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Yesterday's Tea Bags

Illustration by Zina Saunders

In a front-page article on Sunday, the New York Times blessed the tea party movement as having real political potential. The occasion for the article, "Tea Party Looks to Move From Fringe to Force," was Sarah Palin's talk to the first National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday night. The reporter acknowledges that there was an element of cheesy political theater at the event with conventioneers dressed up as Revolutionary War figures, but the reporter relays the scoop straight from the leader of the Tea Party Nation, the organizer of the convention. "The movement is maturing," said Judson Phillips, the founder of the group.

From the beginning, the tea party people seemed to me to be a tiny, opportunistic band of people who hated President Obama and everything on his agenda. As mass vilifiers, they don't come close to the sentiment against Bush in the past decade. They seemed to be strictly public access television rather than prime time. Even when the ragged bands of people haunted the home state visits of members Congress in August to oppose health-care reform, they didn't seem to be a climate change, but rather but a strategic thundershower invoked by the lobbyists trying to block the legislation.

What happened? The reports in the big news media didn't mention a lot of things that are easy to find out.

For one thing, Palin was alone on the podium. She was supposed to be joined by Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, two conservative Republican superstars, but both of them backed out, apparently over the flakey structure of Phillips's organization. After all, these two politicians probably don't need the speaking fees because they already have jobs. They may have federal jobs, but jobs nonetheless, and they didn't want to get into ethics trouble with the government. Phillips is a struggling Tennessee lawyer who defends a lot of drunk drivers and a citizen who demonstrated his own sense of fiscal responsibility by declaring Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy in 1999. The ethics question involves the fact that he and his wife set up the convention under an organization chartered as a for-profit corporation.

It also turns out that the Tea Party Nation (the name of the company) is only one of several competing groups striving to lead this outburst of vituperation under the tea party allusion, and there's considerable squabbling among them, and many questions about which are grassroots, and which are subsidiaries of various Republican and other right-wing factions.

The main antagonist is Tea Party Express, which was started by a Republican consulting firm in California, Russo Marsh & Rogers, and which was actively bashing Obama during the 2008 campaign, long before the tea party metaphor was resurrected.

There is also FreedomWorks, a kind of clearing house led by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, who happened to be given a platform in a Q&A on the Washington Post website after the weekend bash. One of the questioners asks Armey about the authenticity of the grassroots-edness of the tea party movement. He answers, "FreedomWorks has been around in one form or another since 1984. ... We have 450,000 emails in our data base, and regularly recruit and train activists." His response screams organization and discipline — not a sudden, spontaneous outburst.

Besides these big players, there are numerous others. Two that are often quoted despite questions about whether they are anything more than one-man shows are: Tea Party Patriots and TeaParty.org. In fact, there have been at least 3,200 websites with the words "tea party" registered since the storm started just about a year ago, according to USA Today.

Most of these are local groups that don't claim a national following. Some of them turn this diversity into a virtue. "If you take 1,000 so-called tea partiers and ask them what this movement is, you'll get 1,000 different interpretations," said Mark Williams, a talk-radio host and chairman of the Tea Party Express in the Washington Post. "But they're all waving American flags and speaking out against the galloping socialist agenda."

The mythology surrounding the tea parties is that it represents a spontaneous outpouring of emotion by people who feel oppressed by government regulation. The reporters covering the affair in Nashville didn't do a good job in finding out who some of these partiers are, and how they became inspired, but they did talk to some.

One woman who gave a quote to the Tennessean, Kimberly Fletcher of Dayton, Ohio, said, "I want us to stop looking at parties and start looking at people." She told the local reporter that she is a songwriter and activist and operates several groups with websites, including Homemakers for America and the Abigail Adams Project.

She may not be necessarily partial to all Republicans, but she has a stricter party line. According to her various websites, she is the wife of an Air Force officer and mother of 8, and she's been playing politics for eight years, since Sept. 11, 2001. (Her husband was at the Pentagon, when the terrorists hit, but he was not hurt.) She became involved in the politics of the Christian right. In an interview in 2005 with the American Family Association, she said: "Who chooses the curtains in your home? Who buys the sheets? How many of you are married to men who know what ‘mauve’ is? We are the homemakers. Men build the house. We make the home." How many Congressional campaigns would like that endorsement for 2010?

