Thoughts on the Tea Party
Anthony DiMaggio is the author of The Rise of the Tea Party: Political Discontent and Corporate Media in the Age of Obama, just released by Monthly Review Press.
Interview by Scott Borchert
Scott Borchert: Your primary focus as a scholar is on media and communications—so why a book on the Tea Party?
Anthony DiMaggio: I’ve also researched and participated in social movements and interest group politics consistently for the last ten years, although much of my research does focus on media and public opinion. My participation and study of these movements spans the anti-corporate globalization movement, the anti-Iraq movement, the anti-nuke movement, and the pro-labor Madison and OWS movements. This book project actually brought all three areas of my research—media, public opinion, and movements—together, examining the Tea Party as a conglomeration of interest groups, and measuring how they have influenced media coverage and public opinion. As someone who has taken part in and studied social movements for my entire adult life, I felt I was in a unique position, scholarly and in terms of practical experience, to make a unique contribution in these areas. I also focus quite closely in my popular writings on current events, so the Tea Party seemed like an appropriate area to focus on in light of the massive political and media attention it has received.
SB: Do you consider the Tea Party to be a real grassroots movement or purely orchestrated by elite institutions? Or a little of both?
AD: I think the rage driving the Tea Party—at least with regard to the 25 percent of Americans who claim to sympathize with it—is quite real and very understandable. The Tea Party is largely comprised of white, over 40-50, middle to upper income Americans who have generally done pretty well for themselves over the years, but are being pressured by the neoliberal attack on working Americans. They’re rightly angry at being excluded from the tremendous economic prosperity that has taken place over the last three decades. As corporations have grown enormously more profitable, and worker productivity and the size of the economy have grown dramatically, the median family wage has stagnated. This stagnation actually translates into a reduction in wages, since the number of dual income families has increased significantly. Whereas in decades past the median income was driven more by single income-earning males, now families earn a similar income with two earners. In short, the American middle class has been getting squeezed for decades, and the Tea Party “rebellion” (on some level) is a manifestation of real public anger at this phenomenon. That anger is understandable, even predictable.
The problem with the “movement” is that its members’ anger gets manipulated by a small group of partisan and media elites who are essentially Republican Party operatives. This is the dirty little secret of the Tea Party; it’s not really a social movement, but a cluster of elitist interest groups operating locally and nationally, which is quite lacking in participatory elements, and largely driven by a top-down approach, determined and dictated by Republican partisan officials and business elites of the Koch variety.
My books on the Tea Party are devoted to exploring the failure of Tea Party chapters to systematically organize at the local and national level. In short, I find that there is very little organization under the Tea Party banner going on throughout communities across the country. Very few people actually turn out for rallies and planning meetings, compared to the large number of people who claim to be participating in these events according to national polling data. A close examination of the various national Tea Party groups finds that they are all lacking in participatory aspects, with active membership extremely sparse, and the leaders of these groups coming from the highest levels of local and national Republican Party chapters and the business system. A close look in my most recent book—The Rise of the Tea Party—finds that the alleged Tea Party “insurgents” who have led the Tea Party “revolution” in Congress are extremely elitist in their policy positions and in terms of their economic backgrounds. They don’t look any different than past political leaders in terms of their support from wealthy business interests, or in terms of their personal affluence, with regard to their past support for the very deregulatory legislation (of the banking industry) that helped destroy the American economy, or in terms of their voting records, which are identical to non-Tea Party Republican members of Congress.
SB: How would you describe the ideological outlook of the Tea Party?
AD: It’s the same group of Americans—the 20-25 percent of the public—who are essentially Bush dead-enders. Ideologically speaking, I describe the Tea Partiers as packaging old wine into new bottles. On one level, there is an extremely strong overlap between the Tea Party and the traditional religious right that emerged in the 1980s; on a second level, the Tea Party is representative of the same extreme economic right that has long supported deregulation and an assault on the social welfare state. There is nothing controversial about these claims, as public opinion polling (and analysis of these polls) demonstrates these points very clearly. I document these basic patterns in more detail in my first Tea Party book, Crashing the Tea Party, co-authored with progressive Historian Paul Street.
