recipe for both scapegoating and conspiracy-theorizing.
But as Chip Berlet, an expert on right-wing populism, writes in the Progressive, "[T]here is no social science evidence that people who join right-wing movements are any more or less crazy or ignorant than their neighbors. While some have psychological predilections for authoritarianism and tend to see the world in overly simplified us vs. them terms, the same predilections can be found on the political left. This is also true with belief in conspiracy theories."
Time to Get Real
Minimizing the force and impact of the Tea Party movement does nothing to defeat it. No amount of ridicule will stop it. If progressives want to save the republic from the hands of the old New Right, they will have to sell their core principles to a public that is not much in a mood to buy anything. It can be done. But it will require a serious, sustained and strategically designed effort that is based around something more than launching progressive primary challengers to establishment Democratic candidates. That's the start of a long-term effort to make the Democratic Party more progressive, but it doesn't begin to meet the structural challenges posed by the Tea Party movement. Without a plan to meet regular Americans through their local media, or a way to articulate progressive goals as a plan of enlightened self-interest, progressives could see their moment slip away, carried on the winds of resentment.
Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.