Getting Beneath the Tricorner Hat

Bennett Baumer Jul 24, 2012

The Rise of the Tea Party
By Anthony DiMaggio
Monthly Review Press, 2011

At the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, many pundits grasping for a narrative to describe the nascent movement compared it to the Tea Party. And, for a hot minute, Occupy was the Tea Party of the left. The linchpin of this comparison is the assumption that both are grassroots movements calling out those in power. But Anthony DiMaggio’s latest study, The Rise of the Tea Party, rejects the Tea Party as a movement and sets out to uncloak its costume, calling it nothing more than a re-branding of the Republican Party.

The Rise of the Tea Party is DiMaggio’s follow-up to Crashing the Tea Party, a searing takedown of this right-wing phenomenon. Much has changed since the Tea Party’s emergence in the healthcare “town hells” in the summer of 2009. Obamacare has been upheld by the Supreme Court, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with big-money backing eviscerated collective bargaining rights for most public workers, survived a heated recall election and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney is seen as a moderate by the far-right.

All of this begs the question, what is the Tea Party?

As a grassroots movement, DiMaggio contends the Tea Party is a massive fraud, and there is little difference between self-described Tea Partiers and their conservative Republican counterparts.

For starters, DiMaggio finds that self-described Tea Party legislators’ voting records are indistinguishable from their Republican colleagues. Local Tea Party chapters are generally inactive or nonexistent, and any party talking points are generated by moneyed Republican elites like Dick Armey’s Freedom Works. DiMaggio reports that the 2010 Tea Party national gathering in Nashville, Tenn. was a complete failure, with headliners like Sarah Palin, who demanded an exorbitant speaking fee.

Further, local organizing efforts are anathema to Tea Partiers influenced by Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy and disdain of collective action DiMaggio writes. Rand, who wrote extensively against the Vietnam War protests and the Civil Rights movement, fetishized rugged individualism and commodified social relations in terms of time, money and what one could gain materially and emotionally from each interaction.

Widespread Ayn Rand worship has been part of the right for decades, but how does this explain large turnouts for the Tea Party’s rallies in Washington, D.C., especially in the fall of 2010? According to DiMaggio, the powerful echo chamber of the conservative media, with Fox News superstar Glenn Beck’s leadership, spurred people to attend.

The beginning of the book draws on Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky to offer readers a media theory primer that is both beneficial and a bit tedious — as anyone familiar with Chomsky’s brilliant yet bone-dry style can attest. DiMaggio uses Chomsky’s propaganda model (outlined in Manufacturing Consent) to explain that media corporations are motivated by profits, and thus, err on the side of pro-business coverage, especially when public-interest reporting threatens their bottom line. Without major corporate media backing, DiMaggio says, Tea Partiers are merely the same old aging and majority white Republican base.

Tea Party activists supported a corporatist agenda of deregulation and lowered income taxes for businesses and the rich while attacking the remnants of New Deal and liberal healthcare reform. Polling shows Tea Partiers are generally more affluent than average Americans, are predominantly white and mostly rely on the conservative media for their news.

This last point is the takeaway — as a result of over reliance on right-wing media, many Republicans often hold contradictory and ignorant beliefs. In a poll of voters in Alabama and Mississippi last March, 52 percent of respondents believed President Obama is Muslim — another 36 percent said they weren’t sure. Further, many conservatives rely on government programs like the earned-income tax credit and free school lunches to make ends meet, while also calling for an end to government assistance.

This belief system is the raison d’être of the Tea Party.