The low quality of American political journalism – no small problem for democratic prospects – is on shocking display in regard to the Tea Party phenomenon (2009-20??). Consider Malcom Cowley’s recent high-profile Time Magazine story on (as Time’s cover blurb blares) “How the Tea Party Hijacked America.” Placed above a picture of racist, paranoid whites holding up signs calling Barack Obama an “egoistic dictator” and village “idiot” from Kenya, the story’s title and opening self-description reads as follows: “The Tea Party’s Triumph – A populist movement underestimated by both parties has shown that its’ here to stay.” (Time, 8/15/2011)
At the heart of this “movement,” Cowely argues, is “an article of faith in Tea Party circles that Washington and Wall Street are in bed together, colluding for power and profit at the expense of the little guy.” The Tea Party’s loathing of “the ruling class…took root,” Cowley says, in response to the federal government’s bail out of the big Wall Street banks in “the fall of 2008…To the Tea Party,” Cowely writes, the claim that the banks required mass taxpayer infusions if the nation was to avert a depression “was yet another scare tactic to justify transferring taxpayer money to the bankers who helped cause the mess in the first place.”
Cowley says that “roughly 25 percent” of Americans consider themselves “Tea Party supporters,” but argues that “the Tea Party’s” audacious rejection of “political convention” (compromise) in the right wing debt-ceiling “deal” of August 2, 2011 permitted the great “populist movement” to ram its agenda through. Calling “the Tea Party… the most formidable political forces since the antiwar Left exploded in the 1960s,” Cowley thinks the recent debt ceiling “deal” shows that “a minority can rule [America] quite effectively.”
“The Particulars of the Deal Favor the Rich”
Where to begin disentangling the mistakes and nonsense in Cowely’s report? The latest CBS-New York Times poll (August 2-3, 2011) shows that just 18 percent of Americans (less than a fifth, not even “roughly” a quarter) consider themselves supporters of “the Tea Party movement”. The same percentage of Americans identified themselves that way in April of 2010.
There was no “Tea Party” in “the fall of 2008.” The contemporary Tea Party phenomenon was formally launched on February 19, 2009. That’s when CNBC Business News Editor Rick Santelli, in a broadcast from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, denounced the Obama administration’s plan to refinance mortgages, and called for “a Chicago Tea Party.” It took some time after that for the media and the political class to really congeal around the phrase (and brand) “the Tea Party.”
How politically “formidable” was “the antiwar Left” of the 1960s – a decade which ended with the conservative “law and order” presidency of Richard Nixon, who continued and expanded “the crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky’s apt description of America’s Indochinese wars) through the early 1970s? Actually, the most fearsome political force to arise in the U.S. since the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon years was of course the rancid- and fake-populist, corporate-directed and largely southern evangelical New Right, of which the Tea Party is the latest and most extreme iteration. (One suspects that Cowley meant to inset the word “insurgent” after “formidable” and before “political” in his phrase quoted above – “the most formidable political forces since the antiwar Left of the 1960” – but this correction would not help him very much, as we shall now see.)
And how exactly does a “populist movement” against a “ruling class” of elite bankers and their Washington allies score a great victory with the debt ceiling legislation passed last week? As Rana Foroohar explains in the same issue of Time where Cowley expounds on the Tea Party’s alleged populist coup:
“The debt reduction deal guarantees that the gap [between the very rich and the rest of us] will widen, perhaps dramatically….it cuts government spending at a time when spending is most needed. The economy is weak, and the private sector is still hoarding cash. This, along with the fear that we’ll have to go through the same charade every few months or years, has economists downgrading their already low growth forecasts, making a reality of the much feared 2% economy – one in which a few highly skilled workers prosper and the vast middle flounders…What’s more, the particulars of the deal favor the rich, since the wealthy escape new taxes and the poor get the tax cut ax in the back in the form of reduced unemployment benefits, public sector job elimination and no increases in spending on programs that might bolster employment or help retrain workers. ‘It’s hard to shrink the size of government right now without exacerbating inequality,’ says Harvard economist Ken Rogoff.’”
Wow, that’s some “populist” “triumph” over “the ruling class”!
Astroturf and Partisan Re-branding
The Tea Party may be here “to stay” longer than many expected, but, as Anthony DiMaggio and I show in our recent book Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, May 2011), the conventional media description of the Tea Party phenomenon as a popular, even populist and independent, anti-establishment, and grassroots protest and social movement (Cowely’s article is just an especially recent and lame example) is dramatically off base— every bit as false as Tea Partiers’ claims that Obama, the Democrats, and he nation’s dominant corporate media are part of the “radical socialist Left.” Crashing the Tea Party exposes 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. The real Tea Party phenomenon we discovered (through methods that included direct participant observation) relatively well off and Middle American, very predominantly white, significantly racist, militaristic, narcissistically selfish, vicious in its hostility to the poor, deeply undemocratic, profoundly ignorant and deluded, heavily paranoid, wooden-headed, and overly reliant on propagandistic right-wing news and commentary for basic political information. Many of its leaders and members exhibit: profound philosophic contempt for collective action; a disturbing and revealing uniformity of rhetoric across groups, cities, and regions; a stunning absence of real and deeply rooted local organizing; and a predominant prioritization of Republican electioneering over grassroots activism of any kind. They don’t know the difference between a real popular protest movement and a hole in the ground.