A major problem with the Tea Party, in terms of “building a bridge” between its members and Occupy Wall Street, is that very few Tea Partiers (only 15%) even blame Wall Street for the current problems we are facing today. While their rage at the stagnation of American prosperity is very legitimate, their attribution of responsibility for this stagnation is so childishly naïve, staggeringly ignorant, and disturbingly proto-fascistic that it makes working with them difficult, if not impossible. How do you work with people that think Obama is a Nazi, socialist, Kenyan Muslim terrorist? Pick your pejorative adjective as applied to Obama, and Tea Partiers likely agree with it. The above descriptions are so often lumped together in Tea Party rhetoric to the point where political ideologies such as Islamic fundamentalism, socialism, and Nazism, etc. are absurdly lumped together, as if these philosophies have anything in common. One wouldn’t know that there are fundamental differences between these ideologies by talking to Tea Partiers, however, as I learned the hard way in my observations of the group throughout Midwestern chapters and nationally. I’m no Obama supporter, but what we need now are legitimate criticisms of the bi-partisan, pro-business system, not fantastic propaganda that actively misinforms and confuses the public. Tea Party supporters increasingly cling to romantic and ignorant notions that if we could somehow return to the “good old days” of “free market,” deregulatory capitalism, we would put ourselves back on the path to prosperity. They seem totally unwilling or unable to recognize that it was this very deregulation, and the corresponding assault on the welfare state, that put us on the path to economic ruin. They want the Republican Party to move further to the right, failing to recognize that this right-ward drift is the primary cause of America’s problems, not the solution to them.
SB: There have been a handful of books written on this subject, but how is your analytical approach unique?
AD: Just about all the other research on the Tea Party was rushed and lacking in any empirical rigor. The widely read Tea Party books released prior to my and Paul Street’s books were released either at the time of the April 15, 2010 national rallies (some even before the rallies), to no later than the fall of 2010. There is no way that any of these authors could have engaged in a serious intellectual or academic analysis of the Tea Party, wrote out their analysis, and had it published at the exact time of the April 15th rallies (or before), or even so shortly after. Academically speaking, serious analyses of issues (current events related) necessitate a longer research timeframe. The writing and production schedules are significantly longer for serious works to get out, as my books were not released until summer 2011 (Crashing the Tea Party) and November 2011 (The Rise of the Tea Party). Such relatively short production schedules are really the least amount of time it takes for any respectable academic or intellectual analysis to be undertaken, written, and printed. Even I felt quite a bit rushed with my relatively longer time frame compared to the production periods for earlier Tea Party books.
A brief look at the earlier books on the subject suggests that none were very rigorous or serious in terms of their analyses. A New American Tea Party, written by Tea Partier John O’Hara was nothing more than a partisan prop for the Tea Party, repeating tired Republican talking points and propaganda. The same was true of other Tea Party promotional books, including Rand Paul’s The Tea Party Goes to Washington and Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe’s Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, among others.
There were a few other books that attempted to take a journalistic or academic analysis, including Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes, Scott Rasmussen and Douglas Schoen’s Mad as Hell, and Kate Zernike’s Boiling Mad. The problem with these books is that they appear at first glance to be serious analyses of the Tea Party, although that impression falls apart upon closer inspection. Lepore’s book is quite thin when you look at it in terms of page length and in her analysis, and although it’s decent in terms of dissecting the Tea Party’s fundamentalist ideology, Lepore actually engages in no original analysis of the Tea Party in terms of making use of primary data (even little secondary data is used, since the book is largely conversational in tone). Zernike’s book repeats many of the worst stereotypes and misconceptions of the Tea Party, particularly the erroneous claim that it is a “social movement.” As a reporter for the New York Times, she takes for granted that the group is a non-partisan rebellion against the Washington establishment, conveniently ignoring the critical evidence I explore in my recent books which suggest the exact opposite. Finally, Rasmussen and Schoen (both are partisan pollsters who work for the political-media establishment) wrote a book, Mad as Hell, which is the worst kind of “analysis,” in that it relies on polling questions that would be condemned as propagandistic by any semi-competent public opinion scholar. Rasmussen Reports (a polling firm run by Scott Rasmussen) is to polling what Fox News is to “news.” It’s nothing to be take even remotely seriously in terms of its content, as Rasmussen ritually overestimates the conservatism of the public by using loaded (biased) question wording that clearly favors Republican-conservative positions over more neutral question framing. In short, there has been little-to-no original, quality research on the Tea Party up until this point.
