Monday, September 13, 2010

The Tea Party Movement: Grass Roots Phenomenon or Corporate Fifth Column?

American economic elites have a long and storied history of recruiting suckers and mercenaries to do their dirty work. In a practice known as “astroturfing,” an interested party (often a corporation) clandestinely organizes an apparently grass roots movement to give the appearance that their agenda is shared by millions of ordinary people. That the rich find a need to engage in such tactics in a democratic society is understandable—there is no natural mass constituency for economic conservatism, which basically serves the interests of the richest 1-5 percent of the country. They must therefore trick ordinary Americans to lobby for their interests and elect movement leaders (generally Republicans and conservative Democrats).

Why do I say that economic conservatism has no natural mass constituency? Because it is so obviously geared toward the rich and against the working and middle classes. In a recent article, Media Matters listed 13 progressive reforms that conservatives have long fought against, including eliminating or drastically scaling back Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (60 percent of America’s seniors get three-quarters of their income from Social Security, and 20 percent rely solely on Social Security); reducing or eliminating the progressive federal income tax in favor of a flat tax (which places the burden of taxation disproportionately on the poor); eliminating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the right to unionize, worker’s compensation, and other workplace regulations that empower employees; scaling back unemployment benefits and the minimum wage (which would force many workers to accept low-paid jobs); and loosening environmental regulations (allowing industries to pollute freely and forcing taxpayers to clean up the mess). Talk about class warfare.

In fact, America has a rich history of corporate astroturfing aimed at killing progressive legislation. In a set piece of historical irony, the original Boston Tea Party of 1773 was itself astroturfed. What the Sons of Liberty were protesting when they dressed up as Native Americans to pour tea into the Boston Harbor was not a hike in British tea taxes, but rather the opposite. Britain had recently eliminated the tax on British tea in the colonies, thereby undercutting the lucrative business in smuggled tea from Holland that many colonial merchants depended upon; these same colonial merchants backed or took part in what became known as Boston Tea Party. Thus, the tea party was not a protest against taxation without representation, but against cheap imported British tea that threatened to put American tea merchants out of business.

Skipping ahead to the twentieth century, in the 1930s, the uber-rich du Ponts mobilized an apparently grassroots American Liberty League to bury New Deal Social Security program, child labor prohibition, and the Security and Exchange Commission. In the 1960s, the John Birch Society helped Barry Goldwater to mount an attack on the “socialist” Medicare program. The 1990s saw Richard Mellon Scaife (the billionaire heir of the Mellon oil and banking fortune) contribute heavily to bringing down the Clinton administration. And in the 2000s, the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch teamed up to astroturf TeaParty protests against the “socialist Obama regime.”

One can only surmise that “freedom” for these economic elites is freedom from living in an advanced society, which is all very well for those who can afford to live in gated communities. But what about the rest of us? Would these conservatives object to the return of debtors’ prisons, child labor, workhouses for the poor, and a life of begging for the aged, sick, poor, orphaned or infirm? I doubt it, seeing as how they have a track record of fighting against legislation that ameliorated these problems. I am sure that many conservatives believe these are the costs of living in a meritocratic capitalistic society, which rewards the industrious and punishes the lazy. And for those who cannot compete—the mentally and physically disabled, the orphaned, the sick—well, there are always charities, churches and prisons. It is the kind of social Darwinism favored by Wall Street tycoons and other economic elites who worship at the alter of Ayn Rand.

Conservative astroturfing has come into its own since the inauguration of the Obama administration. The town hall protests of summer 2009 that took aim at heath care reform was a top-down coordinated effort by GOP strategists and corporate funders, as revealed by a strategy memo leaked by a volunteer for FreedomWorks. Some protesters were even reportedly bused in to disrupt the town hall meetings of mainly democratic representatives.

In a recent article entitled “Covert Operations” in the New Yorker, Jane Mayer delves into the history of the two biggest funders of right-wing causes in America: Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries (primarily an oil enterprise), whose combined personal wealth is exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. According to David Koch, their business is the “biggest company you have never heard of.” Their father—who ironically accumulated his vast fortune through oil deals with Joseph Stalin in the 1930s—would later become a rabid anti-communist. He co-founded the fringe John Birch Society, whose leadership viewed fluoridating the water as a communist plot and was convinced that President Eisenhower was a secret Soviet agent.

The Koch brothers, Charles and David, largely shared their fathers’ positions and endeavored to fight progressive policies at every turn (a commitment that Mayer notes has dovetailed nicely with their financial self-interests). However, after a failed run for president on the libertarian ticket in 1980, the brothers decided to take their fight underground, by funding right-wing institutes and think tanks. Mayer quotes Media Matters: “the Kochs’ effort is unusual, in its marshalling of corporate and personal funds: ‘Their role, in terms of financial commitments, is staggering.’”

