Behind the right’s insani-tea

April 17, 2009

Elizabeth Schulte reports on the right-wing Tax Day protests--and the nasty politics that lie beneath the surface.

IN WHAT they called the "spirit of the American revolution," conservatives organized protests in cities and towns across the country on April 15--Tax Day--dubbing them "tea parties."

"Tea" stood for "Taxed Enough Already," according to organizers, who took aim at the Obama administration for spreading "socialism" and "big government," and "wasting" taxpayer money on social spending in the economic stimulus package.

"They want us to hold our noses and take a little bit of socialism, like a child taking a bitter pill," Washington state Sen. Janéa Holmquist told a crowd in Olympia. "You can get pregnant with a little socialism, and sooner or later, you're going to give birth to a full-blown Marxist."

The protesters brought teabags, to symbolize the American colonists who dumped tea into Boston Harbor in 1773 to protest unjust taxation imposed by the British king. The repeated use of the word "teabag" (as in "We're going to teabag the White House") made the arch-conservatives shilling for the protests--including Dick Armey, oh my!--the target of justified derision, and plenty of semi-naughty jokes.

A woman in Gucci sunglasses protests her "enslavement" by taxation
A woman in Gucci sunglasses protests her "enslavement" by taxation (Steve Rhodes)

Even so, the events were touted--particularly by Fox News--as a "grassroots" upsurge. But the tea parties were about as "grassroots" as the canned response of commodities traders to CNBC's Rick Santelli, who was first to start calling for tea parties during an on-camera rant earlier this year against the Obama administration's decision to allot $75 billion to homeowners threatened with foreclosure.

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted:

They're AstroTurf (fake grassroots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects. In particular, a key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey, the former House majority leader, and supported by the usual group of right-wing billionaires. And the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by Fox News.

But that's nothing new, and AstroTurf has worked well for Republicans in the past. The most notable example was the "spontaneous" riot back in 2000--actually orchestrated by GOP strategists--that shut down the presidential vote recount in Florida's Miami-Dade County.

Another organizer of the Tax Day events--which attracted anywhere from a handful to hundreds to, in a few places, thousands of protesters--was Americans for Prosperity.

This "free-market grassroots" group's other campaigns include trying to sink the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to join unions. It's also sponsored, according to its Web site, the "Hot Air Tour" to "bring you the missing half of the global warming debate" and take on "global warming alarmism," which leads to "lost jobs, higher taxes and less freedom."

THE TEA protests are the latest attempt by conservatives to use populist rhetoric to rally support for their cause. Phil Kerpen of Americans for Prosperity told the Austin American-Statesman, "Everyone is trying to figure out how you can channel that populist anger for their goals. The left has done a pretty good job of exposing this; now the right is doing the same. Ordinary folks are outraged--they don't want to keep picking up the tab for elites."

Republican politicians like Texas Gov. Rick Perry--who was one of the handful of governors who "stood up" to Obama in March by refusing additional federal money in the stimulus bill for the unemployed in their states--think they can win conservative cred by attending the tea parties.

And if Perry was trying to win over right-wing wing-nuts, he probably succeeded. "I'm not saying you're all right-wing extremists," Perry told the crowd in Austin, where "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "Takin' Care of Business" blared over loudspeakers, "but if you are, I'm right there with you."

Of course, Perry et al. didn't have a lot to say about the real problems with taxes--that they fall disproportionately on the working class, and they typically pay for things that don't benefit the majority of people, like the military.

Most people would feel better about taxes if the government used the money for things that improved ordinary people's lives. A CBS News/New York Times poll released last week showed that a majority--57 percent--of those polled said they are willing to pay higher taxes in order to provide all Americans with health care coverage.

Gallup polls released the same week as the tea parties found that 53 percent of Americans approve of the expansion of the U.S. government to help fix the economy, even if most of that group said they would want it scaled back once the crisis has lessened.

The tea parties don't represent the direction that most Americans--who just a few months ago elected the first African American president of the U.S.--are moving. On the contrary, they provided a platform for the backward ideas of a small minority that had no compunction about unleashing a flurry of bigoted views directed toward immigrants, poor people and Obama himself.

The protests were filthy with signs like "An illegal stole by job," "Free market, not freeloaders" and "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for the American," not to mention chants of "U.S. for us!"

On most every issue, a clear majority of people are in favor of the progressive policies that the Obama administration promised during the election campaign--like aid to struggling homeowners and the unemployed, or reform of the health care system. For now, the people at the right's tea parties are on the margins.

But if the Obama administration fails to deliver on what's needed to improve the lives of ordinary people, it could open the door for right-wing ideas to get a broader hearing.

The rotten ideas expressed at the fake populist tea parties don't deserve any audience--not for a single minute.

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