When the tea party idea was floated, she jumped on. It certainly has a sexy name, with far less baggage than her other groups.

Palin, of course, is smart to grab what she can as long as she can get some news coverage. There's no reason for her to fret about which of the competing tea parties she does business with. The Tea Party Nation paid her $100,000 for the speech. Not bad for a woman who helped lead the Republicans to a stunning defeat in November 2008. No one can deny that Palin and the hard right of the G.O.P. has an appeal for a narrow band of the population, but it's a mistake to think that this translates to a broad-based revolution. The radical right likes to think they're onto something big, and they and Palin are making claims that they had a lot to do with Democratic defeats in governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey, and the upset in the Senate race in Massachusetts won by the Republican, Scott Brown.

Everyone knows that the off-year races are very particular, very local. The Democrats knew they had trouble in New Jersey and Virginia. But Massachusetts was something else. It was a surprise. In the closing weeks when the polls showed the Kennedy Senate seat wasn't safe for the Democrats any more, millions flowed in to both sides. The Tea Party Express (remember that party professionals run this) chipped in around $200,000, but that was only a small portion of the contributions. Tea partiers claimed that their manpower and enthusiasm was important, although Brown himself didn't seem to be comfortable with them. It's not at all clear how crucial they were.

Tea party people like to say how they are attracting hundreds of just folks to their banner in places like Massachusetts to march under the anti-government banner. Around Boston, they talked about their Meetup.com group: the Boston Tea Party. Indeed it has about 300 members. And so do the Young Republicans and the Libertarians whose membership lists show a fair amount of overlap with the Tea Party group. The Ron Paul 2008 group outdoes them, with 400-odd members, but it's interesting that two groups, Democracy for America: Boston and Socializing for Justice, have well over 1,000 members each. Of course, many meetup groups are more social. The Madfemmepride: Friendly, Diverse, Queer/Femme Community lists 2,665. Whoops, there goes another sound bite.

But back to elections. In a special Congressional race around Watertown in upstate New York, the tea partiers managed to lose a safe Republican seat in a somewhat confused cacophony, which forced the moderate candidate out. Of course, the tea partiers are the same people who in 2008 thought that Palin was just what McCain and the Republicans needed.

The news media has a serious herd mentality. The Republicans were banished to oblivion for many years to come, according to the reports and columns early in Obama's first year. Then on the evidence of a handful of special cases, the media has decided that the Democrats are in terrible trouble, and could fall victim to this so-called populist uprising.

To be sure, a streak of anti-government paranoia is deep, but narrow in American history. It's nothing close to coherent — as the composition of the tea party groups shows. The libertarians, the far-right nativists and the religious right don't have much in common except a distaste for progressives.

They are held together for the moment by a bogus issue: taxes. That is how the tea party allusion started in the first place. A CNBC reporter, Rick Santelli, gave a wild five-minute rant on camera at the Chicago Board of Trade. President Obama had just announced a plan to try to keep people with overdue mortgages in their homes. Santelli, shouting, appealed to the clerks milling around him:

"How many of you people want to pay your neighbor's mortgage — that has an extra bathroom and can't pay his bills?" A cheer went up from the clerks. It really wasn't much of a cheer, but it was neatly framed by the camera so that the three or four clerks standing nearby looked like a crowd. The reporter urged Chicagoans to celebrate a Chicago Tea Party on Lake Michigan in July. Since then, millions watched the replay on Youtube.

It's a stretch to parlay envy and resentment over someone's extra bathroom into a symbol for the problems of the economy and the Federal budget. But those things are hard to understand. Some slob who built an extra bathroom just before losing his job — that's easy to understand. He should have never done that, so screw him.

Posted 9 February 2010

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© 2010 Barry Schiffman