Much has been made in recent weeks about the “populist uprising” known as the Tea Party Movement and it’s impact on the mid-term elections and even on the presidential election in 2012.
There are only two things wrong with the term “populist uprising”: the Tea Party Movement is neither “populist” nor is it “uprising”. Other than that, it perfectly describes what isn’t happening.
It should not surprise anyone that the Party of No is where the Movement That is Not would find a home.
Please, may I pour? …
History of the Tea Party
One should not confuse the modern day Tea Party with the Boston Tea Party:
The Boston Tea Party was a direct action by colonists in Boston against the British government. On December 16, 1773, after officials in Boston refused to return three shiploads of taxed tea to Britain, a group of colonists boarded the ships and destroyed the tea by throwing it into Boston Harbor.
Colonists objected to the Tea Act for a variety of reasons, especially because they believed that it violated their right to be taxed only by their own elected representatives.
The modern Tea Party, of course, does have their own elected representatives including many within its own ranks.
To contrast, an example of an uprising is the can be found in the early history of the trade unions. The ILGWU – International Ladies Garments Workers Union was born out of two major events in the early 1900’s:
The first, in 1909, was known as “the Uprising of 20,000” and lasted for fourteen weeks. It was largely spontaneous, sparked by a short walkout of workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, involving only about 20% of the workforce. That, however, only prompted the rest of the workers to seek help from the union. The firm locked out its employees when it learned what was happening.
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Several months later, in 1910, the ILGWU led an even larger strike, later named “The Great Revolt”, of 60,000 cloakmakers. After months of picketing, prominent members of the Jewish community, led by Louis Brandeis, mediated between the ILGWU and the Manufacturers Association. It led to the Agreement known as the “Protocol of Peace”. In it, the ILGWU won union recognition and higher wages, as well as a rudimentary health benefits program. The employers won a promise that workers would settle their grievances through arbitration rather than strikes during the term of the Agreement (a common clause in Union contracts today).
The definition of Populism is a bit more difficult to pin down. In its simplest terms, populism is defined as “a belief in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people”. However, the term is often used by demagogues who wrap themselves in the cloak of populism to convince people of their virtue:
Demagoguery is a strategy for gaining political power by appealing to the prejudices, emotions, fears and expectations of the public—typically via impassioned rhetoric and propaganda, and often using nationalist, populist or religious themes.
In fact, the definition of demogoguery comes closer to describing the Tea Party Movement than “populist uprising” does.
What is the Tea Party?
The current Tea Party is loosely tied to the Taxed Enough Already protests that gained national attention on April 15 and were promoted by Fox News over the summer of 2009. This group labeled themselves the “teabaggers” to the
delight astonishment of those to whom the term teabagger meant something else entirely.
The teabaggers are more strongly tied to FreedomWorks, an astroturf group that is part of the Dick Armey. FreedomWorks connections to Armey were exposed by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and led to his resignation from a lobbying firm.
Finally, the Tea Party we are hearing the most about right now is officially the Tea Party Nation which is holding a convention in Nashville on Feb. 4-6. From MSNBC First Read: Tea Party Nation:
The $549 per person price tag for the sold-out Feb. 4-6 event … is closed to all but a “select” group of media friendly to the movement. [I]t was revealed that, unlike those similar national events, the organizer of the convention registered the group behind the event — Tea Party Nation — as a “for profit” corporation.
The little-known organizer is Judson Phillips, a self-described “small-town lawyer.” He is a former assistant district attorney now in private practice, specializing in driving-under-the-influence and personal-injury cases. He is organizing the convention with his wife, Sherry, his sister-in-law, and a handful of other volunteers.
Some of the original touted attendees have since dropped out:
“The convention had attracted several sponsorships from Tea Party affiliate groups.
But other tea partiers have openly balked at the $550 ticket price and $100,000 fee being paid to Palin for the keynote address, saying the high prices are contrary to the movement’s grass-roots image and preclude many activists from attending.” Note: “image”
As best as I can tell, here is the current face of the Tea Party:
Michele Bachmann of Minnesota
Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee
– Sarah Palin
– Rand Paul
Scott Brown of Massachusetts
Tea Party “Successes”
So why, you ask, is all this attention being paid to the Tea Party and teabaggery in general? Many people think that it relates to the hugely successful job they did in NY-23 where Doug Hoffman, the candidate chosen by the teabaggers lost 49% to 45% after an enormous influx of money and star power turning the district Democratic for the first time in over 100 years.
Some think it may be related to the gubernatorial wins for republicans in New Jersey and Virginia where teabaggers were not involved at all but were observed “really wishing that the Democrats would lose”.
Their biggest win of course was the victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts in a complete repudiation of
government sponsored health care same-sex marriages women and doctors making medical decisions people who run bad campaigns.
Speaking of Scott Brown, it can be expected that now that he has gotten his Senate seat and will be enjoying the perks that come from having a key to the Senate washroom (I believe they plan to give him Larry Craig’s key), he is pivoting away from the Tea Party because he knows how Massachusetts voters are feeling now that they realize that the “handsome young man with the pickup truck” was not the Democrat but that the woman who left town on a Caribean vacation two weeks before the election was. In fact, he did not even wait to be sworn in to start backing away from the Tea Party. In an interview with Barbara Walters:
WALTERS: The Tea Party movement was important to your victory. How influential do you think the Tea Party movement is going to be?
