Aristocrats at the tea party

Nicole Colson reveals the insiders, lobbyists and corporate interests that well entrenched in a movement that claims to be grassroots and populist.

Tea Party stars Dick Armey, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh

RIGHT-WING lunacy seemed to burst out all over in February, with the tea party movement conference held in Nashville earlier in the month, followed last week by the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.

According to a poll by CNN and the Opinion Research Corporation, some 11 percent of Americans say they've engaged in "active support" for the tea party movement--a vaguely defined label applied to anti-tax, anti-"Big Government," pro-"patriotic" agitation. Only 5 percent of people claim to have "attended a rally or meeting held by any organization associated with the tea party movement"--a relatively small number, especially considering that polls tracking "activism" have a record of inflating such numbers.

But you'd never know that from the media. To hear them tell it, America is being swallowed under by a right-wing tidal wave.

Since the tea party "movement" broke onto the scene last year--inspired by the supposedly spontaneous rant by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade against Barack Obama's modest "mortgage relief plan"--the mainstream media in general, and right-wing Fox News in particular, have lavished attention on the Tea Partiers.

With Fox News pundit Glenn Beck and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin leading the way as the cultural heroes of the tea partiers, the media has spun a fairy tale image of the movement as representing grassroots, populist discontent.

"My only goal is to support the grassroots activists who are fighting for responsible, limited government--and our Constitution," Palin wrote in USA Today about her decision to speak at the recent National Tea Party Convention.

Of course, the $100,000 speaking fee that made its way into Palin's pocket probably didn't hurt.

It's hard to understand how any movement claiming to be "populist" and "grassroots" could charge $549 for admission--as the organizers of the National Tea Party Convention did. More importantly, it raises the question of just who was shelling out the cash to hear the former Alaska governor read notes about "hope" and "change" off her hand.

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ALREADY UNDERGOING a series of splits, the tea party movement is made up of disparate groups that include everything from neighborhood clubs to well-funded organizations capable of carrying off big protests and demonstrations.

The Web site of the "Tea Party Patriots"--which claims to be the "official home of the American Tea Party movement"--states that "The impetus for the Tea Party movement is excessive government spending and taxation. Our mission is to attract, educate, organize and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets."

Likewise, the Web site of the "Tea Party Nation," which sponsored the recent National Tea Party Convention, declares: "We believe in Limited Government, Free Speech, the 2nd Amendment, our Military, Secure Borders and our Country!"

Aside from a fondness for capitalization, such groups appear to share a small-business, libertarian mindset.

But among these rugged "individualists"--the Tea Party Patriots Web site proudly co-opts the language of grassroots movementism, declaring "Tea Party Patriots knows who the Tea Party leaders are...It's YOU!"--when you scratch the surface, you discover that many of the key players are firmly allied with standard pro-corporate, Washington interests.

Take National Tea Party Convention organizers Judson Phillips and Mark Skoda.

Phillips has described himself as a "small-town lawyer" and former prosecutor, and appears to have specialized in personal injury and DUI cases. According to the watchdog Web site SourceWatch.org, "during the past decade he has had three federal tax liens against him, totaling more than $22,000." No wonder why he might be part of an anti-tax movement.

Skoda, according to his bio on the National Tea Party Convention Web site, has "held executive positions with United Parcel Service, Federal Express and Penske Logistics...He currently serves as a Vice President for One Network Enterprises, a Dallas-based technology company." Not exactly the image of the small businessman being railroaded by "Big Government" that the tea party movement wants to portray itself as representing.

Skoda gave a glimpse into his personal mentality at the Nashville convention, when he told the crowd: "Have we grown so much into socialist culture that people criticize a for-profit event? We put thousands of our dollars into the Gaylord Hotel and the Nashville economy. We didn't ask for a tax benefit, or tax break, or subsidy. Just because this is grassroots doesn't mean I have to dress in cloth and beg for alms...I shouldn't be punished just because I choose to be successful."

There you have it. Success is a "choice." It just so happens that this "choice" seems to come more easily to the wealthy elite who pull the strings in the tea party movement.

Phillips and Skoda in particular have taken heat, even from some tea partiers, for their announcement earlier this month of the formation of the "Ensuring Liberty Corporation" and the "Ensuring Liberty PAC." The organizations will be used to further the tea party cause, but, they announced, will accept corporate money...and perhaps money from Washington lobbyists as well--something that is supposedly verboten to the tea party movement.

While the Ensuring Liberty PAC will be subject to laws requiring financial disclosure, the Ensuring Liberty Corporation won't be legally required to disclose its donors. The goal for 2010, say Phillips and Skoda, will be to raise and spend $10 million on this year's midterm elections--but where all that money comes from will remain a mystery.

As National Public Radio reported, "a more complete description of the fundraising rules for a 501(c)(4) like the Ensuring Liberty Corporation would go like this: It can raise as much as it can get--no limits--from wealthy donors and from corporations. And there's no disclosure. No possible blowback against the Ensuring Liberty Corporation for taking the money, or against a corporate donor for giving it."

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THE TRUTH is that lobbyists and corporate interests are already well entrenched in the tea party movement.

While the tea partiers may champion a broadly "populist" philosophy--government can't solve our problems; Washington is corrupt--those actually funding the nascent movement are the furthest thing from being "anti-Washington." On the contrary, their professional lives have been built around advocating government action to further the cause of the wealthy and the elite. Among them are some of the most prominent Washington insiders of the past several decades.

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted last year:

[I]t turns out that the tea parties don't represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. 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.

