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Where Did They Come From?

The Rise of the Tea Party

by KEVIN YOUNG

US press coverage has usually cast the Tea Party as an authentic expression of popular anger against Washington insiders. Anthony DiMaggio’s new book, Rise of the Tea Party, shatters such myths, demonstrating that the Tea Party has never been a genuine social movement or political outsider but rather an elite-dominated group that was closely linked to the Republican establishment from its inception three years ago. The Tea Party’s goal has been to aid a struggling Republican Party in its efforts to further roll back the social safety net and funnel more wealth and power from workers to the rich. The book’s relevance extends well beyond just the Tea Party, though. DiMaggio uses the group as a case study to explore broader issues of corporate media bias, the rightward shift of US politics in recent decades, and the effects of material and non-material factors in shaping people’s attitudes. The study is really two books in one: an authoritative examination of the Tea Party phenomenon and “a grand theory of public opinion and the larger social forces that influence it” (p. 29).

The first two chapters critically analyze the Tea Party’s emergence and growth in 2009-10, showing that the organization has never been an independent or mass-based movement. DiMaggio refutes the typical depiction of the group as maverick agitators who cause headaches for Democrats and Republicans alike: from the start the Tea Party and its affiliate groups had close institutional ties to the Republican Party and billionaire Republican sponsors like the Koch brothers. Common claims about the effect of the Tea Party on Congressional Republicans are also misleading. The shift of the Republican Party toward ever more extremist positions cannot be attributed to the influence of the Tea Party faction (and certainly not, as some claim, to any shift in public opinion). As DiMaggio observes, the Republican Party’s rightward shift has been underway for decades. Moreover, there is strong agreement among Tea Party and “moderate” Republicans in Congress on the vast majority of policy questions, belying characterizations of Tea Partiers as challengers to the Republican establishment. The Tea Party’s primary purpose has been to “rebrand” the Republican Party as a populist force and channel votes to Republican candidates in an era when the electorate views the Republican Party (even more so than the Democratic Party) with ever-increasing scorn.

Chapter 2, co-written with DiMaggio’s frequent collaborator Paul Street, offers a ground-level look at Tea Party campaigns in the greater Chicago area, often considered a Tea Party stronghold. The two observed local Tea Party meetings and events throughout 2009 and 2010. The chapter’s provocative title—“The Tea Party Does Not Exist”—conveys two key points: that the Tea Party has very little local presence and that it has never been an independent party but rather “a covert Republican operation” (p. 92). DiMaggio and Street’s research found that most of the typical features of a genuine social movement were lacking. Few chapters were active on the local level, few held regular open meetings, and there was little or no commitment among chapter leaders to movement-building and member empowerment. Meetings that did occur were conducted in a highly authoritarian manner with little open discussion. Chapter leaders engaged in outreach mainly in order to generate turn-out at periodic events that served as thinly-veiled campaign rallies for Republican candidates. Most chapter work was “dominated by partisan electioneering interests” (p. 89). (On these themes see also Street and DiMaggio’s study Crashing the Tea Party[Paradigm, 2011], which complements the current book.)

The US press has played an essential role in creating the illusion of a massive Tea Party uprising, as DiMaggio shows in Chapter 3. In mid-2011 one Tea Party leader admitted that “there would not have been a Tea Party without Fox” (quoted on p. 224). Right-wing outlets like Fox News have been crucial in promoting Tea Party events to increase turn-out and by providing a steady stream of favorable coverage. But centrist and liberal media share the blame. Even when featuring criticisms of it, they have consistently mischaracterized it as an authentic movement anduprising, thus legitimating it, while ignoring the facts presented in Chapters 1 and 2. DiMaggio’s quantitative analysis of press coverage also shows that media have systematically favored the Tea Party over antiwar, anti-corporate, and women’s rights protests, which unlike the Tea Party represent genuine grassroots movements. This pattern of coverage confirms the predictions of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “propaganda model” regarding media treatment of “worthy” versus “unworthy” protesters.

Another chapter on media coverage focuses on the Tea Party’s obsession in 2009 and early 2010, the healthcare reform debate. DiMaggio finds that media reports on the issue overwhelmingly echoed right-wing propaganda themes—focusing on the alleged costs, debt, and budget deficits that would result from Democratic reform proposals—while failing to acknowledge the real reasons for right-wing opposition. The modest reform proposal of the “public option” received far less media attention, particularly after Congressional Democrats stopped advocating it. Discussion of single-payer or universal healthcare, meanwhile, was virtually absent from news coverage.

