Tea Party Brand Spoils: Does it Matter?

By Paul Street, Iowa City, IA, September 22, 2011, published at ZNet: www.zcommunications.org

Ever since my latest book Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011, co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) came out I’ve been wondering how much more shelf-life the Tea Party brand would have. We may be starting to get an answer. The glow of the right wing corporate-funded super-Republican “Tea Party” – the big U.S. political story of 2010 – seems to be fading. Polls show that popular disapproval of “the Tea Party” is climbing. In April 2010, a New York Times/CBS News survey found that 18 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of it, compared to 21 percent who had a favorable opinion and 46 percent who had not heard enough about it to form a judgment. By early August 2011, Tea Party support stayed at its usual level of 20 percent but Tea Party opponents had more than doubled, to 40 percent. Forty-three (43) percent of Americans now think “the Tea Party” has “too much influence on the Republican Party,” up from 27 percent in mid-April. [1] 

In opinion data collected last summer by political scientists David Campbell and Robert Putnam, the Tea Party ranked dead last among 24 groups. It was less popular than both Republicans and Democrats and lower than such heavily out-of-favor groups as “atheists” and “Muslims.”

 The conventional wisdom is that debt ceiling fiasco of July and August elicited this newfound disfavor with the Tea Party brand. It was common in the media and particularly in its more liberal outlets during that crisis to hear that “the Tea Party” had “hijacked” America and threatened to drive the political system and government off the cliff. But in fact, “even before the furor over the debt limit, [the Tea Party’s] brand was becoming toxic.”[2]

The recent Tea Party-CNN presidential debate for Republican candidates probably won’t help. Large numbers of mean-spirited Tea Party audience members could be heard cheering the notion that sick people without health insurance deserved to die without government help and applauding the large number of executions that have taken place in Texas under that state’s right wing governor and current White House hopeful Rick Perry.[3]Whatever the precise timing of the Tea Party’s growing unpopularity and the specific developments that precipitated that opposition, the possible spoiling of the brand makes sense. As more Americans have learned enough about the Tea Party phenomenon to form an opinion on it, its core of support has remained stuck around 20 percent but the number and percentage who dislike it has quite naturally risen. “The Tea Party” stands well to the plutocratic and racist right of majority progressive opinion on numerous key policy issues and societal values.[4]  As its richly regressive and right wing, corporate-backed influence has been felt at the polls and in the halls of policy not just in Washington but also in places like the Wisconsin and Ohio and Michigan governors’ offices and legislatures, “The Tea Party’s” ability to pose as a grassroots, popular, populist, and grassroots “protest” and “movement” (this is the basic myth that Tony DiMaggio and I tear apart in Crashing the Tea Party) against the political and economic establishment has faded significantly.

 The Wicked Witch Lives On

So  we in the popular and progressive majority can all breathe a big sigh of relief, right? Thank God for the slaying of that terrible Tea Party beast that overtook the republic and turned it so dangerously far to the right? Hooray, the wicked witch is dead or at least she’s melting, right? Not so fast. I would hold off the celebrations for now, for three basic reasons. First, that durable 20 percent hard right Republican Tea Party base retains relevance in the U.S. electoral process well beyond its share of the overall population. It is an especially highly motivated, high-turnout component of the Republican electorate that will exercise outsized influence in the Republican congressional, senate, state and presidential primaries, particularly in the hundreds of safely and solidly Republican House districts that have emerged  thanks in large part to the redistricting process over recent decades.[5] Voter turnout is lower in primary than in general elections, something that gives exaggerated power to zealous and dedicated cadres, something that will work for hard right Tea Party-ish Republicans and against the dwindling number of moderate Republicans in setting the party’s agenda. 

