“The Rant Heard Round the World”
On Feb. 19, 2009, two days after President Barack Obama signed the $787 billion economic stimulus bill into law1 and one day after the White House announced $75 billion in direct aid to help homeowners refinance troubled mortgages,2 CNBC commentator Rick Santelli delivered what became known as “the rant heard round the world.” Speaking from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in his role as a financial analyst for the business news channel, Santelli excoriated the government for “promoting bad behavior” by “subsidiz[ing] the losers’ mortgages” instead of rewarding “the people that could carry the water instead of drink the water.” Crying “This is America … the silent majority” to the cheering, White male traders around him, Santelli announced, “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party.”3
“How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage [when he] has an extra bathroom and can’t pay the bills?”
A movement was born. It mattered little that Santelli was mum about the government’s many bailouts of Wall Street firms. (Financial analyst Nomi Prins estimates that by November 2008, direct and indirect support from the Federal Reserve to the financial sector had already climbed to $6.39 trillion.4) Instead, Santelli—directing his wrath at the mortgage-refinancing program that would presumably aid the “losers”—asked, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?”5 Within hours, Santelli’s rant was featured favorably on right-wing websites such as the Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com), and conservative talk radio like the Rush Limbaugh Show and the Sean Hannity Show.6 The same day, FreedomWorks, an outfit chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey,7 “put up a website with tips on how to hold a tea party, then a Google map of events,” according to the New York Times. The Times said that, as “more people found the map on Web searches, they e-mailed FreedomWorks information on their own events, ultimately allowing” the group “to compile a list of thousands of Tea Party contacts across the country.”8
In many ways, Santelli only sparked the abundant tinder of right-wing outrage. After all, despite Barack Obama’s historic victory, Republican presidential candidate John McCain garnered nearly 60 million votes, just 2.1 million short of the number George Bush received in his 2004 re-election win.9 Additionally, almost ninety percent of McCain voters were White; around seventy percent made more than $50,000 a year; a majority identified as conservative; most were male; and they skewed older.10 As indicated by various polls, this is the heart of the Tea Party demographic.11
But many commentators, dazzled by Obama and the Democratic sweep of Congress, ignored this data. They declared that the Republicans were in a “death spiral,” “shrinking,” “increasingly constricted, with little space for growth,” and might “go the way of the 1936 GOP, which didn’t reclaim the White House until 1952.”12 Even those who hedged their bets, such as the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who saw a future for the Republican Party, albeit as “a haven for racists and reactionaries,”13 were unable to imagine the stunning comeback it would make just two years later, fueled by the Tea Party movement.
The same pundits often interpreted the race-based falsehoods tossed about during the campaign—that Obama was a Muslim, that (in the words of Sarah Palin) he was “palling around with terrorists,” that he was not a natural-born U.S. citizen—as the last cry of a dying right-wing species. Yet the rumor-mongering only gained a firmer foothold as the Tea Party gained momentum. In August 2007, seven percent of the public thought Obama was Muslim. By October 2008, twelve percent held this belief. By August 2010, it was up to eighteen percent, including 31 percent of all Republicans (with another 39 percent responding “don’t know”).14 As hysteria peaked later that August over the proposal to build the so-called Park 51 mosque in downtown Manhattan—an issue pushed by FOX News and Tea Party figures such as Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for Nevada’s senate seat15—a Time magazine poll found that 46 percent of Republicans believed that Obama was Muslim.16 Similarly, in April 2010, 92 percent of Tea Party supporters said Obama’s policies “were moving the country more toward socialism.”17 (While the Tea Party is not identical to the GOP, it overlaps with it significantly. A New York Times-CBS poll of Tea Party supporters in April 2010 found that 66 percent “usually” or “always” vote Republican, as opposed to a scant five percent who said that about the Democrats.18)
Can Billions Buy a Movement?
Many progressives find the Tea Party perplexing, because a mass-based movement motivated by reactionary populist beliefs also appears to be marching to the tune of well-funded, top-down organizations and prominent right-wing media. A debate has thus ensued over whether the Tea Party movement is genuinely grassroots, which I define as a bottom-up political process marked by relatively autonomous local formations, or Astroturf, which the website SourceWatch defines as “apparently grassroots-based citizen groups or coalitions that are primarily conceived, created and/or funded by corporations, industry trade associations, political interests or public relations firms.”19
Progressives find the Tea Party perplexing, because the mass-based movement also appears to be marching to the tune of top-down organizations and right-wing media.