DiMaggio goes beyond most studies of media coverage by measuring the effects of propaganda and other forces on public attitudes. In Chapters 4 and 6 he uses poll results to analyze the importance of nine separate factors, both material and “intangible,” in shaping individuals’ attitudes toward the Tea Party and healthcare reform during the period under study. Material factors like race and income play a key role, with whites and the more affluent more likely to support the Tea Party and oppose healthcare reform. Yet DiMaggio concludes that intangible forces like exposure to corporate media and partisan affiliation are ultimately more important in determining people’s opinions. Republican voters, those who watched Fox News, and those who followed Washington-related news reports more closely were much more likely to support the Tea Party and oppose healthcare reform.

One of the most pressing questions regarding the Tea Party phenomenon is why many working-class people have expressed support for it. During 2010 the group grew in popularity among most sectors of the population, not just among the affluent. By August 2010 over half the US public expressed “sympathy” with the Tea Party. DiMaggio is careful to distinguish between the motives of the Tea Party’s elite leadership and those of the ordinary working people who have been attracted to it. The Tea Party may be “a false populist force,” but “the group would be nowhere near as successful if it were not for the legitimate grievances and anger of a general public” (p. 31). Falling real wages, rising inequality, and unresponsive government have all fueled the Tea Party’s popularity, even if its false solutions would intentionally exacerbate such problems. Moreover, many of the people who have expressed support for the Tea Party in fact hold progressive values. One explanation DiMaggio offers for this paradox is that factual ignorance (largely created by media coverage) results in disjunctions between people’s values and attitudes toward specific policies, on one hand, and their opinions of politicians, institutions, and abstract ideas like “healthcare reform,” on the other. For example, individuals may strongly support welfare programs like Medicare or Social Security—as most of the public does—but oppose “welfare” due to the racist and classist propaganda offensive mounted against the idea since the 1970s.

A similar pattern seems to apply to public opinion on a wide range of issues. Most of the public thinks workers should have more income and power, but is more ambivalent toward the idea of unions. The public supports a binding treaty to combat climate change, but over half of Bush voters in 2004 were under the erroneous impression that Bush supported the Kyoto Protocol. To take a recent example, the public overwhelmingly agrees with the Occupy Wall Street movement’s goals of reducing inequality, taxing the rich to fund social programs, and ending corporate domination of government, but stated support for the Occupy movement itself is lower (though still substantial). DiMaggio’s argument about how elites and media coverage “manufacture dissent” against policies that might otherwise enjoy widespread support helps to explain such paradoxes, although further research—particularly at the ethnographic level—will be necessary to more fully understand the reasons for working-class support for the Tea Party and other right-wing forces (working-class racism, sexism, and nationalism are surely important here).

At the same time, DiMaggio also cautions that the cooptation or “false consciousness” of workers and the poor is not as pervasive as analysts like Thomas Frank (the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?) have implied. Support for Republicans among the white working class is far from universal, and ordinary people frequently see through elite propaganda. Yet the challenge to Frank’s argument is only partial: DiMaggio recognizes “that the less privileged are regularly manipulated into supporting policies that run directly counter to their material interests” (p. 179). Successful manipulation just isn’t as common as some liberals and leftists suggest.

My critiques of the book are few and minor. Though hardly the author’s fault, the book was written too early (November 2010) to take into account interesting recent developments like the Tea Party’s decline in popularity during 2011 or the resurgence of a progressive movement in the United States as embodied in the fall’s Occupy protests (the book’s conclusion, written in August 2011, does address the February union protests in Wisconsin).

A more important critique involves the relative lack of attention to the role of the Democrats in fueling the political discontent upon which the Tea Party has capitalized. For instance, I think the statement that “Republicans successfully took universal healthcare and the public option off the agenda” (p. 192) attributes too much power to the right; top-level Democrats also rejected the idea of universal healthcare and were at best half-hearted advocates of a robust public option. Even prior to late 2009, when Democratic proposals still included the public option, it was by no means clear that the progressive aspects of the legislation would outweigh the negative ones. Public opposition to Democratic healthcare reform seems to have derived not just from right-wing propaganda but also from the corporate-friendly nature of the reform proposals. In a January 2010 CBS News poll, 43 percent of respondents said that “the reforms do not do enough” to restrain private insurance companies (only 27 percent said they “go too far”). DiMaggio does note that Democratic proposals gave huge gifts to insurance companies and that Democrats’ right-wing policies have “contributed to the popularity of the Tea Party” by alienating the public (p. 126), but more attention to this dynamic might have further enriched the analysis. Additional research in the future could help illuminate the process by which right-wing populists appeal to workers disillusioned with Democrats’ unwillingness or inability to pursue meaningful reforms.

The Rise of the Tea Party is the most insightful study of the topic to date (alongside Street and DiMaggio’s Crashing the Tea Party), and usefully situates the Tea Party phenomenon within a broader analysis of public opinion, corporate media, and the US political system. It is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand recent US political history as well as the larger dynamics of domination and hegemony in the United States.

Kevin Young lives in La Paz, Bolivia.