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Tilting at Windmills

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October 24, 2010

DON'T CALL IT A MOVEMENT.... Describing the Tea Party crowd last week, Karl Rove told a reporter, "There have been movements like this before -- the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the pro-life movement, the Second Amendment rights movement."

The observation was based on a dubious premise. As Rove and other Republicans see it, there's a Tea Party "movement," somehow distinct-but-not-really from the GOP base, with a set of grievances and priorities that is every bit as clear as those real political movements.

But the reason I put "movement" in quotes every time I write about the Tea Partiers is that it's an amorphous group of activists with no clear agenda, no leadership, no internal structure, and no real areas of expertise. Its passionate members, while probably well meaning, appear to have no idea what they're talking about. Genuine political movements -- civil rights, women's suffrage, labor unions -- have, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) recently put it, a "coherent vision." The Tea Party has rage and a cable news network, but that's not much of a substitute.

With that in mind, the Washington Post did something quite interesting -- over the course of months, the paper tried to identify, find, contact, and poll literally every self-identified Tea Party group in the country. It is, to my knowledge, an unprecedented media project.

The result, Amy Gardner reported today, painted a portrait of "a disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings that do surprisingly little to engage in the political process."

Seventy percent of the grass-roots groups said they have not participated in any political campaigning this year. As a whole, they have no official candidate slates, have not rallied behind any particular national leader, have little money on hand, and remain ambivalent about their goals and the political process in general. [...]

The findings suggest that the breadth of the tea party may be inflated. The Atlanta-based Tea Party Patriots, for example, says it has a listing of more than 2,300 local groups, but The Post was unable to identify anywhere near that many, despite help from the organization and independent research.

In all, The Post identified more than 1,400 possible groups and was able to verify and reach 647 of them. Each answered a lengthy questionnaire about their beliefs, members and goals. The Post tried calling the others as many as six times.

There can be little doubt that these activists exist, and that the political world takes them quite seriously. But beyond this, groups and members of this "movement" don't necessarily even agree with one another about their priorities or beliefs. This even applies to the basics -- "less than half" the Tea Party organizations identified "spending and limiting the size of government" as a top concern.

It's something to keep in mind the next time someone compares these folks to a real political movement. At least for now, that's not even close to being true.

Steve Benen 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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It is a movement. These are activist Republicans. Whatever their personal motivation, they are highly motivated activist Republicans.

Posted by: Dan on October 24, 2010 at 12:00 PM | PERMALINK

Why they are a movement. A bowel movement.

Posted by: Gandalf on October 24, 2010 at 12:12 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry , they don't understand it so yes thats what it amounts to. A giant BM. They have no idea of the log that will fall out.

Posted by: Michael on October 24, 2010 at 12:33 PM | PERMALINK

You know, the Post, in relying on telephone calls, would tend to select a vanishingly small group of a party that openly disparages "big" government, a symptom of which is a fear of unknown phone calls, even assuming the Post uses caller ID.

For many of them, their fear is palpable and pervasive. Those in tea bagger "leadership" positions are likely most afraid.

My parents were of that group, keeping loaded guns around our property and us kids were steeped in fear and distrust of unmarked cars, government offices and "official" looking people.

It seems the Post is guilty of ignorance of their targets and because of their bias', logically get to the wrong conclusion.

Posted by: IntelVet on October 24, 2010 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

Oh yeah. It's all "astro-turf" ... Nancy said so.

The Tea party must be the most underfunded "astroturf" ever to come down the pike.

Posted by: Neo on October 24, 2010 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

At one time, the Tea Party may have had a chance at being a movement. Then, it was hijacked by Dick Armey and his brand of donors to use it as a front for their agenda.

It's too bad that what may have been an honest expression of political will was co-opted, but the Tea Partiers were so eager to quickly become a goliath in politics, they couldn't see the difference between getting microphone time and being used from behind the scenes. Look at how fast their start-up leadership has disappeared in favor of the ultra-conservative marquee names who have always been there stirring up the perennial base.

And now Rove, being part of the hijack team, just repeats the mantra that the Tea Party is grassroots, knowing that the Overton Window is a small one.

Posted by: jcricket on October 24, 2010 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK

All well and good about the disparity of the groups, but, follow the money which is paying volunteers to sit at home and make out of state calls to support such as Angle, Rossi, John Raese and the like. In the article by Amy Gardner, she writes of FreedomWorks, the DC based libertarian group which has spent millions to pay for such as the lady, Gardner mentions, who sits in Hillsboro, OR, a suburb of Portland, and phones across the nation. Look at the millions Dick Armey and others mentioned by Rachael Maddow, who have organized many "grass roots" events and tours for the TP people. There is a strong money movement at the top. Why do you think the fellow who came up with the TP idea is screaming against those big money people who have co-opted his orginal intent? Those, such as the lady in Hillsboro, have no clue as to who is calling the shots and paying for her time away from her 8 children, while she shills for Angle and Rossi.

