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Slouching Toward D.C., Trailing Bags of Tea

In The Taming of the American Crowd: From Stamp Riots to Shopping Sprees, I argue that unlike the kind of crowds that have surged across the pages of American history and unlike crowds in certain other parts of the world, today’s American crowds seldom even figure in the news.  We have crowds of shoppers, spectators, and travelers, but these are ill-prepared to act as one.  Then, in April 2009, when Taming was well along in Monthly Review Press’s publication process, some American crowds did begin to make the news.

On April 15, thousands of angry Americans attended Tax Day “tea parties” at about 750 sites across the nation.  In Lansing, Michigan, 3,000 to 4,000 people cheered Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. “Joe the Plumber.”  At another such rally in Salt Lake City, they booed Utah’s Republican governor for accepting $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money.  Two thousand miles to the northwest, hundreds of Alaskans were chanting, “No More Spending!”  Many of these protestors followed up by mailing tea bags to members of Congress and other officials.  The lumpy envelops raised alarms, prompting building closures, scrutiny by hazardous-material teams, and the robotic retrieval of one such packet from in front of the White House.

Over the summer, tea-bag dissidents disrupted dozens of local meetings with Congressional representatives.  Some hung an effigy of Representative Frank Kratovil (D-MD) from a noose in front of his office.  An Austin, Texas, crowd set up a deafening chant of “Just Say No!” when Democratic Representative Lloyd Doggett tried to discuss health care reform at a neighborhood meeting.  Some even followed him to a second meeting.  In Rome, New York, a crowd kept shouting “Liar!” at a thoroughly disconcerted Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Majority Leader.  At a town hall meeting in Petaluma, California, constituents of the progressive Democrat Lynn Woolsey were shocked to discover that many in their midst were shouting “Liar!  Liar!” in an effort to drown the Congresswoman out.  This according to an attendee.

On September 12, tens of thousands participated in a Tax Payers March on Washington, singing, chanting, waving flags and signs, and harassing any journalist they could find who was not affiliated with Fox News.1  One attendee, Congressman Kevin Brady (R-TX), afterwards complained about the D.C. subway service: there were not enough cars and trains to accommodate all the tax protestors.  Welcome, Congressman, to the world of underfunded public transit.  Then, on November 5, thousands of opponents of health care reform from across the United States converged on Washington to chant, “Kill the Bill!”

Who are these demonstrators and what do they want?  Observers describe them, generally, as whites in their 50s and 60s.  Both fiscally and socially conservative, they tend to identify as Christians, and they are strongly opposed to women’s abortion rights.  They have shown that they have at least the means to fly to Washington from sites throughout the country.  But let’s let some of them speak for themselves, through their signs: “Abolish the I.R.S.,” “Less Government More Free Enterprise,” “We Miss Reagan” (though presumably not his huge budget deficits), and “Honk if You’re Upset About Your Tax Dollars Being Spent on Illegal Aliens.”

The weak tea of Democratic compromise on health care reform serves as fire water to tea-bagger outrage: “No Socialistic Health Care,” “Politicians Lie, Patients Die,” “Hey, Obamacare!  Hands Off My Body,” “The Public Option is a Lie,” and the dim-witted “Government Hands Off Medicare.”  In the eyes of many, the Obama administration represents radical change: “Stop the March to Socialism” (with a picture of Obama as Che), “Is This Russia?” and the mean-spirited “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy.”  Amid these anti-reform messages, the racism of the “birther” tendency is barely disguised: “The Zoo Has an African Lion and the White House Has a Lyin’ African” and “‘Cap’ Congress and ‘Trade’ Obama Back to Kenya.”

When interviewed, tea-bag demonstrators express contempt for the federal government but tend to explain their opposition with slogans and conservative talking points.  One need not look far afield to discover the birthplace of their thinking and tactics. Opposition to Obama’s “socialist agenda,” specifically regarding his proposed cap and trade approach to reducing greenhouse emissions and his “government-run health care” are items on the conservative checklist by which the G.O.P. would judge potential Republican candidates for public office.  Tea-bag protestors take their cues from Fox News talk-show hosts, as well.  Fox has broadcast shows from their rallies.  The website of FreedomWorks, a primary organizer of their largest events, urges people to demonstrate outside their legislator’s district office and features a map of the United States that highlights numerous potential resistance sites.  FreedomWorks Board of Directors includes Dick Armey, the former G.O.P. House Majority Leader, and Steve Forbes, billionaire editor of Forbes magazine and flat-tax advocate.  Matt Kibbe, ex-staffer of the Republican National Committee and president of Citizens for a Sound Economy is a lead organizer.  Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national organizer of Tea Party Patriots, has been a paid G.O.P. consultant.  Another major influence is Fox News host Glenn Beck, with his warnings of “economic apocalypse.”  Beck promises to teach his followers how to become community organizers.  He will help them find their teeth and sharpen them, or so he says.

In sum, the tea-bagger crowds represent a break with the usual antithesis of organized people versus organized money.  They serve the interests of powerful others.  Medical insurers, carbon polluters, and other representatives of corporate America must be cheering, though perhaps not openly.  Crowds of evangelicals had already ended what had been, for years, a left monopoly on mass protests.  Remember Terri Schiavo and her controversial feeding tubes?  As for the electronically-mediated demagoguery of Fox News hosts, that goes back at least as far as Father Coughlin, the Nazi-sympathizing “radio priest” of the 1930s.

Can the workings of the G.O.P. propaganda machine explain the passion of the tea-bag crowds?  For progressives, the problem with the government is that large corporations have colonized it.  For these right-wing populists, government is inherently confiscatory.  Progressives see the problem with the Democrats as raising false hopes, draining energy from resistance to American imperialism and corporate rule while offering, at best, only watered-down reform.  For these new demonstrators, the question of who governs, Democrats or Republicans, is a matter of life (of the “unborn”) and death (panels).  Progressives hope to save lives, too, when we organize against the nation’s wars and military occupations, but we understand that murderous policies enjoy bipartisan support.  As for the president, one suspects that race has everything to do with tea-bagger willingness to view him as a flaming radical.  Such labels can have little to do with his actual politics.

Was my tamed-crowd thesis premature?  I think not.  The tea-bag crowds treat elected officials with rudeness and disrespect, but compared with the riotous crowds of America’s past, these conservatives show remarkable restraint.  But there is a more important sense in which the tea-bag crowds are rather tame.  Unlike, for example, the crowds that gathered in the early years of the Depression to resist evictions, enforce collective demands for food, and back striking workers at industrial sites, and unlike the crowds of 1877 that temporarily took over St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and much of the nation’s railroad system, these tea-bag crowds do nothing to threaten the existing order.  In fact, they reinforce it.  Still, Fox News, FreedomWorks, et al. stir dark and atavistic forces when they encourage a politics of paranoia.  As one protestor’s sign at the Tax Payers March warned, “We Came Unarmed (This Time).”


1  Interview with Pacifica Radio’s Washington correspondent, KPFA-FM, approximately September 14, 2009.

Al Sandine is an independent researcher.  His latest book, The Taming of the American Crowd: From Stamp Riots to Shopping Sprees, was just published by Monthly Review Press.

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