Armey's FreedomWorks has pushed the tea party movement, boasting in a press release on its Web site last year that it:

helped to organize "Taxpayer Tea Party" protests around the country, in the wake of Rick Santelli's (CNBC) call for a "Chicago Tea Party" to protest the ridiculous economic policies of President Barack Obama. These protests were a huge success around the country! Thousands of Americans showed up and made their voices heard.

FreedomWorks was one of the main forces behind last year's April 15 tea party anti-tax and anti-Obama rallies that took place in several cities across the U.S. At those rallies, virulent racism was often on display--encouraged by organizers--as well as nasty slurs against Obama for supposedly being a Muslim, and even occasional threats of violence.

Since then, FreedomWorks has taken credit for organizing "hundreds of Taxpayer Tea Parties across the country, from Santa Barbara, California to Amarillo, Texas, and all the way to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania."

FreedomWorks is far from a struggling grassroots organization. According to SourceWatch, in 2008 alone, the group reported $4,346,782 in total revenue. Armey's FreedomWorks salary in 2008 was reported as $250,000--for 18 hours of work per week--plus $300,000 from related organizations.

In addition to Armey, Steve Forbes--the son of wealthy publisher Malcolm Forbes--also sits on the FreedomWorks Foundation Board. Then again, Forbes has sat on the boards of plenty of other right-wing foundations in the U.S., including the American Enterprise Institute and the National Taxpayers Union, and his name has been associated with the pro-imperialist Project for the New American Century.

Living a sheltered life as part of one of America's richest families, Forbes has displayed a stunning ability to stick his foot in his mouth. While running for president, he complained, "My father once spent $5 million on a birthday party for himself in Tangiers. Why can't I spend a few more running for president?"

According to an expose of Forbes on the RealChange.org Web site, this behind-the-scenes supporter of "tea party populism":

fired his secretary of 13 years, Ann Barton, just before her 65th birthday, and has written editorials in favor of allowing forced retirement at that age. When she sued him for age discrimination, he responded viciously, giving a long deposition attacking her competence and attitude, even though she had been his personal secretary for 13 years.

Americans For Prosperity is another lobbying group that helped orchestrate last year's tea party tax-day rallies--writing press releases and planning events in several states, including New Jersey, Arizona, New Hampshire, Missouri and Kansas.

According to ThinkProgress.org, "Americans for Prosperity is run by Tim Phillips, who was Ralph Reed's former partner in the lobbying firm Century Strategies. The group is funded by Koch family foundations--a family whose wealth is derived from the oil industry. Indeed, Americans for Prosperity has coordinated pro-drilling 'grassroots' events around the country."

Phillips and Reed's former group Century Strategies made headlines when it was discovered that now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff had laundered money through it to oppose legislation that his clients wanted to defeat.

As ThinkProgress.org noted, Americans for Prosperity is well-practiced in creating fake populist "front groups" around a variety of issues. In addition to its involvement in tea party groups, it also created "Patients United" to oppose health care reform:

Patients United follows a familiar pattern AFP has used for their other front groups: create a new stand-alone Web site, fill it with lines like "We are people just like you" to give the site a grassroots feel, and then use the new group to recruit supporters and run deceptive advertisements attacking reform. This "astroturfing" model has been used by AFP to launch groups pushing distortions against other progressive priorities:

-- The "Hot Air Tour" promoting global warming skepticism and attacking environmental regulations.

-- "Free Our Energy," a group promoting increased domestic drilling.

-- The "Save My Ballot Tour," a group that pays Joe the Plumber to travel around the country smearing the Employee Free Choice Act.

-- "No Climate Tax," a group dedicated to the defeat of Clean Energy Economy legislation.

-- "No Stimulus," a group launched to try to stop the passage of the Recovery Act.

As Jane Hamsher of the liberal blog FireDogLake put it last year: "Before any media covering these [Tea Party] events accept the idea that this is just a grassroots outpouring of populist sentiment, they ought to take a look behind the curtain--where Dick Armey is laughing and counting his cash."

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WHILE PEOPLE like Dick Armey may be attempting to harness the tea party movement for their own ends (Armey has said that the tea partiers "represent that massive block of swing votes that can determine the outcome of an election"), it's important to note that the on-the-ground ranks of the tea partiers are different.

Though they are whiter, wealthier and more rural overall, as the New York Times' David Barstow pointed out in a recent profile of the movement:

The ebbs and flows of the Tea Party ferment are hardly uniform. It is an amorphous, factionalized uprising with no clear leadership and no centralized structure. Not everyone flocking to the tea party movement is worried about dictatorship. Some have a basic aversion to big government, or Mr. Obama, or progressives in general. What's more, some tea party groups are essentially appendages of the local Republican Party.

But most are not. They are frequently led by political neophytes who prize independence and tell strikingly similar stories of having been awakened by the recession. Their families upended by lost jobs, foreclosed homes and depleted retirement funds, they said they wanted to know why it happened and whom to blame.

In other words, some in ranks of the tea party movement are expressing very real frustrations at a government that has failed to do anything to help ordinary working people who are losing jobs, homes and retirement savings in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Instead, actions like the bank bailout--in which trillions was poured directly into the pockets of Wall Street--have rightly led to discontent with the Democratic Party.

It's into this void--the deep-seated feeling of disgust that many people feel about the Washington system--that the Tea Party movement hopes to insert itself. That anger is completely legitimate--but in a vacuum, with no political alternative put forward, it can be turned towards organizations run by figures who have quite different aims in mind.

The real challenge to the tea partiers will come when working people unite to build a movement that challenges the priorities of a free-market system that puts the profit and power of people like Dick Armey before everything else.