Posted by: berttheclock on October 24, 2010 at 12:54 PM | PERMALINK

The cable news network was around before they rebranded themselves as 'tea partiers'

The canards havent changed.

Posted by: Kill Bill on October 24, 2010 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

"Fanatics are picturesque, mankind would rather see gestures than listen to reasons."

I got that from my nigh-daily trip to Nietzsche Family Circus, though the picture and caption didn't match as well as this one:


Posted by: Half Elf on October 24, 2010 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

As much as they try to downplay the social conservative angle this time around, they are just the 'Terry Schiavo' party reborn. Always angry, always victims, always white and always manipulated by grifters like Palin, Rove, Hannity, et al, who make fantastic sums of money off their ignorance.

Posted by: danainsd on October 24, 2010 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

Newsweek has an article on the T-Party, as well, that is worth reading. It explains how T-Party candidates are using language wrt the Constitution that is neither "legal" nor "logical," but are instead "relying on it more as an instrument of self-affirmation and cultural division than as a source for policy inspiration."

The link is as follows:


Posted by: serena1313 on October 24, 2010 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

Karl Rove told a reporter, "There have been movements like this before -- the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the pro-life movement, the Second Amendment rights movement."/i>

Right off the bat I see a difference between the first two examples above and the Tea Partiers: namely that they are not centered on self as much as others.

While I agree with the sentiment of reducing government waste and that government should not be burdensome on its citizens, I don't see the waste that they loudly proclaim and looking at our own history and the state of other governments in the world do not see that our government IS burdensome. All things considered we have pretty low taxes and have a government that does provide tremendous value for the taxes we pay.

We can reduce taxes but we will not have less 'government', we will have fewer services. By 'government', as so obnoxiously described by the Tea Partiers I read about, I mean a government that looks at us. While I prefer the Democratic party, I realize that both sides of the ideological spectrum want to control our lives in roughly equal measures. It is WHAT they want to control that is different. One overly simplistic way to describe the two sides is that lefties want to minimize violence, righties want to limit sex. There are, of course, other differences, but those describe a lot of the culture wars.

The Tea Party is mainly about "what is in it for me?". Reduce taxes; I need my government handout but screw others. Why should my taxes go to pay for other people? I don't like the way you govern so I'm going to pitch a temper tantrum.

Me, me, me. That's the Tea Party is about.

Governing is about meeting the needs of many people with different needs and different abilities to contribute. These trade-offs are older than the Republic. It is interesting reading the words of the founders and those who contributed to the Constitution about the trade-off of meeting the needs of the individual against the needs to provide government with the power to operate. The individual must be respected, but so too must the government have the ability to enact laws and limit individual choices in order for the government to enable people to have freedoms. (You can consider taxes a limit on freedoms, but with those taxes government can hire police to protect your rights, build roads so you have easier access to places near and far, etc., all things that expand individual freedoms.)

Anarchy is an option if you decide that you don't want government to have those powers. I for one find giving the government some power a good alternative to anarchy. And how do I keep government from becoming overpowering? By being involved, by learning about the issues, and not letting some billionaire tell me how to think (I'm looking at you Rupert Murdoch).

Throughout history there have been hucksters who lend credence to our inner voices that the individual is the center of the Universe. Fortunately we have also had people like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, and many others who saw that while the individual is important that without considering the whole we as individuals will lose.

A movement? For whom?

Posted by: nerd on October 24, 2010 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

Scanlon let loose the plan in one of his emails:

'The idea is to get the wackos [his word] out to obstruct/vote on something/anything so complex legislation can be slid under the peoples noses'

Its why they work so hard to co-opt these people and why they get media coverage for small events that are then exaggerated ten times over. Its also why their movements never really go anywhere and are nothing more than sappy slogans and 'contracts' that are never fulfilled.

Posted by: Kill Bill on October 24, 2010 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Worth pointing out, I think, another fundamental difference between the civil rights and anti-war movements, and our tea party friends: Those engaged in real acts of civil disobedience in those movements accepted that they were going to pay a price for their activism. Truncheons, tear gas, dogs and firehouses were not rhetorical devices for them. Our tea party friends can rant and rave secure in the knowledge that they will wind up on Fox News, and toddle home with both themselves and their misspelled placards in one piece.

Posted by: Roddy McCorley on October 24, 2010 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

It's not a movement, it's a tantrum...

Posted by: Steve in Sacto on October 24, 2010 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

I know some sane members of the Tea Party.

They really want MASSIVE cuts in spending. They want things like serious cuts in Medicare and Social Security. They want a balanced budget now without tax increases. They would accept massive cuts in defense as long as social programs had massive cuts first. They think it was the right thing to do when the fire department let the house burn down.