Besides founding the CATO institute, Mercatus, Citizens for a Sound Economy (which later morphed into FreedomWorks), and Americans for Progress, the Koch brothers also have provided funding to a range of right-wing think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute. On issue-specific matters, they have given clandestine funding to front organizations that promote climate change denialism and work to defeat emissions regulations, while backing astroturfed popular rallies against health care reform and “cap and trade” legislation that would have the overall effect of forcing energy companies like Koch Industries to pay for their pollution.

What is the connection between the Koch brothers and the modern Tea Party movement? Defenders of Tea Partiers insist that the movement is as organic as they come. In exchange for a $100,000 speaking fee, Sarah Palin addressed the first Tea Party Convention in 2010, calling it is a “beautiful movement” comprised of Americans from all walks of life who want their country returned to its founding principles.

The evidence usually provided for the movement’s grass roots origins is that there are countless apparently unrelated Tea Party websites and organizations with no clear movement leader, besides which few activists claim to have benefited from corporate largesse. An obvious fallacy of this logic is that the movement of today bears very little relation to the movement in its infancy. The really pertinent question is: what was the genesis the movement? Who midwifed it or did it come into its own spontaneously?

Fortunately, the development of the movement can be traced on the internets. Tea Party nomenclature appears to date back to a Ron Paul event in 2007; however, this attracted little media attention at the time. According to ThinkProgress, the first Tea Party protests appeared in early 2009 (soon after Obama’s inauguration) and received critical organizational and financial assistance from former Republican House Speaker Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, which is backed by corporations that benefit materially from derailing Obama’s legislative agenda.

Indeed, corporate front groups were there “from the very start,” admits Mary Rakovich,a laid-off electrical engineer and volunteer for the McCain campaign who is credited with holding the first Tea Party-like event in protest of an Obama appearance in Fort Myers, Florida, on February 10. She had recently finished a training session by FreedomWorks where she was given specific instructions on how to attract protesters and was counseled that she should focus on policy and not on Obama. According to Rakovich, she was strongly encouraged by the Florida director of FreedomWorks to hold a protest at this particular event.

According to a Tea Party timeline provided by Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake, less than one week later, a conservative activist in Seattle organized the first “porkulus protest” (a term coined by Rush Limbaugh) in protest of Obama’s stimulus bill. The rally received support from the Young Americans Foundation (CPAC), conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, and the Young Republicans and was promoted by the local Fox News station. Another “porkulus” rally was then held in Colorado, organized by the Koch Americans for Prosperity and Coors’ Independence Institute, with wingnuts Tom Tancredo and Michelle Malkin in attendance. Yet another “porkulus” rally took place that week in Arizona with the backing of right-wing media conglomerate Clear Channel. However, it was not until CNBC Rick Santelli’s famous “rant” on the Chicago Exchange floor where he called for a Chicago Tea Party that the Tea Party movement as we know it emerged (with significant behind-the-scenes support):

According to Mark Ames and Yasha Levine at The Exiled: "Within hours of Santelli’s rant, a website called sprang to life. Essentially inactive until that day, it now featured a YouTube video of Santelli’s “tea party” rant and billed itself as the official home of the Chicago Tea Party. The domain was registered in August, 2008 by Zack Christenson, a dweeby Twitter Republican and producer for a popular Chicago rightwing radio host Milt Rosenberg… was just one part of a larger network of Republican sleeper-cell-blogs set up over the course of the past few months, all of them tied to a shady rightwing advocacy group coincidentally named the “Sam Adams Alliance,” whose backers have until now been kept hidden from public. Cached google records that we discovered show that the Sam Adams Alliance took pains to scrub its deep links to the Koch family money as well as the fake-grassroots “tea party” protests going on today.”

In late February, the first “Nationwide Chicago Tea Party” was held in 40 cities across America—organized and coordinated by Freedom Works and Americans for Progress. This was followed by Tax Day Protests on April 15, which took place in hundreds of American cities--a coordinated effort assisted in great part by Fox News.

The next big anti-tax rally took place in September 2009 and was again heavily promoted by Fox News, particularly Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. The rally was enthusiastically covered by a Fox News reporter, as Fox News producers attempted to work up the crowd off-camera.

Fox news personalities thus played a central role in organizing Tea Party events across the country in mid-2009. Meanwhile, Freedom Works and Americans for Progress designed deliberately amateurish websites and organized local chapters of Tea Parties in order to create the illusion of a grass roots movement. These organizations also took the lead in organizing central clearinghouses of information that would direct visitors to local Tea Party events, writing press releases for the news media, contacting activists and coordinating conference calls, and helping them connect up with other organizations on the local level.