BROWN: Well, you’re making an assumption that the Tea Party movement was influential, and I have to respectfully disagree.
The Tea Party and the GOP
The biggest question about the Tea Party and the GOP is just who is joining who. Sarah Palin, one of the biggest names in both organizations, is hedging her bets by making sure she is the face of the Tea Party (and their largest vendor).
In an interview with Greta Van Susteren, Palin has this to say about the convention where she will be paid $100,000 for the keynote speech:
“Oh, you betcha I’m going to be there, I’m going to speak there because there are people traveling from many miles away to hear what that tea party movement is all about and what that message is that should be received by our politicians in Washington. I’m honored to get to be there.”
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Asked by Van Susteren whether she thinks the Republican Party would be best served by merging with the tea party movement, Palin replied with an enthusiastic endorsement of the idea. “They need to merge,” she said. “Definitely, they need to merge. I think those who are wanting the divisions and the divisiveness and the controversy — those are the ones who don’t believe in the message. And they’re the ones, I think, stirring it up. We need to ignore that and we need to forge ahead with a cohesive message. It’s a common sense message. It, again, is, Government, limit yourself so that the private sector, our families, free individuals can grow and thrive and prosper and enjoy America’s freedom!”
However, Dick Armey, head of FreedomWorks in a New York Times article says “not so fast”:
…the former House majority leader who has become a leader of the Tea Party movement, suggested that it might be unwise for the Republican Party to count on Tea Party support.
“This is not a situation where the grass-roots activists are saying, ‘What can we do to make ourselves attractive to the Republicans?’ ” he said. “It is ‘What can we do to help the Republicans understand what they must do to be attractive to us.’ ”
An article in the Washington Post includes interviews with two other Tea Party activists:
These days, tea-party activists and Republicans are largely in sync ideologically, and they find common ground in their disapproval of Obama and Democratic congressional leaders. “The only difference between us and those protesters is we dress a little bit better,” joked Katon Dawson, a South Carolina Republican.
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But a merger has major obstacles — not the least of which is that tea-party leaders want nothing to do with any political party. “People are so angry they don’t even want these political parties at their events,” said Dale Robertson, president and founder of TeaParty.org, which he said has 6 million members. “I’ve been attacked viciously by Republican groups. They’ve called me all kinds of slanderous names.” Robertson said he has reached out repeatedly to Steele but has been rebuffed. “He hasn’t called me back,” Robertson said. “I find that disconcerting.”
The progressive magazine The American Prospect, discusses how the religious-right wants a sip or two at this Tea Party as well:
It marks the attempt of the old-school Christian right to take over the tea-party movement. Speakers joining Palin include Rick Scarborough, Roy Moore, and Joseph Farah, men who are radical even by religious-right standards. Their presence shows that the tea-party movement is no longer merely populist, libertarian, or anti-government, if it ever was. It is theocratic. Indeed, after several months in which the religious right seemed lost and dispirited, it has found a way to ride the tea-party express into renewed relevance.
What Should Our Reaction Be?
What should our reaction be to the Tea Party and whatever movement it may signify? The American Prospect article mentioned above concludes with this warning:
For those who oppose the right, all this offers cause for both hope and alarm. Neither the tea parties nor Sarah Palin are likely to expand their appeal by association with the most bellicose of religious reactionaries. Some have speculated that a third party may emerge from the Nashville convention, an outcome that can only benefit Democrats in upcoming elections. But we’ve now reached a point where CPAC, a conference whose co-sponsors include The John Birch Society, represents a comparatively moderate sector of the GOP. That may turn out to be bad for the Republicans, but it’s even worse for America.
Garrison Keillor reminds us that screaming at government does not work:
Running on anger is not such a great idea. For one thing, it’s hard to sustain if, God forbid, the economy springs back. And as Republicans well know, government does not change when you yell at it.
Be as anti-elitist as you like, but when the surgeon comes in to open up your skull to see what that big dark spot on the CT scan was, you don’t want him to be wearing a humorous T-shirt (“Hey It IS Brain Surgery”) and eating Jujubes.
We also do well to remember that emotionally compelling stories take root far faster and more deeply. And “I’ll need to see the details before I can offer an opinion” can never be as emotionally compelling as “I’M OUTRAGED! WE’RE DOOMED!” and it’s easier to do conservatism (make government suck) than to do progressivism (make government work).
It is never a good idea to underestimate one’s enemies or to assume that what seems obvious to us (the perfidy of the teabaggers) is obvious to everyone else.
However, our archetypel voter Fred is most likely turned off by the images of Obamacare = Hitler and Obama as Witch Docter. We need to reach out to Fred and give him a reason to get on our bandwagon and not theirs.
Most of the Tea Party’s attractiveness is a function of its visibility rather than its ideology: it is because when people see them on TV they think, “Wow, look at all those people…they must be important”. We need to counter that by focusing on our own movement, the Democratic movement (from NCrissieB):
Life is not a spectator sport, and neither is politics. Call your local Democratic Party today; you can find contact information here. Many of those groups are tiny, with fewer than 30 members. We’ve let our local parties atrophy while we complain about what isn’t getting done in D.C. That has to change, or Fred won’t see change.
Call or email a local Democratic Party group today. Ask them how you can join and how you can volunteer to help. Take it to the streets.
“The difference between us and teabaggers is we run to a real future, while they run to an imaginary past.”
And that’s the Reality.