There’s a growing, media-generated consensus that, for better or for worse, the Tea Party is enjoying a meteoric ascendancy and is on the path to taking over the country.
I watched the news on TV. I saw the anchors gushing over Carl Paladino’s landslide victory in the New York Republican gubernatorial primary. I read about the upset Tea Party victories in Delaware and Alaska’s GOP primaries.
Still, despite the victories of a few high-profile, chest-thumping fire-breathers spewing a disparate potpourri of ideological contradictions, there really is no Tea Party.
This thing we call the Tea Party is a loose, acephalous—meaning headless or leaderless—loose association of individuals. Acephalous movements range in ideology from the pro-personal recovery Alcoholics Anonymous, to the pacifist Rainbow Family, to the Critical Mass bicyclists movement, to the murderous array of al Qaeda terror cells. Like the Tea Party, these movements share an anarchist, nonhierarchical decentralization—indestructible because there is no organization to destroy or co-opt. As individual movements, they may or may not share any other values.
There is one major way, however, that the Tea Party differs from most every acephalous social or political movement across the globe. Other acephalous movements matured into what they are today by evolving a consensus regarding shared values and ideologies. The Rainbow Family, for example, is committed to modeling a cooperative, nonhierarchical, utopian society by creating spontaneous, nonviolent, city-sized Gatherings around the world. Critical Mass cyclists unite to gather enough bikers in one mobile mass as to dominate traffic and celebrate the viability of cycling. Alcoholics Anonymous comes together as a supportive, healing community fostering recovery from one particular addiction. Al Qaeda coalesces around a shared fringe religious doctrine and tactical belief. We can easily identify what these different movements stand for, what their shared beliefs and values are.
The Tea Party, by contrast, does not have a set of shared beliefs and values. Early descriptions of the Tea Party focus on core libertarian beliefs in limiting the role of government and, in turn, limiting taxes and the size and reach of government. Under this big umbrella, lots of folks identified themselves as Tea Party—and perhaps the Tea Party actually existed for a minute as a coherent movement.
Today, the Tea Party’s most visible symbol is Carl Paladino, now internationally famous for his upset landslide New York State GOP primary victory. The national media’s obsession with his candidacy promises to keep him in the news for at least the rest of this year’s election cycle.
Contrary to wanting to limit the role of government, however, two of Paladino’s core campaign promises involve expanding the power and scope of government. One Paladino promise entails expanding the reach of eminent domain, the power of government to seize private property, including property seizures based on the ethnicity of the owners. Though eminent domain historically has been opposed by conservatives, Paladino promises that, if elected governor of New York, he will use eminent domain to seize private property currently under development as an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan.
The second Paladino expansion of government involves a promise to set up a system of what he calls “Dignity Camps” for welfare recipients. Arbeit Macht Frei.
The contradictions embodied by Paladino are stunning. He’s a multi-millionaire whose fortune was bolstered by fat government contracts, subsidies, and tax breaks. Yet he campaigns under an anti-“ruling class” banner, calling for less of the very government that continues to enrich him at the expense of taxpayers. He brands himself as an insurgent running against both Democratic and Republican party establishments, yet, in his hometown of Buffalo, he remains one of the largest donors to both establishment parties.
Around the country, some Tea Party activists claim their party stands for protecting abortion and reproductive rights, while other Tea Partiers claim it stands for criminalizing abortion and other forms of birth control. Tea Party spokespersons counter each other, claiming the party stands both for and against gay marriage, for and against “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” for and against the separation of church and state, for and against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and so on. Some are adamantly against racism, while others speak the language of white supremacy.
These contradictions challenge the very notion that the Tea Party exists as anything more than a vapid banner available for any opportunist to co-opt. The Tea Party’s ideological vacuum stems from the fact that, unlike the established acephalous organizations cited above, it lacks a history. It never had the chance to evolve organically over years and reach some sort of consensus defining a core set of shared ideologies and values. Where the Rainbow Family and Critical Mass ideologies state that no individual can speak for these movements, in the case of the Tea Party, it seems anyone and everyone can take the liberty to speak for the entire “movement.”
