The great Tea Party masquerade

June 16, 2011

The Tea Party was never the grassroots rebellion that its champions claimed it to be.

IF THE story of the 2008 election was Barack Obama's rise to the presidency, the story of 2010 was the rise of the Tea Party.

At least that was the conclusion widely accepted across the mainstream media. As pollsters Scott Rasmussen and Douglass Schoen, writing in their pro-Tea Party book, put it: "In the space of one year, the Tea Party movement became the most potent political force in American politics, with the potential to change America."

While Rasmussen and Schoen are unabashed Tea Party partisans, much of the so-called "liberal" media followed suit. Even if they weren't enamored with the Tea Party, they remained fascinated with it. Major media outlets produced quasi-anthropological articles on the Tea Party phenomenon. Dozens of books on the purported conservative citizens' movement landed in bookstores in time for the 2010 midterm elections.

Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio wouldn't dispute the Tea Party's impact, but they aren't buying the media spin. Their Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics systematically dismantles the notion that the Tea Party represented a genuine independent political movement. And they document the role of the major media in nurturing the Tea Party's growth and promoting its mythology.

STREET, THE author of several important books providing a left critique of candidate and President Obama, and DiMaggio, an Illinois State University media studies scholar, are well-suited to the task of demolishing the Tea Party myth. Because the authors are on the left and have participated in antiwar, workers' rights and other movements, they can tell the difference between a "grassroots" movement and an "Astroturf" media campaign.

What's more, they aren't content to simply present data from opinion polls and Lexis/Nexis searches of the media. They attended Tea Party events in the Chicago area, monitored Tea Party websites and engaged in discussions with Tea Party members. Their "participant-observer" research completes the picture of the Tea Party that they sketch with sociological data and political analysis.

From their research, Street and DiMaggio conclude that the Tea Party is an:

ugly, authoritarian, and fake-populist pseudo-movement directed from above and early on, by and for elite Republican and business interests. Its active membership and leadership are far from "grassroots" and "popular," far more affluent and reactionary than the U.S. citizenry as a whole, and even than the segment of the populace that purports (at the prompting of some pollsters) to feel "sympathy" for the Tea Party.

Street and DiMaggio point to February 19, 2009, as the crucial milestone in the emergence of the Tea Party "movement." On that day, CNBC financial reporter Rick Santelli, standing among dozens of whooping commodities traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, ranted against the Obama administration's proposal to aid financially stressed homeowners. Santelli called for a "Chicago Tea Party" to protest Obama's policies.

Within minutes, Santelli's rant against "subsidizing losers' mortgages" went viral on the Internet. Within a week of the rant, FreedomWorks, the conservative lobbying group headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, had set up a Facebook page for a Tea Party and had staged national Tea Party protests.

In stressing the role that "Santelli's rant" played in the origin of the Tea Party--and how it reverberated in the media echo chamber--Street and DiMaggio challenge the Tea Party's self-portrait as a ragtag citizens' movement launched when a few young bloggers called protests against the Obama administration's "big government" projects. The authors could have devoted more space to explaining how the Tea Party, fertilized with corporate cash, emerged from existing networks of conservative activists. But their point is well taken.

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To drive home the contrast between the real and the imagined Tea Party, Street and DiMaggio take an interesting historical detour to the 1773 Boston tea action (as it was originally known). The original tea party protest against British colonial taxation was a mass action, backed up by armed militias, which marked a direct challenge to the empire and private property. It was a radical, plebeian action that the early U.S. elite tried to downplay in its histories of the revolutionary era.

Only in the 1830s, when the U.S. ruling class faced challenges from labor and anti-slavery movements that embraced the spirit of the American Revolution, did the U.S. elite adopt the Boston Tea Party. Claiming the Tea Party for themselves helped U.S. rulers, as one historian put it, "to masquerade as commoners" when they had to appeal to an expanded electorate. Since then, U.S. politicians have become expert at "masquerading as commoners."

In each election cycle, candidates from both major corporate parties project themselves as friends of ordinary people. This reaches absurd levels during election season when millionaire candidates who have relied on chauffeurs and private chefs for years, stage media events of driving pickup trucks, hunting, flipping pancakes or milking cows. The point is to show what kind of "regular guys and gals" they are before they return to their day jobs as servants of the rich.