Second, the popularity of the Tea Party’s core bete noire and Evil Other – Barack Obama – is reaching new all-time lows,[6] in accord with the continuation of the mass unemployment and misery he has not enough to confront, something that can only redound to the benefit of Obama’s fiercest right-wing enemies. Third, and most fundamentally, the Tea Party phenomenon has really been just one expression – a passing expression perhaps – of the larger deadly right-wing tilt of the Republican Party and indeed of the whole American Party system and U.S. political culture, Democrats included, during the long neoliberal era that started in the mid to late 1970s.[7]  I’m not sure how much its’ going to matter in the overall scheme of things if the Tea Party brand goes so bad it has to be pulled from the shelf altogether. For the bigger wicked witch, in whose biography the Tea Party phenomenon is one chapter (still of indeterminate length), is that rightward drift that lives on. And the real hostage-taker of American politics is hardly the contemporary mass media-ted and Astroturf Tea Party phenomenon,[8],but concentrated wealth in a nation where the top 1 percent owns more than a third of all net worth and a larger share of its elected officials, where the top 10 percent own to third of wealth, where the top 20 percent owns 84 percent of the wealth, where bottom 40 percent owns 0.3 percent, basically nothing – a nation where the top 400 income “earners” averages $345 million per person and where we have recently set a new national misery record by reducing 46 million Americans to life at less than the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. 

The real hijacker is the “unelected dictatorship of money,”[9] the same group that pays for the Tea Party, and it’s nothing new. Majority progressive opinion never seems to matter much in the U.S., where, as the American philosopher John Dewey noted more than a century ago, “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” As Noam Chomsky recently noted, “Since the 1970s, [Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.”[10] Both the dismal demobilizing dollar-deadened post-New Deal Democratic Party and the ever more radical, arch plutocratic and messianic militarist Republican Party have been moving steadily “off center” and to the right since at least the late 1970s. There are numerous reasons for that starboard trajectory. None is more significant than the following: the ever-rising significance of big money in U.S. politics and policy at the same time that the U.S. has grown more savagely unequal. Also significant are the rise over the last three decades powerful organizations (e.g. Americans for Tax Reform, the Club for Growth, the Christian Coalition, and many others groups) representing the right wing and business agendas; and  the atrophy of the U.S. labor movement (unions now represent less than 1 in 10 private sector workers, down from 1 in 3 in 1970) and mass membership liberal and progressive organizations, formerly critical counterweights to an unmitigated business agenda in federal and state government. 

Curious Omission Recently Truthout published a brilliant and fascinating essay titled “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult.”  It’s written by Mike Lofgren, a former Republican congressional staffer who has left the party and his job in despair and disgust at how the Republicans have gone so far right that, as he puts it, “The Congressional directory now reads like a casebook of lunacy.” The modern day GOP, Lofgren says, believes in only three things: one, service to its rich contributors and the “further enrichment of America’s plutocracy;” two, the advancement of war and militarism; and three, pandering to rank politicized religious fundamentalism. At the beginning of his article, Lofgren writes that, quote “both parties are rotten. How could they not be given the complete infestation of the political system on a scale that now requires a presidential candidate to raise upwards of a billion dollars to competitive in a general election?” He adds that that “both parties are captive to corporate loot” and that “the main reason the Democrats health care bill will be a budget buster once it fully phases in is the Democrats’ rank capitulation to corporate interests – no single-payer system, in order to mollify the insurers; and no negotiation of drug prices, a craven surrender to Big Pharma.” [11]

Beyond his brilliant, bitter, and entertaining dissection of the GOP and his strong grasp of the role that big money plays in the corruption of U.S. politics, two things about Lofgren’s essay really jumped out at me as I read it last week. The first thing that hit me was the significant extent to which he blames the Republicans’ success in winning over poorly informed voters on Democrats’ failure to offer working and lower class citizens  anything of substance in response to the misery that corporate global capitalism is imposing on them in the free market.[12] As I predicted in late 2007[13], President Obama is only the latest and in some ways the most pathetic version of that neoliberal failure.  

The second thing that hit me was that Lofgren didn’t mention “the Tea Party” in his long essay. Not one direct reference. Fifteen long reflective pages on the insanity of the GOP from inside the party and not one significant reference to the TP. This might seem like an oversight but I don’t think that’s the case. Lofgren gets it that the Tea Party is just a recent marketing device – a passing branding exercise, launched with no small help from corporate media – for a party that has been drifting closer and closer to corporate fascism over many decades. “Over the last four decades,” John Judis noted at the height of the debt-ceiling drama, “the Republican Party has transformed from a loyal opposition into an insurrectionary party that flouts the law when it is in the majority and threatens disorder when it is the minority. It is the party of Watergate and Iran-Contra, but also of the government shutdown in 1995 and the impeachment trial of 1999. If there is an earlier American precedent for today’s Republican Party, Judis noted, “:it is the antebellum Southern Democrats of John Calhoun who threatened to nullify, or disregard, federal legislation they objected to and who later led the fight to secede from the union over slavery.”[14] 