SB: How do you apply the “propaganda model” first developed by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their book Manufacturing Consent?
AD: On the most basic level, I document how the mass media have been instrumental in manufacturing dissent against potentially progressive health care reforms, via their sympathetic reporting of the “Tea Party revolution” and their heavily reported criticisms of reform efforts. I document these relationships empirically, exposing specific pro-conservative, pro-Tea Party themes that dominated the news in mid to late 2009 and early 2010. I then show how these patterns correlated with growing opposition to progressive health care reforms (and even the mildly progressive reforms promoted by Obama) among those paying closest attention to the media-political debate on health care. I use standard political science statistical analysis and modeling to accomplish this goal, although readers will need to look to The Rise of the Tea Party for more details. In other words, I apply Chomsky and Herman’s idea of manufacturing consent in favor of official narratives, and show how it also relates to fostering opposition to any positive progressive agenda that may be fulfilled by the state. I also examine how thought control works in a democratic society. In a country where you can’t use the stick of military coercion and terror to implement policy, more subtle methods of manipulation of the American mind are needed. I examine how hegemonic factors such as partisanship, ideological orientation, political attentiveness, and media consumption (much more so than socio-demographic variables such as race, sex, income, and other factors) play an instrumental role in influencing the public’s formation of policy attitudes.
SB: You spent some time attending Tea Party meetings in the Chicago area—what were your first-hand impressions of the people there and their motivations?
AD: The Tea Party organizers were largely autocratic, only interested in directing the agenda from the top down, with the help of local “Tea Party” candidates, who were really just Republicans running for office. This is radically different from the participatory principle stressed by Occupy Wall Street chapters. Local (Tea Party) leaders were quite open with me that their primary goal was returning a largely discredited and extremely unpopular Republican Party to power, contrary to the public rhetoric of the Tea Party that the “movement” had “nothing to do” with partisan politics. Most interesting was the revelation that I quickly stumbled upon that this “movement” is for all intents and purposes a mile wide and an inch deep. There were virtually no local chapters throughout the Chicago area, a disturbing revelation considering that Illinois had the largest number of Tea Partiers elected in the 2010 midterms of any state, and considering that the vast majority of them were elected in the Chicago area. The few local chapters that existed throughout Chicago and its suburbs rarely saw much attendance or participation from members who did bother to show up. This pattern was repeated nationally, with just 8 percent of cities claiming a Tea Party rally on April 15th 2010 actually displaying evidence through their local website or the national Tea Party Patriots’ website of any sort of regular, monthly meetings.
Local Tea Party organizers did from time to time get a sizable (albeit relatively small) number of people to show up at rallies. These organizers were very honest about how they managed to accomplish this considering that they had meager to non-existent participation at the local level across the city and its suburbs. They made use of what they called the “email blast” strategy: send out of massive number of emails to people who have visited local Tea Party sites; get people to show up for their yearly (or sometimes twice yearly) protest and photo-op in celebration of the Tea Party “revolution.” This strategy was actually quite effective in getting a larger number of people (relative to anemic meeting turnout) to occasionally attend rallies, but there was literally nothing behind it in terms of building a movement, and it showed at rallies. No institutions or Tea Party organizations were present in terms of tabling or leafleting at the April 15th, 2010 Chicago rally, nor could they be, considering there is virtually no organizing to begin with. At other rallies, I occasionally found some evidence of local organizing, but it was almost entirely booths and tabling for local Republicans running for office and engaging in promotional public relations efforts. This is hardly the stuff of social movements, as anyone familiar with movements knows all too well. In short, the Tea Party revealed itself through my observations to be largely a partisan, top-down, elitist affair.
SB: What do you say to those on the left who argue that we should directly engage Tea Party supporters? Is it worth it?