As evidence for the Astroturf argument, critics often point to Charles and David Koch, oil-industry magnates with a combined fortune of $44 billion, who control various foundations and political organizations linked to the Tea Party, such as FreedomWorks. A New Yorker profile of the brothers by Jane Mayer describes them as “out to destroy progressivism.” They have pumped more than $250 million into conservative political causes—of money that can be traced. Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit founded by David Koch in 2004 that reportedly sought to spend $45 million during the 2010 election cycle, has become a prominent player in the Tea Party Movement.20
But even for billionaires, buying a movement is not easy. The Koch brothers have spent freely on political campaigns that have flopped, some of which were brazenly Astroturf. For example, in 1980, David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket. He spent $1.6 million in television advertising, which garnered him a whopping one percent of the national vote.21 In 1995, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on Citizens for the Environment, a spin-off from the Koch-funded group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, which had received $7.9 million from the Koch foundation between 1986 and 1993 and was the precursor of both FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. Citizens for the Environment, said the Post-Gazette, “has no citizen membership of its own”; instead, “Oil, auto, timber, and chemical companies finance its inside-the-Washington-Beltway activities.”22 In 2008, Americans for Prosperity, which had received $5.2 million from Koch foundations since 2005, kicked off a Hot Air Tour to oppose legislation addressing climate change.23 During the next year, it made 75 stops around the U.S.,24 but the Wall Street Journal uncovered the tour’s Astroturf nature, including a lobbyist who forged letters to members of Congress.25 In 2008, the Journal reported on another fizzled effort linked to the Koch brothers: the FreedomWorks Angry Renter campaign, which was meant to stir up opposition to federal programs that helped homeowners refinance troubled mortgages.26
In the few weeks between Obama’s inauguration and Santelli’s rant, the same top-down forces were at play, at that point with little effect. In February 2009, demonstrations against the Obama administration’s stimulus plan took place in Seattle, Washington; Denver, Colorado; Mesa, Arizona; and Ft. Myers, Florida. Most were timed to protest visits by Obama, and all benefited from support or promotion by the Right. The term used at these events to disparage the stimulus, “porkulus,” was coined by Rush Limbaugh.27 FreedomWorks claimed credit for the Ft. Myers protest. Pundit Michelle Malkin gave the protests a national platform, boasting that KFYI radio, part of the right-wing Clear Channel media empire, was “taking the lead” in promoting the Mesa demonstration. Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute, which is funded by the ultraconservative Coors family, organized the Denver rally.28 And John Hendrix, a “Tampa-based consultant who organized” an anti-stimulus protest in Tampa, Florida, says he got the idea from “FreedomWorks field coordinator Tom Gaitens.”29 The Seattle protest, called by school teacher and Young Republican Keli Carender, appears to have been genuinely spontaneous, but FOX News radio was quick to promote it.30 That nearly all these “local” protests were organized from above and received plenty of play from the right-wing media underlines how massive the conservative apparatus has become, bulked up by decades of funding from right-wing philanthropists.31 But all the resources, money, and media did not guarantee success. The protests were scattered, and none appeared to draw many more than 100 people.
From the Bottom Up
Curiously, what has arguably become the Tea Party movement’s nerve center—FOX News—was slow to react. Not until a second round of Tea Party protests slated for April 15, 2009, began to gather steam did FOX News start heavily promoting, endorsing, and providing organizing support.32 On Tax Day, some 750 separate Tea Party protests were reportedly staged around the nation. While ABC, CBS, and the New York Times all cited this number without attribution, the protests were undoubtedly widespread.33 Statistician Nate Silver tallied up press and police reports from 126 of the protests and found that about 112,000 people attended, with 47 cities reporting crowds of 1,000 or more.34
Still, many liberals interpreted the growing Tea Party movement as mere smoke and mirrors. Krugman called the demonstrations “Astroturf events.” Pointing to involvement by FreedomWorks, he noted that “the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by FOX News.”35 Lee Fang of ThinkProgress.org said “the principle organizers of the local events are actually the lobbyist-run think tanks Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks. The two groups are heavily staffed and well-funded, and are providing all the logistical and public relations work necessary for planning coast-to-coast protests.”36 Citing much of the same evidence, Jane Hamsher, the founder of the progressive blog firedoglake.com, rejected the idea that “right-wing infrastructure” was exploiting a grassroots movement.37
Even for billionaires, buying a movement is not easy.
