The Real Power Behind the Tea Party

Many people argue that the movement is an organic force, but Will Bunch argues that it was organized and inspired by Glenn Beck and others. Part Two in an ongoing debate with Doug Schoen—read the opening round here.

09.13.10 10:43 PM ET

In their new book, Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System, pollsters Douglas Schoen—whom I’m debating here this week at The Daily Beast—and Scott Rasmussen describe a Tea Party movement that they insist looks demographically like pretty much like the rest of America, that has a narrow focus on reducing government’s spending and size, and isn’t a radical wing of the Republican Party but rather an independent force that threatens to upend the two-party structure.      

To get there, the two well-known public opinion gurus create a political movement that looks nothing like when I saw over the course of late last year and the first part of 2010 as I travelled from Arizona highways to the salt marshes of Delaware to report my first-hand account of this phenomenon, resulting in my own new tome The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama.

To suggest that the Tea Party movement is an organic uprising of angry Americans is to ignore the giant elephant in the room—the right-wing media machine, led by the Fox News Channel and a coast-to-coast umbrella of conservative talk radio.

Consider one example: the diversity issue. While many commentators have noted the nearly complete absence of African Americans or other non-whites at Tea Party movement events, supporters go into fits of pretzel logic to argue that’s not the case, and Schoen and Rasmussen are not immune—writing that the movement is “remarkably similar to the country as a whole demographically.” Then as evidence they cite their experience riding aboard the official Tea Party Express bus with its traveling performer, black singer Lloyd Marcus, and a husband-and-wife author team of African-American authors who are also part of the tour. I have to confess I chuckled at this passage, because I’d just returned this week from a Tea Party Express rally in Dover, Delaware, where those three appeared onstage, and where there was not one single black face in their audience of 150 people—nor was this event atypical.

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To understand the Tea Party movement, it’s important to be honest and clear about both who is really taking part in the backlash against Barack Obama and what is motivating them. As I stressed in my opening post yesterday, the new right-wing uprising is deeply rooted in middle-class—and predominantly white—anti-elite resentment that dates back to the 1960s and has fueled the base of the Republican Party for decades. While the collapse of our blue-collar economy is clearly one factor boosting this backlash, it pales in comparison with cultural concerns, including fears in Middle America that an increasingly multicultural America is threatening their way of life.

Schoen and Rasmussen make much of the fact that 25 percent of Americans are “supporters of the movement”—but that number sounds less impressive or significant when you think of the Tea Partiers in these terms: They are for the most part simply the more ultra-conservative half of the 46 percent of the citizenry that voted for John McCain and Sarah Palin in November 2008. A July Gallup poll found that “the Tea Party movement is more a rebranding of core Republicanism than a new or distinct entity on the American political scene.” Which is exactly why Schoen correctly noted in his Daily Beast post yesterday that the movement’s main impact has been to push the broader GOP to the extreme right.

The Tea Party movement did not accomplish this through its opposition to big government. In reality, its members yawned not only at George W. Bush’s spending spree on a bogus war, a poorly conceived war, tax cuts for the rich and Big Pharma, but they waited until enough time passed that it could even start blaming the $700 billion bank bailout on Obama and ignore its invention by the Bush administration in its waning months.

No, the Tea Party movement has pushed the GOP—including former compromise-makers like Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and once-centrist Representative Mike Castle, who still may lose tonight’s Delaware Senate primary to an out-of-nowhere Tea Party insurgent—to the right fringes through its incredible message discipline and influence of right-wing media like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who create and enforce it. That, and a passion and energy that often spring from some of the more unorthodox beliefs that drove many Tea Partiers to the anti-Obama backlash and yet get short shrift in Mad as Hell.

In my many conversations with the movement’s rank-and-file, I found nothing energized them more than their discomfort with Barack Obama, which for many morphed into the notion that he is fundamentally un-American. The numbers back up what I heard at places like the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot. Today, for example, 52 percent of all Republicans believe that Obama definitely or probably “sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world," and sizable numbers think Obama is Muslim himself or is not a United States citizen.

This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. To suggest that the Tea Party movement is an organic uprising of angry Americans is to ignore the giant elephant in the room—the right-wing media machine, led by the Fox News Channel and a coast-to-coast umbrella of conservative talk radio, that takes popular anger and channels it away from Wall Street billionaires and toward “the Other,” a grouping that now not only includes Mexican immigrants and Muslim Americans but our unprecedented new president. There are only one or two references to Glenn Beck in all of Mad as Hell—which I find stunning after talking with so many newly minted activists who cite Beck—a non-stop font of misinformation—as the main reason they “got off the couch.” A new Pew survey released today found 40 percent of Republicans watch Fox News regularly—and just as Fox News viewers were more likely once to wrongly believe that Saddam Hussein attacked America on 9/11, today those same folks are more likely to think that Obama bailed out the banks by himself… when he wasn’t bowing toward Mecca.       

That’s why I think it’s so important to look at the Tea Party not so much as an organically grown movement but one that is being altered, dangerously so, by toxic forces in our society—high-def hucksters who mislead fearful and angry Americans to line their own pocket, and opportunistic political non-leaders along for the frightening ride for their reelection. Understanding these forces might even help the 75 percent of Americans who broadly don’t support Tea Party causes resume that mission that got derailed in all the Tea Party hoopla: moving America forward after a decade stuck in reverse.

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Will Bunch, author of THE BACKLASH: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama, is a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News and a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. He is also the author of the recent Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy. His Daily News blog, Attytood, is one of the most successful political sites on the Web. A career journalist, Bunch shared a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting when he worked at New York Newsday. He lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.