AD: I would add, in addition to what I already said, that these are the same individuals (Tea Party supporters) who have spent decades deriding progressives and anyone on the left who bemoaned the growing inequality throughout the country, largely a product of the class war that has been declared by big business against American workers. Now we are told on the left that these are precisely the kind of people we need to work with in order to build a movement. I simply don’t buy this. If these individuals want to consider in an open minded way the possibility that corporate America may be engaging in behavior that is very destructive to the fabric of American society, than I will be happy to make an effort to work with them in the future. Tea Partiers (particularly the active core group) are totally unwilling, from what I have seen, to consider such points of view. In fact, acknowledging class war runs so strongly contrary to their world view that it would require them to acknowledge that everything they’ve come to believe with regard to the inherent virtues of “free market,” “libertarian capitalism” is propagandistic fiction. There may be some hope for the members of the general public, however, who claim to be sympathetic to the Tea Party, but are not part of the dedicated cadre of inner circle, true believers, who are largely repeating Republican Party talking points and pushing an extreme right-wing, pro-corporate agenda. There may be a group of people in the general public who share some sympathy for the Tea Party, while also remaining open to progressive issues. These individuals, if willing to support a progressive-left agenda, should be courted when building a democratic social movement for the future. Whether this group really constitutes a significant portion of Tea Party America remains to be seen. I can say that I haven’t seen this (supposed) part of the Tea Party stand up and vocally support the OWS movement or the Madison protestors. This does not bode well for the “work with the Tea Party” advocates on the left.
SB: Is Occupy Wall Street the answer to the Tea Party? Can they even be compared?
AD: I think OWS is the polar opposite of the Tea Party. I’ve participated in the OWS movement in Illinois, in the capitol where I live (Springfield), and spoken with a number of others involved in the movement in New York and other Midwestern states. From what I’ve seen so far there are few similarities. While the Tea Party stresses the virtues of “free market” capitalism and favors of business deregulation, elimination of the social welfare state, and ever decreasing tax cuts for the rich, the OWS movement is the opposite in its politics. While still quite vague in many of its demands, the movement has at least refocused attention toward the real culprits in this economic crisis: Wall Street and the government officials who enable them. OWS looks for greater transparency in the political process, and expects political officials to make a serious effort to promote the common interests of American public over expansive corporate power. This is the first vital step needed for the left if we are to move in a new direction in which Americans redirect their rage in more productive ways. I think OWS, or a possible successor to OWS, will need to develop a far more specific agenda with regard to how we will move forward in promoting a more democratic future. General rage as directed against the political and economic establishments is a good start, but it also won’t get you very far in the mid to long term. It will inevitably result (if the movement continues to gain steam) in a systematic effort from the Democratic Party to co-opt the movement, while granting minimum concessions. This has already happened to a significant degree, and will continue into the future if nothing is done to challenge this development. OWS will need to establish a set of demands that are separate from the corporatism being offered by the Democrats if it wants to represent an alternative path to the mainstream “liberalism.”
There are some very small similarities between OWS and the Tea Party. Whereas Tea Partiers share a very general (albeit misdirected) rage against the political establishment, OWS also expresses general distrust of the political-economic system. This, in my mind, is where the similarities end. On another level, the decentralized, leaderless orientation of the OWS is dramatically different from the largely centralized, heavily leader oriented Tea Party phenomenon, which relies on pundits and political officials such as Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Dick Armey, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and the Tea Party Caucuses in the House and Senate in order to set the Tea Party agenda nationally. This is a dramatic difference between OWS and the Tea Party.
SB: What is the state of the Tea Party today, and what can we expect from them in the coming years?
AD: The Tea Party hit a plateau as of mid to late 2011. As of October 2011, about one quarter of Americans consider themselves to be Tea Party supporters. This number has barely changed over the last year. Opposition, however, has increased by somewhere between 10 to 25 percentage points among the general public within the same period. This is because there were many undecideds in early 2010 who didn’t know what the Tea Party was, but since then, and since the ugly summer 2011 debt ceiling debate, have come to see the Tea Party “revolution” as yet another ugly manifestation of partisan establishment politics in Washington. Much of the public (most actually) are not too fond of the group’s demands to gut popular social welfare programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, or of their demands to balance budgets on the backs of the working and middle class (and the poor), while refusing to cut America’s bloated, imperialist military apparatus. Most also are disgusted at the Tea Party-Republican effort to give the rich a free pass (via the extension of the Bush tax cuts). In other words, the Tea Party has had its day in the sun, now it will likely continue at least through the 2012 elections (perhaps further), greatly mobilizing and energizing the conservative base. It is unlikely to do much else, however, since its support base is no longer growing, and public opposition has increased significantly.