Yet labeling the Tea Party “Astroturf” does not explain its strength or its explosive growth. While opponents may find it comforting to claim the movement doesn’t have much real support, this notion is dubious. “Saying it’s inauthentic, it’s fake, it’s being manipulated by elites is an easy way to dismiss it,” says Peter Bratsis, an observer of the Tea Party movement and a professor of political theory at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom. “The important thing is the degree of support the Tea Party movement has. The intensity of passion is quite acute. … It’s a social movement that is very widespread.”
One need look no further than the November 2010 elections, which were an unambiguous victory for the Tea Party. The Democratic Party was “thrashed,” as President Obama admitted, losing six seats in the Senate, 63 in the House, six governorships, and numerous state legislatures.38 Of the House seats the Republicans flipped, “Tea Party-endorsed candidates accounted for 28 of those pick-ups,” according to Bloomberg News, and nearly one-quarter of Republicans in the House currently belong to the Tea Party caucus.39 At the polls, an astonishing 41 percent of voters identified as Tea Party supporters.40 The Tea Party gained enough strength during the 2010 midterm elections to enable the Republican Party to define the national issues going forward: maintaining the Bush-era tax cuts; cutting social services, unemployment insurance, public education and healthcare; and waging warfare on unions, particularly in the public sector.
Libertarian beliefs about limited government, personal responsibility, opposition to the downward redistribution of wealth, and the market as the source of liberty and democracy41 have defined the U.S. Right since the 1930s, according to Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (2009), by Kim Phillips-Fein.42 In Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States (1995), Sara Diamond provides a succinct definition of the Right that fits the Tea Party movement: “To be right-wing means to support the state in its capacity as enforcer of order and to oppose the state as distributor of wealth and power downward and more equitably in society [emphasis in original].”43
Thus, Santelli struck a nerve because he was expressing what many Americans already thought: that their hard-earned money should not go to subsidize “losers.” Shortly after his rant, CNBC asked visitors to its website, “Would you join Santelli’s ‘Chicago Tea Party?’” About 170,000 people responded within one day, with 93 percent saying “yes,” according to Hamsher.44 A CNBC spokesperson said the number of respondents was “much higher” than normal for a CNBC poll.45 Within eleven days, the rant video was the most-watched clip ever on the CNBC website, with nearly 2 million views and another 855,000 hits on YouTube.46 Santelli’s distinction between those who “carry the water” and those who “drink the water” is what sociologists term classic “producerism.” Researchers Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons47 define producerism as pitting “the so-called producing classes,” who work hard and create wealth, “against ‘unproductive’ bankers, speculators, and monopolists above—and people of color below.” Many of the people who commented on the CNBC website in response to Santelli expressed producerist resentments such as these:
- “Why are the very people who never seem to do the right things being rewarded with my tax dollars?”
- “Here is the message Obama and Congress are sending: work hard, pay your bills on time, and you will be penalized by having your hard-earned money reward those who wallow in irresponsibility and have a total disdain for those who play by the rules.”
- “Obama & Biden are very compassionate with other peoples’ money … This is not the role of the government (redistribution) & it’s not their right to do it with my money!”48
Tea Party Racism
“Saying [the Tea Party] is inauthentic, it’s fake, it’s being manipulated by elites is an easy way to dismiss it.”
