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The Tea Party: At Last a Citizen Movement the Corporate Media Can Love

The hateful, ignorant, haphazardly-organized Tea Party movement receives a level of press coverage few progressive citizen groups will ever see.

In the first year of the Obama administration, the corporate media suddenly overcame their general aversion to citizen movements that criticize government policies, granting the staunchly conservative Tea Party activists enormous coverage—a decision that seems likely to impact politics for the foreseeable future.

Citizen movements are hardly ever front-page news, even when they have clearly identifiable political agendas and broad public support. But the Tea Party movement—an amorphous, politically incoherent umbrella designation for various strands of opposition to Obama, much of it beset with racism and backed by less-than-grassroots deep-pocket Beltway lobbying groups—has managed to buck that trend, getting the fervent support of conservative media and wide, often uncritical coverage in the corporate media.

The Tea Party name derives from a rant by CNBC’s Rick Santelli (2/19/09), who was furious about the White House’s home loan modification programs. “How many people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgages that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” Santelli barked, making his case with the kind of logic that would later make Glenn Beck such a success: “You know, Cuba used to have mansions and a relatively decent economy. They moved from the individual to the collective. Now they’re driving ’54 Chevys. It’s time for another tea party.”

That clip became an Internet sensation, and—so we’re told—a movement was born. Anti-tax protests were organized in numerous cities in mid-April; conservatives complained about the lack of coverage, but the events were in fact well-documented ( FAIR Blog, 4/16/09).

The contentious town hall meetings of the summer of 2009 were seen as another manifestation of budding domestic unrest. Lawmakers conducting routine sessions in their legislative districts were faced by dozens of angry, sometimes threatening citizens, goaded by talk radio and Internet organizers into denouncing the White House healthcare proposals as a socialist menace. Most of the protests were rather small, but nonetheless were covered across the cable news channels, reframing the debate over healthcare and putting Democrats on the defensive.

The pinnacle of Tea Party power, as media told it, was Republican Scott Brown’s unlikely triumph in the special election for Edward Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat. A Christian Science Monitor headline (1/19/10) declared Brown “The Tea Party’s First Electoral Victory.” The New York Times reported (1/21/10) that Brown’s win was “the coming of age of the Tea Party movement, which won its first major electoral success with a new pragmatism.” Though it’s not entirely clear what role Tea Party voters played in the election—Kevin Drum argues it was very little ( Mother, 1/23/10)—journalists seem to have attached an importance and power to the Tea Party movement that is out of proportion with its actual numbers.

Journalists routinely label the Tea Party movement as “populist,” but researchers Chip Berlet ( Progressive, 2/10) and David Barstow ( New York Times, 2/16/10) point out that, at least at the grassroots level, the movement harbors activists of a variety of stripes, from Ron Paul supporters to Republican Party officials, from longtime militia movement organizers to newly minted political activists troubled by the economic downturn.

It can be hard to discern a consistent Tea Party philosophy, and the contradictions can be glaring. Even some of the movement’s supposedly cherished positions seem up for grabs: Tea Partiers can oppose government spending and Medicare cuts; they can denounce TARP bailouts andmake heroes of the likes of Palin, Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich, all of whom supported Bush’s bank-rescue program.

But while journalists have often ignored or downplayed the contradictions, there’s one consistencythey ignore in painting Tea Partiers as wholesome adherents to small government, constitutional principles and so on: the movement’s singular and often racialized loathing of Barack Obama.

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