 “A couple of years ago,” Lofgren reports, “a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.” (I would revise this formulation a bit to say “programmatically against those aspects of government that serve the common good, democracy, the poor and the broad working class majority.”  Those parts of government that serve the rich and powerful and punish the poor and working classes and which discipline anyone who resists inequality, corporate rule, and empire are perfectly fine as far as the right wing is concerned. They only want to starve what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state.”  The right hand is to remain well fed. ) The Tea Party can fade but that sort of madness will live on, possibly taking on new and different labels.Contrary to the reigning mainstream media narrative, the regressive, right wing debt-ceiling deal last August was hardly just the product of the Tea Party. With its 61 very disproportionately southern members of the 435-member House and its 4 U.S. Senators, “the Tea Party” discovered no magical political Kryptonite – some new tactical genius that allowed it to exercise Svengali-like influence over American politics. It would never have become a force in the House but for the long term rightward drift of the corporate-captive G.O.P. and for the tepid business-friendly behavior of the Democrats and their neoliberal standard bearer Barack Obama. The Obama Democrats’ savage center-right stand down of their party’s depressed and demobilized “progressive base” opened the door for the Tea Party-fueled right Republican triumph in the mid-term congressional and state elections of November 2010.[15]  

The Mainstream Goes FringeThe New York Times’ editors got something right six weeks ago. It is “far too simplistic,” the editors wrote, “to blame the loose coalition of Republicans known as the Tea Party for the debt-limit debacle.” Further: “It was not the Tea Party fringe of the Republican Party that dragged the economy to the brink — it was its center. The party has moved so far to the right that there is little difference between fringe and mainstream.” [16] That is exactly right. Consistent with the Times editors’ take, there have been almost no significant differences in the voting records of “Tea Party Republicans” and “establishment” Republicans when it comes to key political-economic issues.[17]  

 The only things the Times editors left out were the related rightward drift of the Democrats, the center-right proclivities of its standard bearer in the White House (who has turned out to be Barack O’Hoover instead of the “Franklin Delano Obama” many liberals and progressives imagined), and the common rooting of all of this in Chomsky’s “dark cloud enveloping society and the political system…Corporate power, by now largely financial capital…”

Who has really captured American “democracy?” The real culprit is the outsized influence of the hidden senate of wealth, which compels both the dismal demobilizing Democratic and the rancid radical Republican wings of the national one-and-a-half party system to serve the rich and powerful over and above the poor and working class majority. The totalitarian minority that has “hijacked America” is big capital.Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is the author of many books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010) and, most recently Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street will speak on (and sign copies of) Crashing the Tea Party at Boxcar Books in Bloomington, Indiana (Tuesday, September 27 at 7 pm), Peoples’ Books Cooperative in Milwaukee, WI (Thursday, September 29 at 7 pm), and Bluestockings Bookstore in New York City (Tuesday, October 4 at 7 pm).  


[1] David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam, “Crashing the Tea Party,” New York Times, August 16, 2011, read online at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/17/opinion/crashing-the-tea-party.html [2] Campbell and Putnam, “Crashing the Tea Party.”

 [3] Sam Stein, “GOP Tea Party Debate: Audience Cheers, Says Society Should Let Uninsured Patient Die,” Huffington Post (September 12, 2011) at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/12/tea-party-debate-health-care_n_959354.html; Adele M. Stan, “GOP Presidential Debate: Everyone Attacks Rick Perry But Everyone Cheers His Grotesque Legacy of Executions,” Alternet (September 7, 2011) at http://www.alternet.org/teaparty/152327/gop_presidential_debate%3A_everyone_attacks_rick_perry,_but_cheers_his_grotesque_legacy_of_executions

 [4] See Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011), 41-125.

 [5] Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of Democracy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 120-127.

 [6]  “As concerns about the struggling U.S. economy grow, a new CBS News/New York poll finds that President Obama’s overall approval rating has dropped to 43 percent, the lowest so far of his presidency in CBS News polling. In addition, his disapproval rating has reached an all-time high of 50 percent.” CBS News, “Obama’s Approval Drops to All-Time Low” (September 16, 2011) at http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20107584-503544.html.

 [7] Hacker and Pierson, Off Center.

