What “Populist Uprising?” Part 2: Further Reflections on an “Astroturf Movement”

The much-ballyhooed Tea Party “movement” that has arisen to absurdly accuse the corporate and imperial Barack Obama administration with “socialism,” “favoring the poor,” and other “radical leftist” crimes claims to be a decentralized, independent, “grassroots,” and popular/populist uprising against concentrated power.  Contrary to that claim, Part 1 of our report presented recent polling data showing that Tea Party cadres are disproportionately affluent and Caucasian.  The Tea Partyers “anti-government” rhetoric, we showed on the basis of survey data and participatory observation (at Tea Party rallies), amounts largely to a selfish and significantly race-biased call for a government that sustains their own petit-bourgeois benefits and privileges while slashing service and programs for the disproportionately non-white lower and working classes.  Tea Party signage, platform rhetoric, literature, and Web sites demonstrate the “movement’s” petit-bourgeois, nationalist, racist, nativist, and (in largely metropolitan areas) suburban character and composition.

This does not mean that all those who sympathize with the Tea Party’s policy positions (such as their stated opposition to the Wall Street bailouts) are affluent elitists.  Recent polling by Gallup indicates that those who generically consider themselves Tea Party “supporters” (as opposed to “members” and “activists,” who are a different breed) tend to be less well off and more socioeconomically “mainstream.”  A recent Rasmussen poll suggests that nearly half (48 percent) of Americans find some points with which to agree with the Tea Party.  And of course, even many comparatively advantaged Tea Partyers do express some legitimate grievances: they are understandably angry over having to work harder and longer while accumulating greater (and unsustainable) personal debt and seeing ever more wealth concentrated into the hands of the corporate and financial elite.  But rage at the opulent few is not terribly evident in their “movement,” which focuses more of its anger at those beneath them in the nation’s steep and interrelated hierarchies of class and race — at those who seek benefits similar to those enjoyed by middle and upper-middle class whites.

Far from representing a legitimate popular movement, the Tea Party is more accurately described as a top-down interest group led by national and local political officials and financed by corporate America.  We agree with left journalist Jeremy Scahill that the Tea Party is a classic “Astroturf movement” — a “fake grassroots movement” that is “run by the lobby of big corporations,” which is “taking advantage of the stupidity of a lot of people who regularly vote against their own self interest on economic policy.”  Scahill’s reference to the stupidity — or (we would argue) gullibility — of the “movement” seems particularly apt in light of the fact that the Tea Party’s rank and file members strongly support Medicare and Social Security, while the “movement’s” leaders, such as Dick Armey, lead the Republican campaign to gut both programs in the name of self-reliance, freedom, and “free market” capitalism.

Contrary to the Tea Party’s claims to populist rebellion, the organization is a very top-down affair.  The biggest revelation we’ve uncovered in our own on-the-ground investigation is that it’s not a social movement.  One wouldn’t know this, however, from reading stories in both dominant corporate media and liberal-left media.  Business papers like the Wall Street Journalframe the Tea Party as “aggressively nonpartisan,” while the New York Timesreports that “The Tea Party Movement is a diffuse American grass-roots group that taps into antigovernment sentiments,” but there is little evidence that the Tea Party is either diffuse or grassroots.

The dominant corporate media itself has been feeding Tea Party movement mythology.  A review of the Lexis Nexis database from April 9-15 (the week running up to the Tea Party’s headline-garnering April 15th national tax protests) reveals that the Tea Party is referred to as a social movement in more than 115 stories, Op-Eds, editorials, and letters, in newspapers across all regions of the United States.  Liberal and progressive websites have repeated the same misinformation.

The “mainstream” media’s framing of the Tea Party stands in dramatic contrast to its treatment of the anti-war movement.  In the week run up to the February 15, 2003 global protests against the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq — in which BBC estimated that between 6 and 10 million turned out nationwide and internationally — the protests were recognized as a “movement” in just 24 newspapers stories, Op-Eds, editorials, and letters across the country.  In an interesting refutation of the right’s claims of “liberal [media] bias,” the Tea Party is seen by the mass media as more than four times worthier of “movement” status even though the Tea Party’s turnout nationally is in the tens to hundreds of thousands at best, compared to the millions who turned out to march against Iraq.

Some in the progressive press have fallen victim to media and Tea Party misinformation.  Chuck Collins and John Nichols of The Nation claim that progressives should reach out to members of the “Tea Party movement” (Collins calls it a “social movement”) despite disagreeing with them on many issues.  The Huffington Post‘s reporting of an April 15th Tax Day rally in Chicago presented Tea Party demonstrators as part of a “movement [that] gained more attention through its loud and often vitriolic protest of Obama’s signature health care legislation.”