Producerism is intertwined with racism, and various Tea Party factions are no strangers to racist rhetoric. Curiously, because of such racism, some left-wing observers have dismissed the idea that the Tea Party could become a powerful political movement—even though they also recognize that racism is a potent force in U.S. society and politics49. Racism is a factor in the movement’s success, and many Tea Party leaders, candidates, and supporters have been guilty of it50: Kentucky Senator Rand Paul inveighed against the 1964 Civil Rights Act during his 2010 campaign51; New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino sent out racist emails with doctored photographs of Michelle and Barack Obama52; crowds of Tea Party supporters reportedly yelled “nigger” at Black congressmen during the healthcare bill debate in March 201053; racist signs regularly appeared at Tea Party rallies54; there was an outpouring of Tea Party-backed Islamophobia during the summer of 201055; Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams vented founts of racist diatribes long before his racist “satire” of the NAACP led to his resignation56; and high percentages of Tea Party supporters regularly claimed that Obama was a Muslim or was not born in the United States.57
Polling conducted in 2010 among Whites in California, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, and Ohio by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, & Sexuality found that support for or opposition to the Tea Party movement was an accurate predictor of racial resentment. The survey found that among strong supporters of the Tea Party, 73 percent believed, “Blacks would be as well off as Whites if they just tried harder,” while only 33 percent of strong opponents of the Tea Party movement believed this; 56 percent of strong supporters believed, “Immigrants take jobs from Americans,” as opposed to 31 percent of strong opponents; and 72 percent of Tea Party backers disagreed that decades of slavery and discrimination made Blacks’ economic situations difficult, while only 28 percent of opponents disagreed.58
Recent assaults on social welfare programs and the passage of laws criminalizing undocumented immigrants, especially in states with active Tea Party movements, are part of a racist backlash—and the demographics of the Tea Party may explain why. For instance, just 23 percent of Tea Party supporters in an April 2010 New York Times/CBS poll were under age 45, as opposed to 50 percent of all respondents. Only five percent of the total said they were Black, Asian, or of Hispanic descent or origin, indicating that the movement is about 95 percent White.59
The Role of Populism
There remains the problem of how to make sense of the many apparently conflicting aspects of the Tea Party movement. Top-down elements with organizational, financial, and media resources, such as the Koch brothers, Sarah Palin, FOX News, Glenn Beck, FreedomWorks, and the Tea Party Express (a front for Republican operatives), play prominent roles in the Tea Party movement. Yet there is clearly broad support for the Tea Party and its positions, as evidenced by polling data, the 2010 midterm elections, the variety of organizations, their ability to turn people out on the streets, and their ideological continuities with other modern right-wing movements.
The Tea Party movement thus appears to have both genuine grassroots and Astroturf elements. However, saying this doesn’t explain much. Whether the movement is orchestrated or spontaneous, whether that matters, and how the elite interacts with the base are still unanswered questions. Ernesto Laclau’s essay, “Populism: What’s in a Name?,” and his 2005 book, On Populist Reason60 provide useful perspectives on the issues, although his theories are controversial.61
Laclau says that populism is a “political logic” that begins with “social demands.” If a series of demands remains unfulfilled, then the various groups making the demands may begin to see themselves as having something in common. At first, there “is a vague feeling of solidarity,” writes Laclau.62 To use a non-Tea Party example, in Wisconsin in early 2011, after Republicans tried to take away the right of public-sector workers to bargain collectively, an outpouring of people from various sectors—teachers, students, liberals, government employees, religious groups, socialists, union members, progressives, sports stars, hackers—protested.
One demand comes to represent the whole: “We Are All Wisconsin” (© Ellen Shub)
The movement then enters a second stage, says Laclau, in which “an individual demand … acquires a certain centrality,” and becomes “the representation of an impossible whole.”63 In Wisconsin, the plight of unionized public workers came to represent everyone’s plight; the movement’s slogan became, “We are all Wisconsin.”
A new identity is constructed: “the people”: those whose demands are not met. The people can be known only in relation to the Other, the enemy. “The ‘regime,’ the ‘oligarchy,’ the ‘dominant groups’” are on one side, says Laclau, while on the other is “the oppressed underdog”—“the ‘people,’ the ‘nation,’ the ‘silent majority.’”64 “The people” is less than the whole of society, he notes, although it would like “to function as the totality of the community.”65 The enemy, which is also a construct, is illegitimate and must be excluded.
Viewing the Tea Party as a populist movement explains why it came into being so fast, and why the grassroots/Astroturf debate misses the point. The elements of the movement took shape during the 2008 presidential race. While Obama’s campaign astutely crafted him as a symbol into which liberals, progressives, and many moderates could pour their hopes and ideals, he was also being shaped by his opponents as an enemy Other: a foreign-born, Muslim, socialist.66 Following Obama’s election, forces on the Right began to make a series of demands, opposing the stimulus bill, deficits, social spending, bailouts, and government intervention in the market.67 The demand of debt reduction rose above all the others, linking them together in what Laclau calls an “equivalential chain”: that is, debt reduction began to represent all the demands. Thus, the movement explained its opposition to social programs, bailouts, and government regulations with the imperative of debt reduction: social welfare and bailouts increase the debt, while regulation and government spending sap the market of its ability to generate wealth.