The 2009-2010 Tea Party was another trick in this bag. It allowed its sponsors (the rich and corporations) to deflect popular anger at unemployment and economic devastation from its culprits--the rich and corporations--onto "big government" and other scapegoats.

The Tea Party allowed these elite actors to cloak their anti-working class politics in "democratic" and "populist" clothing. The Tea Party today provides a "popular" façade behind which politicians can hide as they claim they're only carrying out the people's wishes when they slash away at popular social programs.

Despite their emphasis on the "top-down" nature of the Tea Party, Street and DiMaggio recognize that millions of conservative Americans flocked to the Tea Party banner in 2009 and 2010. The authors mine data from a number of national surveys to demonstrate convincingly that the Tea Party's most committed supporters and activists were far whiter, older, wealthier, religious and Republican than either casual Tea Party supporters or the general public. The Tea Partiers were not independents, libertarians or the unemployed. And they were not the vox populi.

Street and DiMaggio characterize the Tea Party hard core as "super Republicans." They were not so much dedicated to creating a "movement" as to mobilizing conservative voters to the polls during the 2010 midterm elections. On that score, the Tea Party succeeded.

IN AN especially strong part of the book, Street and DiMaggio take aim at another cherished Tea Party myth: that its opposition to the Obama administration was "not about race." The authors make the important point that the key issue isn't whether Tea Party rallies included racist anti-Obama signs--and they noted plenty of those at the rallies they attended--but about the Tea Partiers' shared world view that is hostile to needs and demands of the oppressed. Again using survey data to strong effect, Street and DiMaggio note:

Beneath the failure to fully exclude such noxious elements lies a deeper problem: Most Tea Partiers do harbor racist opinions--though often in a more subtle, implicit and outwardly "color-blind" way than the more extreme racists at their rallies. And Tea Party racism--largely implicit and "color-blind" in relation to blacks and Latinos--is explicit and full-blown when it comes to Muslim Americans. (emphasis in original).

The last point--about the open Islamophobia that exists unchallenged in the Tea Party mainstream--is an especially valuable contribution of Crashing the Tea Party. It supports their portrait of Tea Party supporters--a.k.a. the Republican Party base--as ultimate champions of a conception of the U.S. that historian Allan Lichtman called the "white Christian nation."

Throughout the rise of the Tea Party, the mainstream media played along. Not only did the Fox News/talk radio combine help openly to recruit to the Tea Party cause, it delivered a steady diet of right-wing propaganda that reinforced the Tea Party world view.

We can expect that from Fox. But the authors also take to task the "liberal media" of conservative fantasy for systematically overplaying the Tea Party's every public manifestation, while marginalizing much larger turnouts to left events. Case in point: wall-to-wall media coverage of the February 2010 Tea Party convention in Nashville that attracted about 600 attendees vs. a virtual media blackout on the U.S. Social Forum, which attracted tens of thousands of left-leaning activists to Detroit in July 2010.

This is just another piece of evidence that the Tea Party was a largely "mediated" phenomenon--owing its success more to official support from a wing of the political establishment and its media arm then to mass support from below.

Nevertheless, the Tea Party had its desired effect in helping to re-brand a discredited GOP in time for a historic midterm election sweep. Even if the Tea Party cost the Republicans some winnable seats (for example, allowing a highly unpopular Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to win reelection against the loony Sharron Angle), it fired up the Republican base enough to inflict a huge defeat on Democrats in the Congress and states.

Midway through 2011, as Tea Party heroes like Rep. Paul Ryan and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are showing exactly what the right wing of the Republican Party has in store for working people, the Tea Party is being exposed as a Trojan horse for anti-working class politics. And recent opinion polls show its unpopularity hitting record highs.

Street and DiMaggio see in the Wisconsin labor uprising of February-March 2011 the seeds of a genuine response to the Tea Party phenomenon.

In fact, the Wisconsin uprising was everything the Tea Party was not--pro-working-class, grassroots and against "business as usual." While they acknowledge the many challenges that face the labor and other progressive movements today, they are no doubt correct to assert that among the mass of protesters "found [in] the streets and legislative halls of state capitols across the American heartland" lies the real force to defeat the Tea Party.

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