Contrary to media claims that the Tea Party is non-partisan, one can see after close examination that it is fundamentally dependent upon the Republican Party.  Perhaps the biggest alarm bell concerning the false “grassroots” nature of the Tea Party is seen in its most prominent leaders, all leading and heavily corporate-connected Republicans.  The anti-war movement has commonly considered dissidents like Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, and Cindy Sheehan as among the most visible public opponents of the Iraq war.  None of these figures are political officials or representatives of corporate America; they work with actually grassroots and local organizations to oppose war and occupation.  In sharp contrast, the Tea Party’s most notable public figures include people like Dick Armey, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann.  All three occupied/occupy key political positions at the state and Congressional levels, have extensive ties with corporate America, and blatantly violate their own rhetorical support for “free markets” by granting massive welfare subsidies to corporate America.  As the former Republican House Majority Leader, Dick Armey supported legislation that would subsidize energy corporations with taxpayer money by funding the transport of more than 77 million tons of nuclear waste to the Yucca Mountain repository and pay to store it there indefinitely.  Armey authorized massive military appropriations that greatly benefitted corporate military contractors, enthusiastically supported agribusiness subsidies, voted against a bipartisan campaign finance reform bill that would have imposed limits on the amount of money corporations can contribute to political campaigns, and sided with health insurance providers over consumers by attacking a Senate bill attempting to establish a “patient’s bill of rights.”  After leaving Congress, Armey became the head of Freedom Works, the lobbying interest group that spearheaded the organization of the 2009 “Town Hall” Tea Party protests against health care reform.  While Armey’s Tea Party publicly rallied against the bailout, Armey quietly lobbied on behalf of companies like CarMax for loan subsidies from the TARP program (also known as the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or economic “bailout”).  Armey now lobbies energetically for federal corporate welfare even as he continues to condemn social welfare programs like Medicare as “tyranny.”

As a current House Republican in Congress from Minnesota and a prominent speaker for the Tea Party, Michele Bachmann is amassing an impressive record colluding with corporate America.  Her top campaign contributors in 2008 included the securities and investment industry, insurance corporations, pharmaceutical interests, and real estate firms.  While she hasn’t been in office long, she’s already established a record of decrying social welfare spending, while supporting taxpayer subsidies for agribusiness.  Bachmann’s family farm received $250,000 in government handouts as a part of Congress’s agribusiness subsidy program.  Bachmann lists her investment in the farm at $250,000, and posted a $50,000 income from the property in 2008.

Sarah Palin may have failed in her Vice Presidential run in 2008, but she is embraced as one of the leading proponents of the Tea Party, speaking regularly at the group’s rallies, and receiving favorable ratings from most Tea Partyers in opinion surveys.  She’s also built a career on corporate welfare.  She ran under a ticket in 2008 that received $2.4 million from oil and gas contributions, with these industries combined ranking the 11th largest contributor to the McCain campaign.  Palin has been an enthusiastic supporter of handing over public lands for corporate resource extraction and profiteering.  Most prominently, she endorsed a corporate campaign to drill for oil in as much as one-tenth of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve when she was governor of Alaska.

Revelations that the most visible leaders of the Tea Party are strong opponents of “free markets” would be more damning for this movement if anyone bothered to acknowledge it.  Instead, Palin and Bachmann are celebrated by the “movement” as they repeat tired dictums about the virtues of the “free market” and the evils of “Obama socialism.”  The contradictions inherent within Armey’s Freedom Works — which publicly supports laissez faire capitalism but privately fuels taxpayer dollars to corporate America — are not acknowledged by the leaders or rank-and-file members of the Tea Party.  To be fair, most Tea Partyers may not even be aware of their leaders’ troubled corporate-socialist pasts; most of those demonstrating seem genuinely committed to “free markets” and probably don’t know how firmly entrenched corporate welfare is among the Republicans they support.

Our experience with Midwest chapters of the Tea Party suggest that it’s more accurate to define it as an interest group fronting for the Republican Party, funded by corporate dollars, and characterized by an authoritarian, top-down structure, rather than one relying on grassroots empowerment, localization, and decentralization.  One of our first encounters with the group was in Chicago (with the most visible chapter in the area, the “Chicago Tea Party Patriots”), following an anti-war talk we gave at Columbia College on April 13 of this year.  In an upscale South Loop tavern we visited, we ran across a grand total of four people who had turned out in response to the Chicago Tea Party call for supporters to create signs for the April 15th rally in the city’s downtown Daley Plaza.  The bar was, for all intents and purposes, empty.  The meager turnout for this gathering piqued our curiosity on how much popular participation the group enjoyed.  Further investigation led only to more suspicion.

