Tea (Parties) and Sympathy

In the current issue of the New Yorker, my old classmate Ben McGrath goes inside the Tea Party movement. Ben is determined not to write-off the Tea Partiers as right-wing kooks. Still, try as he might, I think he edges clearly in that direction by the end of his profile. Still, he warns of the danger of underestimating the Tea Party phenomenon:

The involvement of people like Dick Armey in the Tea Party movement led many Democrats, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, to dismiss the significance of the activism as a creation of right-wing moguls. FreedomWorks and a host of lobbying firms and think tanks, including Americans for Tax Reform, the Club for Growth, Campaign for Liberty, and the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, sponsored the [Tea Party] march in Washington last September. Lobbyists and think tanks in turn rely on financial support from corporate interests with enormous stakes in much of the prospective legislation on Capitol Hill.

“Astroturfing” is the critics’ preferred term for this phenomenon, with its imputation of a synthetic, top-down structure to contrast with the outward appearance of grassroots independence. Yet the presence of paid FreedomWorks operatives at meetings like the one in Cicero, [New York], handing out Obamacare Translator leaflets and legislator “leave-behinds,” would be cause for greater skepticism if the civilians in attendance weren’t already compiling binders of their own and reciting from memory the troublesome implications buried on page 59 of House Resolution 3200. The blogosphere can make trained foot soldiers of us all, with or without corporate funding

McGrath takes Democrats to task for underestimating the Tea Partiers:

Most liberals mistook [Doug] Hoffman’s eventual defeat [in the NY-23 congressional race]…as a sign that the movement had overshot. “If the tea party right can’t win there, imagine how it might fare in the nation where most Americans live,” Frank Rich wrote in the Times, noting that New York’s Twenty-third District is ninety-three per cent white. The headline over Rich’s column was “THE NIGHT THEY DROVE THE TEA PARTIERS DOWN.” Rich and others, including senior members of the Obama Administration, underestimated the strength of the movement, and the extent of the resentment that fed it. By fixating on the most egregious protest signs, and making sport of Tea Party infighting, they ignored the movement’s gradual consolidation.

Whereas liberals persuaded themselves that the Tea Parties were too extreme to be politically effective, McGrath says the election of Scott Brown proved otherwise:

The lesson that the Tea Party movement seems to have learned [from Hoffman's defeat is] to respect local preferences and work selectively within the system. Rather than back a libertarian third-party candidate, the activists this time rallied behind the equivalent of Dede Scozzafava. Scott Brown at one point likened himself to a “Reagan Democrat” and is something of a moderate on abortion rights. One of Dick Armey’s associates told me in November, “We have got to show that this movement can be successful outside the South.” Now they have, and New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer, who made the mistake of describing Brown as a “far-right teabagger,” in a last-ditch fund-raising appeal on behalf of Coakley, has invited talk of a movement to depose [Brown] in November.

Good work, Ben.

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