Tough Times for the Tea Party?

Sara Robinson

We are a fickle people, ruled by a fickle media. It’s astonishing how much national opinion can change in just a week or two. And if you don’t believe me, just ask the Tea Party.

They’ve had a rough couple of weeks. To summarize just some of the ongoing catastrophe:

* The third Tea Party express bus tour ended on April 15 with disappointing turnout at rallies across the country. I’d be surprised to see another one, frankly. The news value of these excursions is pretty much exhausted by now.

There is, absolutely, such a thing as overexposure; and the Tea Party seems to have finally achieved it. Reporters coming out for the third time around were no longer distracted by the novelty value of costumes, firearms, and signs — and thus more likely to start looking at little deeper at who was there and what they were actually saying. This time, the usual enchantments didn’t work nearly as well, for several reasons that will become clear below.

* Even as the buses rolled across America, FOX News — which has been the media arm of the Tea Party from the very first — showed serious signs of backing off on its commitment to the movement. A few weeks ago, Rupert Murdoch promised to “look into” FOX’s level of political advocacy. It’s possible that his new interest may be the reason Sean Hannity’s plans to broadcast his show directly from a Tea Party event in Cleveland last week were aborted by the network’s senior management, who called him back to New York at the very last minute to do the show from his own studio instead. The message to Hannity and the rest of FOX’s stable of on-air talent was clear: Don’t do that again.

This is a costly blow. If the Tea Party loses the amplification provided by FOX’s full-throated noise machine, and the day may not be far off when the Tea Party might is nothing more than a bunch of old ladies in gloves and hats, sitting around drinking, y’no, tea.

* Somehow, somewhere (I really can’t imagine), the media finally picked up on the realization that what these people were advocating was nothing short of sedition, and started calling it out as such. Quite a few journalists
and their editors made the resolution that this was something that responsible news professionals shouldn’t be feeding into, and decided not to spend any more bandwidth on it.

It’s been a long time since the media took their job as guardians of democratic discourse this seriously. Let’s hope it’s the start of a new trend.

* This realization was helped along by a CBS/New York Times poll that revealed the true face of the Tea Party: white, male, middle-aged, and somewhat above the national average in both income and education. This revelation (which is hardly startling to people who’ve actually spent time with the far right wing, but apparently stunned mainstream journalists) blew the lid off the assumption that the group was somehow the authentic voice of a disenfranchised white American underclass. Now we all know that it’s actually a group of overentitled whiners who’ve already gotten more than the usual breaks in our society, but still think they’re owed more.

Perhaps the ugliest part of this was the finding that 25% of the movement’s members are tired of the country’s focus on the problems of black people. There have been a lot of attempts to attribute the Tea Party’s entire agenda to unabashed racism, though I’ve argued that it’s a little more complicated than that. Still, this little factoid provided irrefutable proof of race ugliness at work — which, in turn, gave the media the permission they needed to write the Tea Party off as nothing more than a bunch of cranky racists. It’s not quite accurate, but anything that gets media to lay off giving these folks a public platform is probably a win.

* The same poll also revealed that the Tea Party represents the views of just 18% of the country — a number that’s probably somewhere near the outer limit of what they can ever expect to achieve. (There are probably another 10% that broadly sympathize, but won’t join.) This means that while they’re the Republican Party’s biggest problem right now, they’re not really ours — a perspective that gives the media even more reason to put them on permanent “ignore” status.

* The Tea Party tried to own April 19 — the anniversary of the Shot Heard Round the World, not to mention the tragedies at Waco and Oklahoma City — with not one, but two, Second Amendment rallies in the Washington area. One was armed. The other was not. Which was which hardly matters, given that neither attracted more than a few hundred souls.

Fortunately, the media (thank you MSNBC — and Rachel Maddow most especially) held up their end in turning this dismal occasion into a national teachable moment about where unchecked right-wing extremism can lead. The upshot is that more of us now understand that the Tea Party is a gateway drug for rageaholic right-wingers; and that once hooked, it’s inevitable that some of them will move on to the harder stuff, like Tim McVeigh and Scott Roeder and the Hutaree did.

* Internally, the split between the corporatist wing of the party that’s now firmly in thrall to Sarah Palin, and the more libertarian grassroots side, which is still gathered behind Ron Paul, is widening into a full-on schism. And the line seems to run 50/50, right down the middle — with one half saying they wouldn’t vote for Sarah Palin if she was the only candidate on the ticket, and the other half shooting back that they wouldn’t vote for Ron Paul if he turned out to be the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan. It’s getting ugly, and seems likely to get uglier next year as the political world gears up for the 2012 election.

* Progressives have always known that there was more astroturf than grassroots in the Tea Party movement; but thanks to TPM Muckraker, we recently found out that a lot of that astroturf was laid down by Koch Industries, which has also been a major funder of the climate denial echo chamber. Koch funnels much largesse to Americans For Prosperity, one of the two DC-based GOP PR powerhouses that’s been doing most of the organizing for the movement.

Tea Partiers love to present themselves as principled, individualistic patriots who want to “take their country back” from the liberal blight. Most of them have no idea they’re being organized specifically — and a tremendous cost — by the country’s biggest oil and chemical interests, for the specific purpose of permanently disabling our collective ability to regulate their corporate behavior. In short: it has nothing to do with taxes, and everything to do with Koch’s single-minded determination to do whatever the hell it wants without accounting to anybody. That’s the real freedom you’re fighting for, y’all.

* And perhaps worst of all: the politicians are backpedaling away from the Tea Party’s seditionist rhetoric at a speed that ought to qualify them for the next Summer Olympics. Elected Republicans aren’t thrilled by the prospect of facing primary challenges from the Tea Party, which are starting to take shape here and there. GOP leaders are realizing that if the Tea Party candidates win those challenges, they’ve got almost no chance of winning the general elections and keeping those seats come fall. And almost every other pol with any sense is getting some mileage between themselves and the Tea Party’s more rebellious excesses, out of fear that they’ll be seen as standing too close for plausible deniability when the next act of right-wing domestic terrorism occurs.

Is the Tea Party over? It’s too early to say. But it doesn’t look good right now. Overexposed by a fickle media, jilted by FOX News, riven by a growing schism, confirmed as nothing more than a bunch of corporate tools, and increasingly viewed as potentially toxic by even the GOP’s most ardent conservatives, they’ve hit a bad patch that may be very hard to pull out of in time for the fall elections.

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