National polling figures from the New York Times suggest that the local activism of the Tea Party is very weak, as just 21 percent of the public reports knowing of a local Tea Party chapter that is “politically active” in their community.  Our survey of more than 150 Tea Party groups nationwide suggests the number is even lower, with just 8 percent of local chapters advertising regular weekly or monthly meetings on their websites, and a majority of the local chapters claiming turnouts for the April 15th rally not even having websites of their own (these chapters are listed online, but only on the larger, centralized, national “Tea Party Patriots” website).

Turnout for various Tea Party protests is also radically smaller than one would expect if the four percent of Americans who classify themselves as “activists” for the “movement” were actually participating in demonstrations.  Some examples drive the point home in greater detail: the Tea Party protest in the Chicago’s south suburb of Joliet saw just 300 demonstrators for a city of 152,000, although a turnout of four percent of the city’s population would have required more than 6,000 protestors.  In the case of Chicago, the turnout of 2,100 at the April 15th rally represents just .07 percent of the city’s population.  If just one percent of the city’s population turned out for the rally (1/4th of those who claim to be Tea Party activists), one should have seen nearly 30,000 demonstrators.  The drastic under-turnouts at Tea Party rallies suggest that either the vast majority of the four percent of Americans who call themselves Tea Party activists are exaggerating the extent of their involvement in the “movement,” or a vast majority of these individuals think that they can be “activists” without bothering to show up for the most important Tea Party protest to date.  Whichever is the case, the Tea Party begins to look less like any kind of genuine social movement and more like a covert campaign designed to protect privilege and return Republicans to Congressional power in the midterm elections.

In studying the Tea Party, we were surprised to find that there is little evidence of sustained local activity — the prime ingredient of any successful social movement.  We were interested in attending meetings of local chapters of the Tea Party throughout the city of Chicago and its suburbs in order to learn more about exactly who made up this “movement.”  We perused the Web sites of Chicago area chapters for when they regularly met (or planned to meet).  There was only one problem — there were virtually no meetings listed.  Further investigation demonstrated that the “local chapters” of the Tea Party were essentially non-existent, save a single contact name listed for each group.  The majority of the chapters (13 of the 20 examined) had no website of their own, and were coordinated through a central national website (“the Tea Party Patriots”).  Curiously, the umbrella national Tea Party Web site refers to its local chapters as part of an “official grassroots American movement.”

In fact, we haven’t been able to locate muchevidence that local, regular meetings even take place.  To the extent that any of these local websites listed ways to “get involved,” they suggested signing online petitions, attending the April 15th rally, and attending local Sarah Palin and Michele Bachman visits.  Not a single one of the local websites examined provided information for regular local chapter meetings taking place prior to the April 15th demonstration.  Only three of the twenty groups listed information for meetings for the roughly 5 million people living in Chicago suburbs, which, in the future, were to be centrally located at the Hyatt Chicago Place in the suburb of Schaumburg, in addition to two other locations.  In other words, the allegedly decentralized Tea Party has virtually no base of regular participants (short of those who passively receive email updates), and retains a highly centralized meeting system (with only one meeting per month) in just three of 264 jurisdictions in the Chicago metropolitan area.  These findings should strike anyone with experience in progressive activism (long characterized by regular, local grassroots participation) as damning.  The vast majority of the local anti-war and environmental groups with which we have been involved meet regularly (typically once per week), and are significantly the products of the communities we inhabit.

A closer examination of the most prominent of the Chicago area chapters (the “Chicago Tea Party Patriots”) suggests that the Tea Party is lacking a serious participatory dimension and is in reality an elite-coordinated front group for the Republican Party.  The Chicago Tea Party spearheaded the protest in Daley Plaza, but its website listed just three events in the run-up to April 15th: the April 13th sign-making session (attended by just four people and witnessed by us at the aforementioned tavern); the tax day rally; and a local speaking event for Michele Bachman in Oakbrook (one of the smallest and wealthiest of Chicago’s suburbs) at Ditka’s Restaurant, sponsored by the Republican Party, and charging $90.

Such elitism is not restricted to Chicago.  The national Tea Party’s gatherings are economically exclusionist.  Its February 2010 meeting cost $549 per attendee.  Such prices are not surprising, considering that Tea Party events pay exorbitant rates for speakers like Sarah Palin, who receives $100,000 per engagement.