 [8] For details on why DiMaggio and I think the Tea Party fails to qualify as an independent and popular social and political movement and why it is an essentially mass-mediated phenomenon, see Street and DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party, 127-44.

 [9] Edward S. Hetman and David Peterson properly question “the legitimacy of the U.S. political system” on the grounds that “an unelected dictatorship of money… vets the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, reducing the options available to U.S. citizens to two candidates, neither of whom can change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime.” Edward S. Hetman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace Democracy and Beyond,” MRZine, July 24, 2009 at http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/hp240709.html

 [10] Noam Chomsky, “American Decline: Causes and Consequences,” al akhbar (August 24, 2011), read at http://chomsky.info/articles/20110824.htm

 [11] Mike Lofgren, “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult,” Truthout (September 3, 2011) at  http://www.truth-out.org/goodbye-all-reflections-gop-operative-who-left-cult/1314907779

 [12] Here is a remarkable passage (wholly endorsed by this writer) from Lofgren’s essay: ‘The reader may think that I am attributing Svengali-like powers to GOP operatives able to manipulate a zombie base to do their bidding. It is more complicated than that. Historical circumstances produced the raw material: the deindustrialization and financialization of America since about 1970 has spawned an increasingly downscale white middle class – without job security (or even without jobs), with pensions and health benefits evaporating and with their principal asset deflating in the collapse of the housing bubble. Their fears are not imaginary; their standard of living is shrinking.’

 ‘What do the Democrats offer these people? Essentially nothing. Democratic Leadership Council-style “centrist” Democrats were among the biggest promoters of disastrous trade deals in the 1990s that outsourced jobs abroad: NAFTA, World Trade Organization, permanent most-favored-nation status for China. At the same time, the identity politics/lifestyle wing of the Democratic Party was seen as a too illegal immigrant-friendly by downscaled and outsourced whites.’

 ‘While Democrats temporized, or even dismissed the fears of the white working class as racist or nativist, Republicans went to work. To be sure, the business wing of the Republican Party consists of the most energetic outsourcers, wage cutters and hirers of sub-minimum wage immigrant labor to be found anywhere on the globe. But the faux-populist wing of the party, knowing the mental compartmentalization that occurs in most low-information voters, played on the fears of that same white working class to focus their anger on scapegoats that do no damage to corporations’ bottom lines: instead of raising the minimum wage, let’s build a wall on the Southern border (then hire a defense contractor to incompetently manage it). Instead of predatory bankers, it’s evil Muslims. Or evil gays. Or evil abortionists.’

 ‘How do they manage to do this? Because Democrats ceded the field. Above all, they do not understand language. Their initiatives are posed in impenetrable policy-speak: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The what? – can anyone even remember it? No wonder the pejorative “Obamacare” won out. Contrast that with the Republicans’ Patriot Act. You’re a patriot, aren’t you? Does anyone at the GED level have a clue what a Stimulus Bill is supposed to be? Why didn’t the White House call it the Jobs Bill and keep pounding on that theme?’

 ‘You know that Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy when even Democrats refer to them as entitlements. “Entitlement” has a negative sound in colloquial English: somebody who is “entitled” selfishly claims something he doesn’t really deserve. Why not call them “earned benefits,” which is what they are because we all contribute payroll taxes to fund them? That would never occur to the Democrats. Republicans don’t make that mistake; they are relentlessly on message: it is never the “estate tax,” it is the “death tax.” ‘

 See also Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan, 2004), 245.

 [13] Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO; Paradigm, 2008), 1-58.  

[14] John Judis, “If Obama Like Lincoln So Much, He Should Start Acting Like Him,” New Republic (July 30, 2011), read online at  http://www.tnr.com/article/john-judis/92958/obama-lincoln-debt-ceiling [15] Street and DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party, 145-165.

 [16]  New York Times editors, “Race to the Right,” New York Times, August 5, 2011.  

[17] For details, see Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, “Beyond the Tea Party,” Z Magazine (September 2011). Such harsh, hard-right Republican realities notwithstanding, a Times Web editor insisted on the notion of a strong division between a moderate G.O.P center and a Tea Party movement that was pushing the party to the right. “Despite the success of Tea Party lawmakers in the debt debate,” the paper’s web version blurbed on August 2, “Republican candidates in 2012 are still unsure about moving too far from the center.”

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By | 2011-09-24T15:16:59+00:00 September 24th, 2011|Articles|