The Tea Party's Phantom Menace

For all the fountains of vitriol and frantic media coverage aimed at the Tea Partiers, the movement doesn't have the money or sophistication to win anything, much less roll back the new health-care law.

Health-care reform, student-loan reform, momentum building toward significant financial reform—yet, day after day, all we seem to read about are the dangers the Tea Party supposedly poses to the republic.

In February, The New York Times ran a several thousand-word story on its front page about the Tea Partiers. Frank Rich portrays them as democracy’s most powerful nemesis in just about every column he writes. They are the occasion for fountains of vitriol on the liberal blogs, routine pillorying on the political comedy shows, and bone-chilling “special reports” on the cable channels. Just this past Monday, Juan Williams appeared on Fox News and accused the Tea Partiers of virtually being a front for right-wing militia groups. That would be hard to square with The New York Times’ article, which portrayed the group as being largely composed of septuagenarians, even as the paper was depicting them as a national menace.

If these are the forces ranged behind the attempts to repeal health-care reform, we can be sure that health-care reform is safe and sound.

In fact, as The Wall Street Journal reported this week, Tea Party candidates don’t have anything like the money their GOP rivals have accumulated. It seems the movement has given rise to so many people vying for elected office that the Tea Party candidates not only are spreading financial contributions to the cause too far and too wide, but they also are, inevitably, stealing votes from each other in the Republican primaries. Consider southern Virginia, where no fewer than five Tea Party candidates are slugging it out in the House primary. Predictably, the front-runner, state Senator Robert Hurt, has the most money and the backing of the Republican Party, much to the Tea Partiers’ chagrin. Meanwhile, as the cadres of Tea Party candidates knock heads, the Democrats are fielding a smaller and more potent number of candidates.

Indeed, the members of the news media who obsess over the Tea Partiers seem to respect them far more than do their supposed backers. The lip service cynically paid to the movement by Republican stars reached a farcical crescendo when Sarah Palin flew to Arizona to support John McCain’s Senate reelection campaign. It was hard to believe her when she asserted that everyone at McCain’s rally was a Tea Partier when it is the Tea Partiers who consider McCain anathema. If it was not for the perceived threat they posed to McCain, Palin would not have had to rush to his side and invoke them in the first place.

But how much of a threat are they? The Tea Partiers might have been partly successful at claiming credit for Scott Brown’s Senate victory in Massachusetts, but that seemed like a transparent attempt at climbing on the bandwagon after the fact. Brown was swept to victory by an eclectic tide of disaffection, period—not to mention by good, old-fashioned populist revulsion against the dynastic imperiousness of the Kennedys.

And the Tea Party folks certainly don’t seem to possess sufficient sophistication to win anything. According to The Wall Street Journal, a Tea Party candidate for Senate in Indiana named Richard Behney damaged his campaign when he blurted out to some of his followers that he was “cleaning my guns and getting ready for the big show” in the event that the government did not control its spending. Smart.

What the Tea Party really offers is the helpful service of putting a human face, as it were, on all the diffuse, complex rage against President Obama. Pundits can use them to quantify all the anger and unrest out there. They’re racists, concludes the ever sanctimonious Frank Rich, and you come away from one of his complacent squibs feeling that you’ve met the enemy, had him analyzed and explained to you, and now you—and all decent-minded people—have your work clearly cut out for you.

Perhaps, though, all the media attention paid to these political Keystone Cops is precisely because they are so bumbling and ineffectual. The very description of the expressions of their rage makes us reassured that there is no real power behind it. If these are the forces ranged behind the attempts to repeal health-care reform, we can be sure that health-care reform is safe and sound. After months of obsessing over them, The New York Times recently even ran an article speculating that boredom was the most important factor behind the decision of a lot of Tea Partiers to join the movement. When the job market grows strong again, The Times wondered, will all these rebels return to work and forget about overthrowing an oppressive socialist regime?

It’s a good question. Maybe a more skeptical media will start asking similar ones more often. “Don’t Tread on Me”? “Don’t Laugh at Me” is more like it.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.