The April 15th Chicago protest left us with an even stronger impression that the Tea Party is not a social movement, but a façade for the Republican’s 2010 electoral push.  Anyone who attended a significant anti-war protest in Washington D.C. from 2002 through 2007 would have seen a plethora of local groups congregated in the capital, with a heavy tabling and leafleting/pamphleteering presence.  The Chicago Tea Party rally was starkly different.  There was no serious tabling, leafleting, or pamphleteering.  Attending the Chicago demonstration, we were able to gather no more than a single “movement” flyer.  The only visible table was there to sell Tea Party T-shirts.

The speaking list for the April 15th Chicago rally cemented the Tea Party’s status as a covert Republican operation.  Candidates running for Congress represented five of the fifteen speakers, none of whom was an independent; all were Republicans.  Curiously enough, the speakers were careful never to reference these candidates as running for the Republican Party.  They made it a point to repeat, over and over again, that this “movement” had nothing to do with partisan politics, and that it was a genuinely grassroots phenomenon advancing “leaderless resistance.”  The crowed booed as a number of speakers complained that some “conspiracy theorists” see the Tea Party as (just imagine!) a front for corporate power and Republicans.  Such denial and evasion notwithstanding, the speakers consistently echoed core Republican Party themes, celebrating “free markets” and complaining about the supposedly inherent corruption of “big government,” while promising “leaderless resistance.”  A leading Tea Party figure from the deeply reactionary Illinois Policy Institute even went as far as to promise a “revolution” but then fell back on to shopworn Republican rhetoric demonizing Congressional Democrats and Obama’s supposed “socialism” and (even) “Marxism” and defending middle-class taxpayers’ right to keep more of their own money from faceless government bureaucrats.  By the end of the rally, the message — delivered implicitly and explicitly — was clear: all one really needs to do is simply to vote the right way (for power-serving Republicans masquerading as unaffiliated popular rebels) in November.

Our investigation of the Tea Party raises interesting questions for those progressives who criticize “the left” for failing to “be more like the right” in our activist campaigns.  It would be easy to say, though, that progressives have been incredibly successful if our goal had been to return Democrats to power in 2008, making use of massive subsidies from corporate America, and benefitting from all the institutional resources of the Democratic Party in pursuing that endeavor.  Election victories within the narrow-spectrum business-dominated U.S. political system are the main goal of the Tea Party, which has provided little indication of any sort of plan for changing society outside of returning Republicans to power in late 2010.  In contrast, the true progressive and radical left seeks to fundamentally reshape society from the bottom up over and against the corporate elite and the reigning political parties.

The rise of the Tea Party is a sign of the “failure of the left” — in a different sense.  “The left,” significantly pacified and demobilized by Obama and the corporate Democrats, has surely failed to capitalize on the recent economic downturn, and has generally failed to establish a progressive movement in the short term.  Still, the Tea Party represents a concession from Republican Party elites that they (along with their Democratic counterparts) no longer enjoy much legitimacy among the American people.  Their only way of appealing to voters is to appear as if they are not political leaders, but “average people” taking part in a populist uprising against a corrupt political system.  This was Sarah Palin’s message as she addressed a Tea Party Convention this year as their keynote speaker.  Palin was careful to praise the Tea Party for being comprised of “real people, not politicos” or beltway insiders, while also supporting the Republican victory of Scott Brown from Massachusetts, framing Brown as a new breed of politician who stands outside the traditional corruption of Washington.  Contrary to Palin’s propaganda, Brown is the quintessential career politician, serving in the Massachusetts House and Senate for 12 years, and thoroughly reliant on corporate advertising dollars for his election (and many re-elections).

At one level, the Tea Party phenomenon could be said to reflect an elite admission that the U.S political system lacks popular credibility and moral authority.  Increasingly, the public does not view that system as a valid representative of the public will.  A strong majority of Americans feel that “their” political system is fundamentally broken, run for the benefit of the few, and captive to what the Left commentators Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money,” which exercises a permanent behind-the-scenes veto power over any who would foolishly seek “to change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime.”  In such an environment, the Republican Party sees its return to power as contingent upon a (fake) grassroots strategy, in which they seek to convince the public to vote Republicans back into office — thereby enabling policies even more actively detrimental to the majority of Americans than those currently being enacted under the rule of corporate Democrats — by selling the same old neoliberal reforms (opposed by strong majorities) through the use of “local” front groups posing as a genuine, bottom-up, populist, and participatory (“leaderless resistance”) social movement.  It’s nothing new.

Anthony DiMaggio is the author of the newly released When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and the Limits of Dissent (Monthly Review Press, February 2020).  He is also the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the “War on Terror” (Lexington Books, 2008), and teaches U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University.  He may be reached at <adimagg@ilstu.edu>.  Paul Street’s next book is The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, July/August 2010).  Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder,CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era ( New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).

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