There is little doubt popular anger on the right due to Obama’s electoral victory provided the fuel for what would become the Tea Party movement.

However, it was not until FreedomWorks and Americans for Progress (both creatures of the Koch brothers) and Coors Company got involved, and Fox News began to heavily promote them, that the Tea Party events really gained popular momentum.

Today, the movement is made up of numerous factions, including The Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, the Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Patriots, the National Tea Party Federation. Although this apparently chaotic make-up is suggestive of a grass roots movement (reflecting the designers’ original intent), there is a strong case to be made that the Tea Party movement was, is, and will continue to be, a corporate fifth column: every position promulgated by the movement is a CEO’s wet dream, as they are even more corporate-friendly than the water-carriers-for-giant-corporate-interests GOP. Tea partiers stand for eliminating cap and trade, eliminating capital gains and inheritance tax, instituting a flat tax, capping federal spending programs, repealing the health care reform, granting energy companies permission to conduct oil and gas exploration on federal lands, loosening or eliminating business regulations, and so on. How any of these reforms can be expected to improve the lives of even a tiny minority of Tea Party membership is a puzzle indeed.

Tea Partiers who continue to insist that their movement emerged organically because it was “long in coming,” “a product of growing popular frustration at excesses of government,” “motivated out of concern for out-of-control spending,” etc., must explain the suspicious timing of the movement. It should not be forgotten that the Tea Parties did not get off the ground until AFTER the inauguration of a new democratic president. The bank bailout worth trillions of dollars that they supposedly opposed was put in place by the outgoing Bush administration (and Obama’s stimulus bill cost a fraction of the bailout). Bush’s two wars and two rounds of tax cuts for the wealthy cost the nation trillions of dollars, and counting.

Most damningly for the "fiscally conservative" Tea Partiers (most of whom strongly supported President George W. Bush during his two terms in office), the Bush administration turned a 200-odd billion surplus left by the Clinton administration into a 1.3 trillion dollar deficit by the time Bush left office. These discrepancies make hash of the Tea Party claim that the movement has nothing to do with party politics and strongly suggests that the Murdoch-Koch machine that kicked into overdrive in 2009 deserves considerable credit for their existence.


  1. The Tea Party movement is NOT an astroturf campaign. Receiving corporate funding does not disqualify it from being a bona fide grassroots movement (that would disqualify Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Susan B Komen Foundation, etc).

    Nor does the support of the media disqualify it. Of course, the support of Fox News and CNBC have been instrumental in building the movement. But the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement of the 1960s both benefited from media coverage and there's no question both were grassroots in nature.

    A grassroots movement is largely characterized by information spreading from person to person. On this level, there's no question the Tea Party is a grassroots movement. Individuals are joining forces locally to work on various projects and sharing information with one another. They also have a compelling message and tools that help spread the message far and wide.

    An astroturf campaign, on the other hand, is made to appear that it has strong public support. And astroturf campaign would never be able to convince 100K people to the Mall for a rally and to attend hundred of town hall meetings.

  2. Joseph: A grassroots organization is largely characterized by being formed from the ground-up, not the other way around. Hence the selection of the term "grassroots." Perhaps you're thinking of the Topsy-Turvy(tm) organizations. I know, it's easy to get confused. Up, down, it's all the same, right?

    It's astroturf because many of the "views" held by the Tea Party are piggy-backed onto the real meat of what the funders want: less rules. That means more infringements on others' rights to benefit the bottom line of their corporations.

    Sure, the mass public support is there because many Tea Party attendees/sympathizers are malleable and easily steered. That's how this got started in the first place. It just took some strategic thinking and lots of money to get these people moving. It's simple crowd control on a huge level. Find a common thread and yank.

    If this were a true grassroots movement, it would have started as an organization by a few concerned citizens. The message would have resonated with others, and it would have grown up all on its own. Sure, corporate support could come by later on, but tell me with a straight face that it went down that way.

  3. Sorry for my belated response...I actually have very little to add to Jeremy's well-constructed rebuttal above. I will say that I find it jarring to hear the Tea Party movement compared to the civil rights movement. Kind of like comparing Glenn Beck to far as I know, neither MLK nor any other civil rights activist had corporate sponsors or cheerleaders in the mainstream media. Can't think of one. Also as far as I know, Tea Partiers are not getting shot or lynched for their political activism (and no, criticism in the blogosphere does not qualify as lynching), nor are they enduring police dogs or firehoses. Those who would make such comparisons belittle the sacrifices that were made by civil rights activists in the 1950s and 60s to make America the fairer and more just nation it is today.