April, 15th 2009

A few notes on tea parties

– Liz Mair

Today, there have been (probably) thousands of tea parties taking place across the country, including the one right here in Washington, DC, which I, admittedly, did not personally attend.  They've been the subject of some pretty hot emotions, too, and a lot of charges being flung about.  From the left, there's been a sustained barrage of talking-point-compliant, on-message claims that tea parties aren't "grassroots-y" at all, and that they're "astroturf-y," and a top-down project of any or all of CNBC, Fox News, the Republican Party as an organized entity, FreedomWorks, and/or Newt Gingrich (I'm probably missing a few out).  From the right, we hear sustained replies that the tea parties are, in fact, the result of purely grassroots, organic activity.  Who's right?  Well, irrespective of what you may think of the tea parties, the people who frequent them, or the underlying objections being raised by tea party attendees, the simple fact is that the people who are claiming this is all the product of some top-down organized astroturf effort are talking out of their rear ends and need to do some homework.

Yesterday, I wanted to do some research into tea parties, and I started out by doing a quick Google search, thinking that a) if the claims of top down organization being involved were correct or b) they were not correct, but some establishment entity (Fox, the RNC, FreedomWorks, American Solutions, whoever) had properly hijacked the effort, I would find-- wait for it-- a single, major website telling me everything I could possibly wish to know about tea parties.  I can assure you, if the RNC (my former employer) were running the effort, there would be a microsite or a subpage of or something setting out all the relevant details which could be easily accessed by people just like myself, all across the country.  However, surprisingly, there was not.  Performing the same searches today, I can find this site, this site, and this site, among others.  This smelt a lot like one of two things, when I did my searches yesterday, and again just now: Either this was a rather disorganized effort being "organized" by multiple individuals and groups across the country who weren't very good at getting on the same page as each other (note that that's something that Republicans and conservatives generally excel at) OR this was a very, very clever effort by a highly organized cabal of some sort to create a very effective illusion of disorganization.  I guess those on the left would like me to believe the latter, but somehow, I'm not buying it.  Here are another few reasons why.

For starters, take a look at the California page of the "Tax Day Tea Party" site (a site that, incidentally, I found more helpful in looking at the data available than I did the FreedomWorks "Tea Party HQ" [raises one eyebrow] site which wasn't exactly as organized or data-plentiful as I'd expect a site touting an actual FreedomWorks project to be-- no offense).  Notice, as you scroll through, how some of the tea parties listed have websites, and some do not.  Some (many or maybe even most, by my eyeballing of it) have Facebook groups associated with them (e.g., the Bakersfield tea party, the Chico tea party and the Seal Beach tea party) but a fair number are organized instead via Meetup (e.g., one in the Five Cities, one in Santa Monica, and one in the Bay Area).  Now, I don't know how those on the left wing of American politics organize (OK, actually that's a lie-- I do; they do it in a very top-down fashion whether it's via MoveOn mass emails, or talking points filtering out of party committees and liberal thank tanks and being almost word-for-word replicated, frequently, on particular liberal blogs).  But let me tell you something about the right wing.  If something's top-down, it's going to be done pretty consistently-- so if this tea party deal were a top-down deal, my guess is ONLY Facebook or ONLY Meetup would be used, not both, or in many cases, neither.  That should be a tip-off to anyone thinking that-- let's repeat it in unison-- this could be a rightwing astroturf effort.

Here's a second tipoff, though.  Take a look at those Meetup pages in particular.  Notice anything?  Let me give you a hint: This one is the product of someone associated with the Campaign for Liberty.   For the uninitiated, that means the Ron Paul folks.  This one also seems to be a possible product of a Paulite.  This one seems to be organized by the same guy-- so again, a Paulite.  Why does that matter?  Well, for a couple of reasons.  First, while I like Dr. Paul just fine (as did several RNC staff I worked with last year and some members of the RNC itself that I've met and know to one degree or another), Dr. Paul is not exactly a loved figure within establishment Republican or indeed conservative politics.  One of the candidates for RNC Chairman-- one who stayed in the race until the next-to-last round of voting in the recent RNC Chairman's election, I might add-- actually tried to have Dr. Paul barred from Republican debates in 2007 "because of remarks the Texas congressman made that suggested the Sept. 11 attacks were the fault of U.S. foreign policy."  Paulites, too, were banned from at least one conservative website appealing to conservative activists in the course of the 2008 Republican presidential primary fight also.  Anyone who's had any dealings with Paulites as part of the Republican/conservative establishment (hey, I was the RNC's Online Communications Director last year, I think I can use that label in the past tense with confidence) knows that they are notoriously prickly about anything that looks like cooperation or alliance with establishment figures or institutions.  There's a reason many of them use this logo, containing the word "revolution," you know.  They're not really down with the status quo, or representatives of it-- which would include a lot of the people being described as the secret top-down organizers of all this.  Anyone who thinks these guys would affiliate with anything with even a whiff of establishmentarianism about it has been smoking something-- and not something good, either.

Separately, anyone who has attempted to bring the Paulites into the Republican Party and involve them as one would any other constituency will likely tell you this-- and again, it's not meant as a knock: they aren't people who can really be "organized," in the true sense of the word.  I say this not from personal experience, but based on abundant anecdotal evidence I have heard from people I know.  Insert joke here about anarchist, chaotic libertarians, but guess what?  With these guys, there's a big dollop of truth to that.

Thirdly, though, what tells me that this is, at the very least, much more a grassroots movement than not is an exchange I had with someone supposedly involved in the "organization" of all this asking a question about tea parties taking place in certain specified locations.  While I can't (and won't) reproduce that exchange or name names here, suffice it to say... the guy I asked the question of was literally unable to answer.  And that should tell anyone reading this something.

Finally, I'll ask a rhetorical question: Who, who believes that tea parties were a top-down, astroturfed, organized effort by CNBC/Fox/the GOP/the RNC/FreedomWorks/America Solutions/[insert name of other establishment-esque organization here], really thinks that any of these would be responsible for tea parties frequented by gay people apparently pissed off about their inability to benefit from the same tax benefits that my husband and I get by virtue of being married?  (OK, FreedomWorks... maybe) Seriously... the conservative movement and the Republican Party are known for many things, but their championing of public protests in favor of gay rights are not among them.  Let alone their championing of public protests in favor of gay rights apparently taking place in Boston, Iowa, South Dakota and Wisconsin, all in the same day.

So, then, let's agree to agree: Whether you think tea parties are teh awesome, stupid, or none of the above, they were not the product of some big, organized, top-down effort by media, Republican or conservative institutions.  Personally, I think that's good-- ordinary citizens should be capable of rallying en masse over political issues they think are important, whether that be spending and taxes or the Vietnam war or immigration reform or the life/abortion issue every once in awhile.  It says something good about the involvement of citizens in our democracy.  But in a way, maybe it's also sad for conservatives and Republicans: After all, it's hard to argue that this was a citizen effort that conservative and Republican institutions perhaps at best attempted to get in on at the last minute, somewhat unconvincingly, without simultaneously saying that those organizations weren't up to the task of organizing something big all on their very own.  Maybe that should actually be the left's message today? [intro]


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