A cantankerous one-year-old
The Tea Party has a birthday: February 19, 2009. And it has a founder: CNBC wonk Rick Santelli. On that day, standing on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Santelli launched into a televised diatribe against the Obama administration’s proposed, and as yet mostly unfulfilled, promise to aid homeowners facing foreclosure. Arguing against government help for “losers’ mortgages,” he called for a Chicago “Tea Party” to be held in July.
His tirade went viral on YouTube, and within one week, there were 40 disparate Tea Parties around the country—but no coherent, unified message. In April 2009, more than a quarter million Americans participated in tax day Tea Party protests, and activists from all around the political spectrum claimed the populist discontent as their own. By July, angry protesters claiming to be from the Tea Party started disrupting district meetings held by Democratic members of Congress. On the first anniversary of Santelli’s rant, a group calling itself the “Tea Party Nation” organized a for-profit “Tea Party Convention,” with promoters charging self-proclaimed Tea Party representatives $549 a head to attend, and paying Sarah Palin $100,000 to speak.
With its demonstrated selling power, the Tea Party brand became both a coveted political asset and a perpetually sensationalistic headline for a sound-bite-rich, substance-free corporate media culture. By the summer of 2009, it seemed as if we were in the middle of a Tea Party revolution, only there was, as there is today, still no coherent or easily identifiable Tea Party. There was just noise, particularly from radical right-wing media sound cannons like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and their host of less-talented impersonators.
Charles, right, and David Koch, the multi-billion dollar bankroll behind the Tea Party movement.
Bankrolling the party
Into this fray stepped the multi-billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, whose combined fortune is only bested by those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Together, the Koch brothers fully own Kansas-based Koch Industries, identified by Forbes as the second largest private company in the US, operating subsidiaries in oil refining and distribution, lumber, agribusiness, chemicals, ranching, finance, paper, and mining. A University of Massachusetts study named Koch Industries one of the nation’s top 10 air polluters. Greenpeace calls the company a “kingpin of climate science denial,” with the brothers and their business interests allegedly outspending Exxon/Mobil in support of the climate crisis denial propaganda industry. This includes funds for anti-environmental think tanks, junk science, foundations and political greenwashing groups.
The Kochs are central to the Tea Party story. Through their political lobby, Americans for Prosperity, they dominate the Tea Party brand through the funding and organization of Tea Party branded events. For example, the brothers are currently spending, according to public campaign finance records available online at the California Secretary of State’s website, $1 million dollars underwriting a California ballot initiative, Proposition 24, aimed at repealing that state’s groundbreaking environmental regulations curbing carbon emissions. Included in their propaganda arsenal are a series of so-called Tea Party rallies in support of Proposition 24.
Useful window dressing
The Tea Party appears to be useful window dressing in this otherwise anti-populist effort to roll California’s popular climate change legislation back to the dark ages. Likewise, manipulation by other corporatist groups similar to Americans for Prosperity seems to have successfully hijacked the Tea Party brand in service to just the sort of entrenched oligarchy one would logically expect a populist movement to unite against. Carl Paladino’s victory in New York typifies this cooptation of populism in service to power.
All of this recent history serves to contextualize the infant Tea Party as something other than the populist. acephalous movement its boosters and the mass media claim it to be. Yes, it’s acephalous, but it has no coherent ideological foundation to support it. Hence, rather than truly being leaderless, it seems to have been hijacked by a progression of self-proclaimed, or media-anointed, leaders and spokespeople. Its short history has proven that its mantle is up for grabs, ready to be snatched by whoever writes the fattest check.
Trashing the brand
Riddled by contradictions, and claimed by adherents of divergent political and cultural beliefs, the Tea Party isn’t really a movement at all. It’s just another brand projecting itself across the media torrent. Like the Nike or Apple brand, it stands ready to serve and market whatever product its stamped upon. Unlike running shoes and tank-tops, or iPhones and iPads, opposing political ideologies can’t be marketed under the same brand.
Eventually, when the Tea Party starts winning elections, and its diverse constituencies realize who they’ve elected, the party will be over. In its wake will be a Republican Party split in two, with social conservatives on one side and fiscal libertarians on the other.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous Artvoice columns are available globally through syndication and archived at mediastudy.com.