“The Tea Party” is not a social movement at all but rather a loose conglomeration of partisan interest groups that is set on returning the Republican Party to power. Despite protestations to the contrary, the Tea Party is Astroturf and partisan Republican to the core. It is not an “uprising” against a corrupt political system or against the established social order. Rather, it is a reactionary, top-down manifestation of that system, dressed up and sold as an outsider rebellion set on changing the rules in Washington. Consistent with the long-term rightward trajectory of the Republican Party and U.S. politics since the 1970s its basic function, deeply enabled by a corporate media that eagerly spread Tea Party “movement” mythology, was to help the deeply unpopular (because so transparently plutocratic) Republican Party re-brand itself in deceptive grassroots and populist clothing to take political advantage of the widespread economic insecurity imposed by the epic recession of 2008-2009 during the mid-term congressional and state elections of November 2010. Far from being antiestablishment, the Tea Party is a classic, right-wing, and fundamentally Republican epitome of what the formerly left political commentator Christopher Hitchens once called “the essence of American politics…the manipulation of populism by elitism.”
“Race to the Right”
The recent debt-ceiling legislation was hardly just the product of what Cowley calls the Tea Party’s “outsize role in the public conversation.” The corporatist post-New Deal Democratic Party, the ever more extremist, pseudo-conservative Republican Party, and indeed the overall, business-captive U.S. one and a half party system have been moving steadily “off center” and to the right in the neoliberal era, since at least the late 1970s. There are numerous reasons for that starboard trajectory, none more significant than the following: the ever-rising significance of big money in U.S. politics and policy at the same time that the U.S. has grown more savagely unequal; the rise of powerful new organizations (e.g. Americans for Tax Reform, the Club for Growth, the Christian Coalition, and many others groups) representing the right wing and business agendas; and the atrophy of the U.S. labor movement (unions now represent less than 1 in 10 private sector workers, down from 1 in 3 in 1970) and mass membership liberal and progressive organizations, formerly critical counterweights to an unmitigated business agenda in federal and state government.
With its 61 very disproportionately southern members of the 435-member House and its 4 U.S. Senators, “the Tea Party” (the loudest, angriest, and most racist and extreme faction of an ever more right wing Republican Party) has not discovered some magical political Kryptonite – some new tactical genius – that allows it to defeat “the ruling class” and exercise Svengali-like influence over American politics. It would never have become a force in the House but for the long term rightward drift of the corporate-captive G.O.P. and for the tepid business-friendly behavior of the equally capitalist-controlled Democrats and their conservative neoliberal standard bearer Barack Obama. The Obama Democrats’ savage center-right stand down of their party’s depressed and demobilized “progressive base” opened the door for the Tea Party-fueled Republican triumph of November 2010 – a hard right victory that set the stage for the current Beltway shenanigans giving Uncle Sam a new, downgrading black eye.
The New York Times got something right in a recent editorial, aptly titled “Race to the Right” (NYT, August 6, 2011). It is “far too simplistic,” the Times’ editors wrote five days ago, “to blame the loose coalition of Republicans known as the Tea Party for the debt-limit debacle. It was not the Tea Party fringe of the Republican Party that dragged the economy to the brink — it was its center. The party has moved so far to the right that there is little difference between fringe and mainstream.” The editors elaborate, in a passage that deserves lengthy quotation:
“Through a combination of fear and fervor, Republican leaders in Congress and in the presidential campaign have lined up behind a radical new strategy in which all major decisions are made under threat — to shut the government in April, to implode the economy in July, to cut off money for the Federal Aviation Administration in August. Party leaders have said they will do this again and again, in perpetuity.”
“The Tea Party did not come up with this strategy. Although several of its elected members said they would never vote to raise the debt ceiling, it was John Boehner, the House speaker, who in May devised the fatal formula that President Obama would have to agree to cut more from spending than the amount of the debt-limit increase. This nonsense finally won the day. (Mr. Boehner was pilloried by Tea Party branches for raising the debt limit at all.) “
“In the House, there are only 60 members of the Tea Party caucus, and they were hardly a monolithic bloc. Last Monday, 32 of them supported the final debt deal and 28 voted against. To understand the Republican Party in the House, it is better to consider the Republican Study Committee, 176 fiscal hard-liners who make up two-thirds of the entire caucus (including many of the Tea Party members). Its chairman, Jim Jordan of Ohio, was one of the biggest obstacles to a deal and refused to support it.”
“It is this larger group that Mr. Boehner and his lieutenants fear the most. The Tea Party alone could not topple the speaker. But the Republican core could.”