While the lavishly funded right-wing media and networks were having little success in building a mass movement based on “porkulus” protests, Santelli’s rant broke through because it suggested a populist identity and at the same time, constructed an enemy. As Laclau would say, the Tea Party discourse brings the “people” into being; it’s not an already existing group. Tea Party rhetoric is full of this notion of a legitimate “people.” “We the people” are contrasted with various Others—Obama, unions, welfare recipients, undocumented immigrants—who, according to Laclau’s theory, “cannot be a legitimate part of the community.”68
It’s “useless,” says Laclau, to explain people’s attraction to populist movements by claiming that they are being manipulated from the top. “The most it would explain,” he says, “is the subjective intention of the leader, but we would remain in the dark as to why the manipulation succeeds.” Populism, he adds,
can start from any place in the socio-institutional structure: clientistic political organizations, established political parties, trade unions, the army, revolutionary movements, etc. ‘Populism’ does not define the actual politics of these organizations but is a way of articulating their themes—whatever those themes may be.69
The Tea Party’s Vulnerabilities
Three characteristics of the Tea Party are already diminishing its support. First, the Tea Party is what Laclau calls an “empty signifier”: it unifies a wildly heterogeneous reality, but only by “reducing to a minimum [each element’s] particularistic content.”70 As Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind show in their study, Tea Party Nationalism, those drawn to the Tea Party include libertarians, evangelicals, nativists, constitutionalists, Islamophobes, militia members, and White nationalists.71 These disparate groups can unite under the Tea Party banner even if they don’t all support a particular demand such as charter schools, banning gay marriage, or cutting Medicare. The larger the number of demands the movement encompasses, the less it is attached to any one of them.
Many people who claim to speak for the movement advocate particular causes, which other factions within the movement do not support. Tea Party groups have devolved from focusing on universal claims to focusing on particular ones with less support. In some cases, the Tea Party has brought into being opposing equivalential chains and populist identities that have stolen its thunder,72 as in Wisconsin. As Tea Party groups have become embroiled in specific battles over cutting funding for education and social programs, and limiting the bargaining power of public-sector unions (whose members administer social programs), the Tea Party’s negative ratings have leaped. In March 2011, 47 percent of respondents to a CNN poll had an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party, up from 26 percent in January 2010.73
Second, when the political system assimilates a populist movement, the movement loses the system as its enemy Other, and it begins to lose strength. This may already be happening to the Tea Party. Its victories in the November 2010 election showed that the system could accommodate the movement, making it harder to claim plausibly that “real” Americans were being oppressed or excluded. A measure of the Tea Party’s declining support is the Tax Day rallies. ThinkProgress noted that the Tea Party Patriots website listed only 145 rallies on April 15, 2011—down from 638 in 2010. And in many instances, turnout “was down precipitously.”74 In July, Bruce Weinfeld of the Rockland County, New York, Tea Party/Coffee Party, told me that his group and many others had stopped meeting. Weinfeld said it was a waste of time and energy when only “three or four people were showing up at meetings.”75
Finally, some Tea Party supporters are having second thoughts. They had called for reducing the federal budget deficit at any cost, only to confront the reality that this would mean cutting social welfare programs that they themselves depended on. An April 2011 poll found that seventy percent of Tea Party supporters opposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid “to deal with the federal budget deficit.”76 Another showed that “Tea Party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security ‘unacceptable.’”77 By now, however, deficit reduction has already been fully incorporated into the country’s political discourse, as demonstrated by the fact that both congressional Republicans and the Democratic White House are gunning for Social Security and Medicare—all the while trying to blame the other side for cuts.78 As the Tea Party fulfills its agenda, it may wither away into obscurity, but it will leave behind vast social wreckage.
Both major parties endorse policies that undermine civil liberties, squeeze social welfare, wage multiple wars, preserve huge military expenditures, criminalize undocumented immigration, cut wages and pensions for public-sector workers, thwart policies to reduce global warming, and support Wall Street bailouts and historically low tax rates for the wealthy. Nevertheless, there are rhetorical differences between the two, and they disagree on wedge cultural issues such as gay marriage and abortion rights. Tea Party networks will probably remain a potent force, at least through the 2012 presidential election, since the Right can use them to mobilize resentment against Others and to organize opposition to Obama and the Democratic Party.
The overriding error of Tea Party critics is a crude material reductionism: to think that funding signifies control or that a racist reaction against the Other is just a defense of the wages of whiteness. There are varying degrees of truth to these propositions, but the real issue is the the ability of the Tea Party (and the Right in general) to craft politics suffused with psychological and material appeals, which combine negative and positive emotions. Certainly Tea Party members are motivated by fear and some by hate; nevertheless, they see themselves as a positive force. They are the ones who will save America and return it to its former greatness. It may be a fantasy, but it’s a powerful one that has captured the imagination of millions of people and re-defined national politics, something the Left has failed to do for generations.
Talking to the Tea Partiers