I even managed to pin one guy down over the estate tax. He would rather have his income taxes go up before we increased the estate tax from its current level of zero.

I can't imagine what would happen if those policies were put into effect. My guess is a massive violent revolution during a massive depression but....

Posted by: neil wilson on October 24, 2010 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

The so-called "tea party" is a collection of white, racist, former Bush supporters - many of them on Medicare and Social Security - bankrolled by the billionaire Koch brothers of Koch Industries in Kansas, and stoked by our corporate media which is owned by a defense contractor, vertically integrated entertainment companies, and a billionaire from Australia. In short, a collection of radical, incoherent idiots bankrolled by rich people. Think, "Send in the Irish!" from the movie Braveheart.

Posted by: Bob on October 24, 2010 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

In days gone by, bumper stickers read such as: "We are anti-war and we vote" There were even "We are NRA and we vote" stickers. Now, it has become "We are Stupid and we vote".

Posted by: berttheclock on October 24, 2010 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

I'll have to agree w/ Gandalf on this one, and to further suggest that the "TP" in "Tea party" is directly related to the "TP" in "Toilet Paper."

Now---if you think about it, would Faux News have been able to get the politically-inept wackos of this Republic to rally around the message of the "Toilet Paper Party?" Would Glenn Back and sarah Palin be able to garner hundreds of single-synapse attendees at a "Toilet Paper Express" rally?

Why, no---they wouldn't---but it would have been maliciously funny to see them try....

Posted by: S. Waybright on October 24, 2010 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

It does not matter whether the Tea Party is a "movement". If they can be counted upon to vote a certain way, or they can be goaded into defending their votes, then they are useful. A wedge can be driven between them and the mainstream Republican leadership, and this can destroy the GOP.

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold on October 24, 2010 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

But the reason I put "movement" in quotes every time I write about the Tea Partiers is that it's an amorphous group of activists with no clear agenda, no leadership, no internal structure, and no real areas of expertise. -- Steve Benen

So... For all those reasons you put "movement" in quotation marks but write "Tea PARTY" with a straight face? What "party"? Where's their platform, their statement of purpose, their hierarchy or, even, their candidates?

It's just a Tea Potty -- full of steam and hot, yellow liquid which may *look* like (weak) tea but doesn't really *smell* like it. It's a companion to the "movement", as described by Gandalf, @12:12

Posted by: exlibra on October 24, 2010 at 3:40 PM | PERMALINK

Nothing more than another multi level marketing operation. If I were an Amway or Herbalife "distributor" I'd be all over any tea bagger mailing list or meeting. Come to think of it, wasn't Mark Meckler a Herbalife "distributor", now involved in a list generation firm run by another Herbalife person? Hmm. All these names, emails. What shall I do with them?

Posted by: ComradeAnon on October 24, 2010 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

Why you call them 'activists' puzzles me - the bulk of them don't do anything.

My theory - they're militia units for lazy people.

Posted by: Arachnae on October 24, 2010 at 4:47 PM | PERMALINK

Boomers, the bulk of the tea party, have spent their entire lives in splendid self absorption. They don't join anything, especially if it requires doing for or with others. Don't believe me, ask the Rotarians, Kiwanians, Lions, and any number of other community service groups, and mainstream churchs who watched their membership decline as their WWII generation members have died unreplaced by their boomer children. You can't really expect political activity out of a boomer. That requires self-direction and submission to a larger goal. No self respecting tea party "member" would think to rouse himself from his couch in front of Fox News and it's white boomer affirming message.

Posted by: Ron Byers on October 24, 2010 at 5:53 PM | PERMALINK

In days gone by, bumper stickers read such as: "We are anti-war and we vote" There were even "We are NRA and we vote" stickers. Now, it has become "We are Stupid and we vote".

Posted by: berttheclock on October 24, 2010 at 2:38 PM

My point exactly. All three bumper sticker movements are made up of the same people who confuse slapping a bumper sticker on their car or pickup with actually doing something.

Posted by: Ron Byers on October 24, 2010 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

The grassroots meme is past its pulldate. there may be actual grassroots orgs who have steered clear of the Dick Armeys and others, but basically these represent conservative GOPers, as is evident in polling. They also are organized enough that I saw bus after bus discharge at the East Falls Church Metro station when Glenn Beck had his teabagger convention, or whatever he called it. The Dems should have expected a rear guard action much like the one that faced Clinton, with the same out to lunch rhetoric and the loose confederation of partners that includes people related to militias as well as to people like the Kochs. we really don't need another article telling us that this is something new. It isn't. To the extent that it's disorganized, it's just Southern politics--you let the obvious cretins scare people, while you quietly hold all the cards. Much of the South is run like a banana republic and that's basically what the tea baggers are about.

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