Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Tea Leaves and AstroTurf

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this so-called “Tax Day Tea Party” phenomenon for some time now, and so I’m going to have to be careful parsing how very much it bothers me, on how many levels, and why.

The Angry Mobs Storm the Mansions of the Elites: "We're Here To Cut Your Taxes!"*

Let’s start with the operative metaphor here – namely, the co-opting of the Boston Tea Party as the big symbol of this movement. Bob Cesca from the Huffington Post wrote an excellent and very insightful piece on why this is not a particularly astute metaphor:

It turns out that that the tea baggers, led in part by Michelle Malkin, Glenn Reynolds and the Coward Rick Santelli, are politically more in line with the tax policies of King George than the views of the Sons of Liberty and the colonial patriots. The tax baggers emulating a protest against a corporate tax cut -- but, oddly, in support of tax cuts for the rich and corporations. Furthermore, King George was against a corporate bailout loan. And so are the tea baggers. And I don't think it'd be a stretch to suggest that many of the tea baggers are recipients of the president's middle class tax cut.

Not only that but the tea bag revolutionaries are being urged to buy thousands of corporate tea bags, rather than horking them from Lipton trucks -- Griffin's Wharf style. Sam Adams would be so proud. Then again, to be fair, the revolutionaries are being urged to get the proper government permits for their revolution against the, you know, government. We shouldn't expect that such law-abiding revolutionaries would seek out pilfered tag bags.

So in keeping with a long, embarrassing history of ill-conceived, contradictory or just plain self-defeating marketing ploys, the tea baggers seem to have adopted a concept that completely and utterly contradicts what they claim to stand for.

Then there's the "sons of liberty," "home grown resistance" aspect of the whole affair (to their credit, at least the Tea Baggers have stopped short of advocating armed insurrection - I'm looking at you, Representative Bachmann).

Rick Santelli: Man of the People (Well, Man of the Millionaires)

In keeping with their bizarre decision to protest a tax cut aimed at them in favor of corporate tax breaks for the wealthy, the Tea Baggers have chosen as their populist hero a Chicago trader named Rick Santelli, who famously ranted on the floor of the stock exchange against the 'losers' (read: middle-to-lower-class homeowners) obtaining help with their mortgages, and later defended bonuses for the executives at AIGFP that ran that company, along with most of our economy, into the ground.

Now, here's how the pro-millionaire, anti-middle-class "everyman," Santelli, is lionized as the father of the Tea Baggers on their website:

The Tea Party protests, in their current form, began in early 2009 when Rick Santelli, the On Air Editor for CNBC, set out on a rant to expose the bankrupt liberal agenda of the White House Administration and Congress. Specifically, the flawed "Stimulus Bill" and pork filled budget.

During Rick's rant (see video below), he called for a "Chicago tea Party" where advocates of the free-market system could join in a protest against out of control government spending.

A few days later, grassroots activists and average Joe Americans began organizing what would soon become the Nationwide Chicago Tea Party effort.

Take careful note what they're doing there: "grassroots activists and average Joe Americans" were the ones who took to the streets, filled with folksy populist outrage. Well, it turns out that that might not exactly be the way it went down:

What hasn’t been reported until now is evidence linking Santelli’s “tea party” rant with some very familiar names in the Republican rightwing machine, from PR operatives who specialize in imitation-grassroots PR campaigns (called “astroturfing”) to bigwig politicians and notorious billionaire funders. As veteran Russia reporters, both of us spent years watching the Kremlin use fake grassroots movements to influence and control the political landscape. To us, the uncanny speed and direction the movement took and the players involved in promoting it had a strangely forced quality to it. If it seemed scripted, that's because it was.

What we discovered is that Santelli’s “rant” was not at all spontaneous as his alleged fans claim, but rather it was a carefully-planned trigger for the anti-Obama campaign. In PR terms, his February 19th call for a “Chicago Tea Party” was the launch event of a carefully organized and sophisticated PR campaign, one in which Santelli served as a frontman, using the CNBC airwaves for publicity, for the some of the craziest and sleaziest rightwing oligarch clans this country has ever produced. Namely, the Koch family, the multibilllionaire owners of the largest private corporation in America, and funders of scores of rightwing thinktanks and advocacy groups, from the Cato Institute and Reason Magazine to FreedomWorks. The scion of the Koch family, Fred Koch, was a co-founder of the notorious extremist-rightwing John Birch Society.

The Exploited

This phenomenon is referred to as AstroTurfing (pretty self-explanatory: a corporate or big-money attempt to create a fake grass roots movement - it's the populist equivalent of greenwashing). In this case, what we have is a top-down pre-coordinated campaign ( SadlyNo! found more proof that the thing was coordinated before Santelli even popped off his little rant) designed to look like a populist uprising; disgusting on a good day, but even more so in light of how completely and pathetically the participants are being exploited.

I say they are being exploited because what the "Tea Party" phenomenon boils down to (no pun intended) is a bunch of youngish, College Republican types, one of the demographics primed to benefit from the Obama administration's economic policies, from student loans to tax cuts etc., coming out in a "populist" protest created by secretive corporate fronts in favor of tax breaks for the wealthy. Thinking it over, I can't even get mad about that - just depressed.

* - Apologies to Thomas Frank

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