The Tea Party Does Not Exist
Mass Mediated Rebellion in the Run-up to the Midterms
Recent developments demonstrate that the Tea Party is not the powerful national force that it’s been made out to be. The organization’s meager levels of participation (documented in my and Paul Street’s past research) has finally come back to haunt the Tea Party in the run-up to the midterm elections, as it has been unable to organize outside of scattered local electioneering, largely in favor of Republican interests. In short, the Tea Party does not exist – at least not in the form depicted in the mass media and in political commentary.
Perhaps most indicative of the failure of local chapters to organize are two factors: the collapse of the pre-election National Tea Party conventions and the failure of Tea Partiers to organize and win primaries outside of smaller states. The fall 2010 National Tea Party convention in Las Vegas, although originally planned for July, was postponed, allegedly due to the unforgiving summer heat. Organizers promised the convention would take place in mid-October immediately prior to the midterms, although reporting in September concluded that the entire event had been cancelled. This was not the first time that the Tea Party suffered from a lack of participation at the cross-national level. The first national Tea Party rally in Nashville in February 2010 was generally poorly attended, with just 600 representatives from across the entire country. Some may claim that the low turnout was due to exorbitant costs ($549 to attend, plus travel, food, and lodging expenses), but this defense fails to explain why the Tea Party organized LibertyXPO was an abject failure, despite advertising free attendance. LibertyXPO, a national organization seeking to galvanize Tea Partiers, saw the collapse of its planned September 10th 2010 D.C. convention, was consciously timed to coincide with the equally lackluster 2010 9-12 D.C. rally. LibertyXPO suffered from incredibly low attendance, and failed to raise even the $40,000 it originally sought to cover conference expenses, despite having spent almost an entire year networking with local Tea Party leaders and groups. Similarly, the 2010 9-12 D.C. rally planned for two days after the LibertyXPO meeting saw a turnout of just a few thousand protestors. In contrast, critics on the political left were framing the anti-war movement as essentially dead in late 2007, when just twenty to thirty thousand demonstrators rallied in Washington D.C. The Tea Party’s far weaker D.C. turnout in the run-up to the midterms – just 10 to 15 percent the size of the 2007 D.C. anti-war protest – should be evaluated just as critically by those on the right as the anti-war movement was assessed by those on the left. At a time when massive attendance and activism at national conventions and rallies was most needed, Tea Partiers were refusing to engage in the sort of action that would bring about a genuine mass movement.
As a national federation, the Tea Party has largely been ineffective. The Tea Party’s failure to organize likely relates to its low level of resources and weak organizing at the local level - also demonstrated in the 2010 primary results. The Tea Party was much more likely to succeed in electing primary candidates in small states characterized by small populations and far smaller voter turnouts. The “movement” was largely unsuccessful on the national level, however, as a 2010 Wall Street Journal article titled “Big States Dilute Tea Party Strength” suggested. As the paper reported during the primary season, the Tea Party benefitted from “little of either” in terms of monetary resources and wide-reading political organization.
The poor performance of Tea Party candidates in large states, in addition to the failure of the group to organize local chapters into a national force, stands in dramatic contrast to the massive support for mediated rallies and events that claim the Tea Party banner, but are manufactured from the top-down. A stark example is the August 2010 Glenn Beck-Sarah Palin “Restoring Honor” rally, which coincided with the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Reports suggested turnout at this Washington D.C. rally of 100,000 or more - the only Tea Party rally in 2010 that even came close to the hundreds of thousands of anti-war protestors who regularly appeared in Washington between 2003 and 2005. Of course, the massive attendance of Beck’s rally suggests that the Tea Party phenomenon itself is largely a media creation, considering that Tea Partiers could not be bothered to show up in large numbers for their own convention and other national rallies when they failed to headline prominent national figures such as Beck and Palin. The Las Vegas Tea Party convention and LibertyXPO rally required sustained and mass based local activism (coordinated at the national level) to draw a mass large turnout, whereas Beck and Palin merely needed to employ their megaphone at Fox News to attract demonstrators. The failures of the LibertyXPO and Las Vegas convention is strong evidence that, contrary to the common media narrative, Tea Party supporters are not participating in local chapters on a substantial level.
Our analysis is reinforced by another study done by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which found the marginalization of left social gatherings during the media’s preoccupation with the Tea Party. Julie Hollar found in her analysis that the fall 2009 march on Washington D.C. with tens of thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender activists received significantly less coverage than the Tea Party marches in April. Similarly, the February 2010 Nashville Tea Party Convention received far more attention than the U.S. Social Forum, (a convention leftist and socialist activists) which drew 15,000 to 20,000 attendees (compared to the 600 at the Tea Party convention), but received just 1.5 percent of the coverage of the Tea Party convention in a sample of ten national news outlets.
The national media has played an important role not only in exaggerating the power of the Tea Party in relation to other social movements. Reporters have also masked the Tea Party’s failures when they raise serious questions about the group’s power as a movement. The collapse of the Tea Party’s LibertyXPO convention in Washington D.C. in the fall of 2010, for example, was largely ignored in national reporting. A Lexis-Nexis search finds that neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post bothered to run a single story on the meeting’s collapse in September 2010, while directing strong attention to the earlier, although comparatively lightly attended Nashville conference earlier in the year. Additionally, coverage of the collapsed October 2010 Tea Party convention in Las Vegas was almost completely ignored at a time when reporters preferred the narrative of an ascendant and insurgent Tea Party – rising up from the grassroots against establishment politics. The failed Las Vegas convention was covered in just one story in the New York Times, and one story in the Washington Post in the last two weeks of September, when the story was originally reported by alternative media.
By downplaying the failure of the Tea Party to organize as a coherent national movement, the U.S. establishment press further reinforced the already-prominent view that the Tea Party is a vigorous, broad-based national phenomenon. The fact that Republicans will be picking up a large number of seats this fall is more the product of public anger at a two party system that has been unable or unwilling to ease public suffering in the worst economic crisis since the depression. It is to be expected, then, that Americans will come out to punish the party in power in light of its half-hearted attempts to stimulate a sagging economy and protect a workforce increasingly under assault from budget cuts and downsizing. We shouldn’t let the Tea Partiers false image as an “insurgent,” “grassroots” “movement” obscure this basic reality.
is an independent journalist, policy adviser, and historian. Formerly he was Vice President for Research and Planning at the Chicago Urban League. Among his recent books are Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (Routledge, 2005). His many articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune; In These Times; Dissent; Z Magazine; Black Commentator; Monthly Review, Journal of American Ethnic History; Journal of Social History, and other publications.
is the editor of media-ocracy (), a daily online magazine devoted to the study of media, public opinion, and current events. He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University and North Central College, and is the author of (2010) and (2008). He can be reached at: