Tea Party: Everything You Know Is Wrong

Sara Robinson

The Tea Party is shaping up to be 2010’s first major media darling. First came the storm of coverage that surrounded the Tea Party convention in Nashville two weeks ago. Then, they stole the show at last weekend’s CPAC conference in DC. Now, they’re gearing up for a new month-long road show that starts at the end of March — a repeat of last fall’s national tour, this time with more busses and, no doubt, more media coverage.

It’s obvious that the movement’s organizers have a professional touch for getting the corporate media’s attention. What’s less obvious is how much of this attention is deserved. The reporters following in their wake are devouring the narrative of scrappy Americans rising up in populist rage; but beyond that, they’re not asking many real questions about what this movement means, or whether it actually has the kind of clout that gets things done.

It’s high time to ask the questions that challenge some of the surface myths that the Tea Party has been feeding to the media. So this week, I’m firing back on ten pieces of conventional wisdom about the tea party movement.

1. The Tea Party is a coherent movement that’s moving toward an equally coherent agenda.
False…

…as anybody who followed the debacles around the Nashville convention now knows. The factionalization that’s been part of the movement from the beginning was on full display there. Internally, this movement is so rickety that if it were a building, it could be brought down by a single errant woodpecker.

On one hand are the Tea Party Patriots and similar groups — the re-organized and re-energized local veterans of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign who are the true grassroots of the movement. Their movement is a conservative people’s rebellion that exists outside the boundaries of any political party. For the sake of their own political leverage, which increases with distance, they want to keep it that way.

On the other hand is the GOP establishment, including former congressman Dick Armey’s lobbying shop, Americans for Prosperity, and a half dozen similarly connected groups who are funneling money into the movement, trying to co-opt it into the GOP. Of course, whenever you get corporatist conservatives involved in anything, they’re going to look for a way to turn it into a profit center or funnel money to cronies — and sure enough, that imperative was on full display at the Nashville convention, where the organizers famously charged $550 per head to get in.

Your average grassroots member can’t afford that. Nor do they appreciate the fact that Sarah Palin got paid over $100,000 to give the keynote — in which she told the crowd that she thought it would be a great idea for the Tea Party to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, thus casting her lot with the corporatist side and betraying her populist base.

One of the most entertaining features of right-wing groups is their propensity to launch purity crusades that exile the “impure” from the movement and lead to schisms. There are fights over power, who gets to talk to the media, who has the keys to the office and custody of the records — and, invariably, over money, because these groups attract high-social-dominance leaders who will far more often than not mismanage and even abscond with it. The lawsuits that follow can drag on for decades; and they’ve resulted in the very tiresome, mundane demise of uncounted scores of otherwise scary right-wing movements.

These money and glory wars are already well underway in the Tea Party movement. They’ve even already turned on their founder, Ron Paul — and there’s no doubt more to come as the serious GOP money begins to float around and the main divide between the corporate wing and the grassroots moves toward open warfare.

2. The Tea Party is populist.
True and False.

Depends on which “tea party” you’re talking about.

As noted above, the original Tea Party groups were a genuine populist uprising, loosely coordinated via the Internet. But when FOX News got on board, and the lobbyists launched the Tea Party Express and its very expensive and professionally-organized national bus trips, the Republican big money got into the mix in a big way.

By definition, any movement that’s being whipped up the nation’s most-watched “news” network — and then spread across the land by a fleet of half-million-dollar busses, staffed with platoons of professionals who charge thousands per day and are being put up in the better hotels in town — has pretty much lost any claim to being “populist.”

3. The Tea Party reflects the essentially conservative nature of American voters.
False.

The Tea Party’s agenda is summarized in its 10-point “Mandate to Save America,” which all of its candidates (allegedly; more on this later) must sign off on to get the party’s support. The manifesto, in full:

1. Acknowledge The Centrality Of Faith – We call for the right to publicly acknowledge God;

2. Protect human life – We call for the protection of human life from conception to natural death;

3. Save Traditional Marriage – We call for marriage to remain the union of a man and a woman and we further call for families and parental rights to be strengthened;

4. Stop Judicial Tyranny – We call for judges to be constrained by the Constitution and laws of the land;

5. Protect The Rights Of Parents to control the education of their children – We call for educational expenditures to follow parental choice;

6. Limit the size of government – We call for honesty in our government, limited to constitutional functions;

7. Protect our economic freedom – We call for a free-market economy, because it rewards hard work, creates jobs and maximizes human potential;

8. Practice fiscal responsibility, lower taxes and reduce spending – We call for lower taxes, less spending, an affordable government and the end of runaway deficits;

9. Focus on national security – We call for a foreign and military policy that protects Americans, maintains our national sovereignty and secures our borders;

10. Secure energy independence – We call for more exploration, development, production and use of all energy resources.

As I showed in this post, Americans actually have very progressive attitudes toward abortion and contraception, gay rights, and the now-manifest shortcomings of free-market economics. They also retain a strong (though somewhat waning) commitment to getting the country off carbon-based fuels, and are extremely tolerant when it comes to accepting other people’s religions.

Obviously, many of the provisions in this manifesto fly in the face of an overwhelming pile of polling data that affirms the essentially liberal attitude Americans bring to their politics. Which brings us to:

3. Scott Brown was a teabagger victory.
Not hardly.

If Scott Brown is the ideal Tea Party candidate, it’s a clear sign that the above Manifesto isn’t worth the electrons it took you to display it on your screen — not even to the Tea Party members themselves.

Scott Brown is pro-choice, thinks gay marriage is a state-level issue, supports public education and Medicare, has flip-flopped all over the place on climate change, and supports his state’s ground-breaking government health care plan. In other words: he’s the classic species of Massachusetts moderate Republican. If his election is some kind of populist “victory,” then the Tea Party’s vaunted candidate litmus test can only be a very silly joke.

Yeah, he owns a truck. I own a truck. That doesn’t make him a right-wing populist firebrand, any more than it makes me one.

Furthermore: as noted above, when you talk about the “Tea Party,” it’s important to distinguish which Party you’re invoking. Brown’s “support” from the “Tea Party” amounted to a $360,000 donation from the corporatist/GOP faction. Given that he didn’t get nearly that kind of enthusiasm from the grassroots side, it’s hard to credit him with being any kind of symbol of voter outrage.

4. But what about Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell?
But what about Doug Hoffman, Don Lowery, and those tax hikes in Oregon?

The Tea Party has been given credit for at least a couple of other recent GOP upsets, which the media is reading as further proof that the group is serious and important. New NJ governor Chris Christie unseated Democrat John Corzine amid general fury over corruption and taxes. Christie, a former prosecutor who rooted out corruption, was simply seen as a cleaner candidate when paired against Goldman Sachs veteran Corzine. Likewise, Bob McDonnell won Virginia’s governorship running as a moderate. Neither had much support from the Tea Party, but they’re being touted as TP successes — despite their wide variance from the principles outlined in the Manifesto.

On top of that: this whole narrative is an absurdly selective reading of the past year’s record. Reporters who swallow this line are conveniently forgetting Doug Hoffmann, the most overtly Tea Party-backed candidate in the country, who lost his bid for New York’s 23rd Congressional district — and, in the process, handed the Democrats a seat they hadn’t held in over a century. They’re also overlooking Tea Party stalwart Don Lowery of Chicago, who garnered just over 9% of the vote in the GOP primary for President Obama’s old US Senate seat. Lowery came in third; the primary slot went to moderate Mark Kirk.

They’re also discounting the unmistakable pro-tax message sent by Measures 66 and 67 in Oregon, which were passed last month by a very wide margin. The first raised state income taxes on families making more than $250,000; the second raised the state corporate tax. Together, the two taxes will raise enough revenue to cover the state’s $727 million budget shortfall. Similar initiatives are already being circulated in Washington State, and we can expect them to be on the ballots of several more states by this November. The Tea Party may think they’re overtaxed, but Oregon’s voters made it decisively clear that they don’t agree.

The more closely you look, the more you notice just how dodgy the Tea Party’s “victories” really are. They may have the media’s adoration, but where the rubber hits the road, they’re not moving actual candidates or issues.

5. The Tea Party is successfully affecting legislation moving through Congress.
False.

Their record on the policy front is even more dismal than their election failures. As CAF’s own Bill Scher has pointed out, a long hot summer spent disrupting town hall meetings didn’t do squat to derail health care reform. Climategate has not changed Americans’ solid support for cap-and-trade. Even getting Van Jones tossed out of the West Wing didn’t put a stop to the green jobs and infrastructure programs that were Jones’ signature issue. Those are still going forward. (And though they planned for Jones to be the first of many purges, the headcount is still stalled at one.)

What Congress really seems to have learned from last summer is that these aren’t people they have to be afraid of. They’re plenty noisy; but they’re too low-information to generate any serious ideas of their own. If Congress isn’t obsessing about the Tea Party, perhaps the rest of us shouldn’t be, either.

6. Forty-one percent of Americans have a positive impression of the Tea Party.
Say what?

This number came from an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll done back in January. The poll found that 41 percent of Americans have a positive view of the tea party movement; but only 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of the Democrats; and only 28 percent have a positive view of the Republican Party. This poll is being bruited about as proof positive that the Tea Party is powerful and important and here to stay.

Not so fast, there. What the media doesn’t tell you is that same poll also found that 48 percent of those interviewed knew “very little” or “nothing at all” about the Tea Party movement. Furthermore, the way the poll described the movement to respondents gave a very mild description compared to what we’ve actually seen at Tea Party events.

And even if it’s true that 41 percent of Americans may not see anything particularly wrong with the TP, the fact remains that when they actually vote, 70 percent of them are still standing on the liberal side on the issues that matter.

7. Glenn Beck is an important American political voice, and we need to listen to him.
Not really.

Bill Scher dealt with this one, too. Back in early January, he wrote:

…the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank based an entire column on the notion that Glenn Beck is more popular than the Pope — both actually received a scant 2% in an open-ended Gallup poll asking what man you admire most, while the President led with 30%.

(I can play this game too: Barack Obama is 15 times more admired than the Pope!)

Bill goes on to dismantle Milbank’s reasons for thinking Beck matters:

* Beck has “3 million a night” watching his show. Well, that’s 1% of the country. Bravo.

* Beck’s show helps drive book sales., hence he has “cultural impact.” Actually, it takes a lot less than 3 million to make a best-seller list, so again, not exactly evidence that Beck “is America,” as Milbank suggests….

* …Finally, he credits Beck with being a “major promoter of the Tea Party movement.” If attending large rallies amounts to “huge impact,” I guess the folks from A.N.S.W.E.R are who really ruled the roost the last decade.

I’d be the last person to minimize the danger Beck and his followers pose to the peace and good order of the country. But the bottom line is that there really aren’t very many of them. They may be fanatics, but they’re hardly a mass movement.

8. But…doesn’t the Tea Party have a point when it says we have to reduce the debt?
No, it doesn’t.

The Tea Party’s fallacy is that they assume that the national budget is just like their own household budgets. According to a recent poll, paying down debt is the number one concern of American families right now; and since most of us see the nation as simply an extension of the family, it’s natural to think that if we have to tighten our belts, Uncle Sam should have to do it, too.

But, as President Obama has pointed out on several occasions, there’s not much disagreement among economists — left or right — about the right way to respond to this kind of financial crisis. When the economy is flagging, the government is the spender of last resort — the only entity left that can spend enough money to keep the economy moving. And while taking on debt is worrisome, a well-executed recovery will create enough investment and expansion that we should be able to pay that debt off quickly within the decade.

We’ve had 80 years of experience using the Keynesian cure in countries all over the globe, and we know it works. Given that long certainty, reducing the debt right now would be the most irresponsible thing we could possibly do. And there’s no serious economist in the world who will tell you otherwise.

Beyond that, the tea partiers are confused beyond belief about what’s actually in the federal budget. If you handed them a copy of the budget and asked them which items should go first, they’d entirely bypass the biggest-ticket item on the list, which is military spending. (Gotta support our troops.) And they’ve already told us, loudly, that they want the government to keep its grubby hands off their Social Security and Medicare, so they won’t be making cuts there, either. And that, right there, leaves better than half the budget totally untouchable.

If you pin them down on where they think the waste is, it becomes obvious they’re still operating under the delusion that most of their tax money is going to entitlements to undeserving slackers who didn’t follow the rules (starting with Rule One, which is: Be Born White). You cannot get them to believe that these programs are actually a very small part of the federal budget — less than 15%, and shrinking.

9. But aren’t they on the side of the Founders when they insist that we limit the size of government?
No.

Another irony: the Tea Party has a deep libertarian streak that distrusts all large concentrations of power. So they agree in principle with progressives that corporations should be reined in.

But they don’t think it’s the role of the government to do that. I have no idea who else they think is capable of doing the job. And I doubt they do, either.

Today’s Too Much newsletter addressed this very issue. (Scroll to the bottom of the page for the article.). They argue that the Founders did indeed believe in limited government; but they believed that the best way to do that was to ensure a level of economic equality that prevented anyone from accumulating too much wealth. They knew that oppressively large governments would always be created by, and at the service of, the rich and powerful — and that therefore, government had an essential role to play in preventing those accumulations and keeping the field level.

The founders were also explicit that this takes regulation and taxation, both of which the Tea Party is emphatically against. This is where you end up when everything you know about Jefferson and Paine you learned from Glenn Beck.

10. Still, we have to take the Tea Party seriously, because they’re authentic American voices.
Why?

I’m the mother of teenagers. And listening to the Tea Party’s political voice, it’s hard to tell the difference between this movement and any standard-issue angry adolescent. I’ve heard every bit of it before, most of it at high, petulant volume while standing in my own kitchen. You aren’t the boss of me. You can’t tell me how to spend my money. I don’t owe anything to the people who raised me. I’m completely independent and self-sufficient, I have no obligations to the past or future or the greater good, and society has nothing to offer me beyond leaving me alone. Also: even though you’ve had all this education and life experience, I’m just as smart as you are, so there!

Of course, experienced parents of teens know how to bring the full extent of their actual interdependence home in all kinds of rather pointed ways. “OK, you think you’re old enough to do what you want? Great. From now on, you’re cooking your own food and doing your own grocery shopping and arranging your own transportation. Also note: you’ll be doing this without access to my money or my car keys. Have fun.” Even my 16-year-old has gotten himself over the idea that he’s entitled to help himself to the family’s resources without making contributions in kind. He’s a part of Us — and the obligations, as well as the benefits, go both ways.

The tea partiers, like my teenagers, just haven’t thought it all through. They know what they know, and don’t stop to consider that the world may be far more complex and nuanced than the limited bit of it they see. They’re noisy and whiny and can make big scenes in public; but beyond that, there’s no real power, no deeply-considered policy, no political clout, no victories worth noting, no vision of the common good, and not even a stable internal party structure to build on.

There is, in the end, no there there. And it’s time for the media to turn its attention to that fact, ask the hard questions about who these people are and where they want to take us, and tell the country the whole story — not just the parts that look good on TV, or that the professional PR handlers want them to see.

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