Still, the Tea Party has been an incredibly important phenomenon for a few reasons: 1. It was instrumental in derailing what could have been historic health care reforms in the form of a public option (or even universal health care); 2. It has demonstrated that the only way the Republican Party can get back into power is through the manufacturing of false populism from the top down. The Republican Party is so unpopular today that it can only gain power by default, fostering anger against the Democratic Party, and sitting back and falling into electoral victories due to growing public disenfranchisement with the Democrats. I expect the Tea Party will serve as a lesson for the future. Expect plenty of other false populist narratives and “movements” to emerge on the right in coming years, in line with the predictions of progressive William Greider, who warned of the ever growing “rancid populism” of the right which now seems to be standard fare in American political discourse.
SB: How was media coverage of the Tea Party different from coverage of Occupy Wall Street and related protests?
AD: There are similarities and differences. Both have received a massive amount of coverage—basically saturation coverage to the point where most Americans should have heard at least something about both by now. In terms of volume of coverage, the findings depend on the time period you look at. A study by the Pew Research Center finds that coverage in early October 2011 of the OWS was quite sizable—at 7 percent of all national coverage—at a time when the protests were picking up steam. This compared quite well to the Tea Party national protests, which also received 7 percent of all news coverage during mid April 2009. In contrast, Tea Party coverage was even more extensive in September to November of 2011, accounting for 13 percent of all media coverage—a full five percentage points more attention than that directed at OWS in October 2011. My research finds mixed evidence of favoritism with regard to the Tea Party and OWS in terms of volume of coverage. Five out of seven major American news outlets I examined actually devoted more attention to the OWS (October 2011) protests than to the Tea Party (April 2010) protests, when measured in two week increments. Systematic analysis finds that OWS receives quite sympathetic coverage in general, although the Tea Party receives even more sympathetic coverage upon closer inspection. In six out of seven major news outfits I examined, reporters were more likely to classify the Tea Party (as compared to OWS) as a genuine, grassroots movement, examining the two week periods following both the April 2010 Tea Party protests and the October 2011 OWS demonstrations. Stories were also more likely to favor the Tea Party (in terms of framing it as a movement) when comparing reporting on the October 2011 OWS rallies to Tea Party reporting in the two weeks prior to and following the November 2010 elections. Volume of coverage also heavily favors the Tea Party (over OWS), when comparing coverage of OWS (October 2011) and the Tea Party in the two weeks prior to and after the November 2nd election.
The relative favoritism directed toward the Tea Party represents a sort of double bias, considering that my findings already suggested that the Tea Party is not a genuine social movement, while OWS (at least in its early stages) appears to exhibit many of the classical characteristics of a movement. Still, the OWS does quite well for itself (at least standing on its own) in reporting, considering the strong support received in editorials in elite papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, and in light of the fact that a majority of news stories in five of the seven outlets examined refer to OWS as a genuine social movement.
Extensive coverage of, and favoritism toward, the Tea Party in November of 2011 (when compared to OWS coverage in October 2011) is likely due to media outlets magnifying the importance of the Tea Party as it was being embraced wholeheartedly as an integral part of Republican Party politics during a major election. The above findings should be of no surprise to critical media scholars. Movements (and even false movements) traditionally receive significant attention and sympathetic coverage when they are embraced (or at least rhetorically supported) by major political parties. Conversely, movements that go against the establishment-political grain are typically ignored and vilified (on the rare occasions when they are reported). The above findings (in terms of sympathetic OWS coverage, but even more sympathetic Tea Party coverage) could have been predicted considering that the Democratic Party is (at least rhetorically) embracing and attempting to co-opt OWS, while the Tea Party has long been courted, celebrated, and thoroughly absorbed into Republican establishment politics. In other words, the Tea Party’s relatively greater partisan support accounts for its relatively more favorable coverage.
 Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Coverage of Wall Street Protests Keeps Growing, Gets More Political,” Pew Research Center, 10-16 October 2011, http://www.journalism.org/index_report/pej_news_coverage_index_october_1016_2011
 Project for Excellence in Journalism, “The 2010 Midterms: A Tea Party Tale,” Pew Research Center, 11 January 2011, http://www.journalism.org/analysis_report/2010_midterms_tea_party_tale