That is exactly right. Cowley would do well to read this editorial twice. So would Newsweek reporter Lois Romano, who recently referenced “the yearlong rise of the Tea Party that just brought Washington to a standstill and the nation to the brink of default” (L. Romano, “The Queen of Rage,” Newsweek, August 15, 2011, 34) and Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who waxes knowingly on how “the Tea Party drives [the government] Thunderbird off the cliff with the president and speaker of the House strapped in the back.” (M. Dowd, “Tempest in a Tea Party,” NYT, July 30, 2011).
Tea Party and Non Tea Party Republicans: “No Real Difference”
Consistent with the Times editors’ take, there are almost no significant differences in the voting records of “Tea Party Republicans” and “establishment” Republicans when it comes to key political-economic issues. Last mid July, my co-author the left political scientist Anthony DiMaggio reports, the Republican House passed a bill that would have permitted an increase in the national debt limit only if it was accompanied a “cut, cap, and balance pledge” that required supporters to vote for “substantial cuts in spending,” “passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment,” and “enforceable spending caps.” “As a hallmark of the Tea Party agenda,” DiMaggio writes, “’support for such an effort should have separated Tea Party and ‘moderate’ Republicans to a significant degree. In reality, however, there was no real difference”: the bill was supported by 93 percent of the House’s 60 Tea Party Caucus members and by 94 percent of its 180 non-Tea Party Republicans. It’s the same basic super-Republican “race to the right” story with other bellwether House votes earlier this year: “Obamacare Repeal” (supported by 100 percent of all House Republicans, Tea Party and non-Tea Party in January 2011); Patriot Act Reauthorization (supported by 90 percent of Tea Party Republicans and 91 percent of non Tea Party Republicans in the House); the Balanced Budget Amendment (supported by 93 percent of Tea Party Republicans and 94 percent of non Tea Party Republicans in the House).
The first real hint of ideological and/or factional division came with the debt ceiling vote of August 1, 2011 (supported by 53 percent of the House’s Tea Party Caucus and 81 percent of non-Tea Party House Republicans) and even here the majority of Tea Party officeholders supported the right wing legislation that predicated lifting the ceiling on the passage of legislation that relied only on spending cuts and no taxes to reduce the deficit. The bill was considered a great Tea Party triumph despite the formal opposition of the most extreme section of the Tea Party Caucus. It was consistent with the demand of the powerful right-wing group Americans for Tax Reform, which has been pushing politicians for decades to sign a pledge to never vote for any net tax increase under any circumstances. All but 6 of the 240 Republicans in the House, along with two Democrats, have signed the pledge, meaning that at least 174 of the House’s 180 non-Tea Party Republicans are reactionary enemies of positive government action.
Such harsh, hard-right Republican realities notwithstanding, a Times Web editor insisted on the notion of a strong division between a moderate G.O.P center and a Tea Party movement that was pushing the party to the right. “Despite the success of Tea Party lawmakers in the debt debate,” the paper’s web version blurbed on August 2, “Republican candidates in 2012 are still unsure about moving too far from the center.”
The Real Hijackers
The only thing the Times editors left out is the related rightward drift of the Democrats and the center-right proclivities of its standard bearer in the White House, who has turned out to be Barack O’Hoover instead of the “Franklin Delano Obama” many liberals and progressives imagined.
Who has really “hijacked America?” The real story is the outsized influence of America’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s phrase), which compels both the Democratic and Republican wings of “the Property Party” (Ferdinand Lundberg’s term) to serve the rich and powerful over and above the poor and working class majority. The minority that has “hijacked America” is big capital.
Consistent with that judgment, and most problematically of all for Cowley’ take on the debt ceiling deal, “the Tea Party” itself is largely a tool and creation of capitalist elites (e.g. the billionaire Republican and Tea Party backers Charles and David Koch). It is, as George Monbiot recently observed in The Guardian, “the biggest Astroturf operation in history” (as Monbiot explains, “An Astroturf campaign is a fake grassroots movement: it purports to be a spontaneous uprising of concerned citizens, but in reality it is founded and funded by elite interests”). Its creators include the owners and managers of a dominant corporate media (and not just FOX News) that employs Cowley and numerous other U.S. journalists (most notably the New York Times’ Kate Zernike, author of deeply flawed but nonetheless bestselling book on the Tea Party phenomenon – Boiling Mad) who have purveyed – in what ought to be an embarrassing stain on the credibility of U.S. reporting – the myth of it as some sort of independent and grassroots protest movement and bottom-up insurgency.
Sadly enough, “the left,” such as it is, bears part of the blame. If we had a serious and urgently needed radical and rank-and-file movement against the bipartisan, corporate- and Wall Street-controlled U.S. political system and the big money ruling class that profits from that system, it would be much more difficult for the corporate media to sell the preposterous notion that “the Tea Party” represents such a struggle.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008, described by John Pilger in 2009 as “perhaps the only book that tells the truth about the 44th president of the United States”) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010). Street’s sixth book, co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio, is Crashing the Tea Party Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO Paradigm. 2011).