The Tea Party, Right-Wing Media, And The Dog That Didn't Bark

You could make the argument that the Tea Party movement is the most potent force in American politics today. After all, the evidence is everywhere -- especially in Washington, where Republican lawmakers pushed the previously-unheard-of, tea-flavored notion that disaster aid for hurricane victims can only be paid for by cutting social programs. That was advocated by the same Tea Party faction, swept into office last fall, that has scuttled any talk that higher taxes -- even on millionaires and billionaires who thrived in an era of working-class decimation -- could ever be part of the Beltway's obsession with debt reduction. From making support for generally accepted global warming science melt faster than an Arctic glacier, to folks cheering the death penalty and then booing a gay solider serving in Iraq at GOP presidential debates, the anti-government, anti-science, anti-knowledge 26 Percenters of the Tea Party movement have been the angry tail wagging the confused dog of American police for the last 30 months. Right?

Yes, you could make that argument.

But here's the weird thing -- if the Tea Party is really such a powerhouse of political influence ... where has it been recently?

It wasn't at the small crowds for Tax Day rallies back in April (including small crowds for Sarah Palin and Donald Trump), or at the "small" crowd of only 200 activists who showed up in March for a D.C. rally in favor of shutting down the government, or the less than 100 people who were rousted this summer to rally for the Tea Party's stance on the debt ceiling (pictured at top), even with supposed movement's superstars Sens. Rand Paul and Jim DeMint at the podium.

Where's the Tea Party? It's not in Las Vegas, where the swanky Venetian Hotel has been suing Tea Party Nation for more than $600,000, for canceling a planned convention last fall when it couldn't deliver nearly enough people for the more than 1,800 hotel rooms it had once reserved. You could also fairly ask what happened to the nearly 100,000 people who showed up at the National Mall just 13 months ago for a rally organized by and starring the then-king of all right-wing media, Glenn Beck. But a better question would be simply -- what happened to Glenn Beck? Little more than a year removed from the cover of Time and The New York Times Magazine, Beck has lost his main platform on the Fox News Channel, been booted from the airwaves in Philadelphia and New York, and taken his shtick to the narrowcasting world of Internet TV.

Sure, there's no question that the so-called Tea Party philosophy is fueling the discussion in Washington and in the media these days -- where every conversation on spending begins and ends with “cutting,” where every notion about government boils down to “how much less.” But the bizarre thing is that this ongoing influence seems to be playing out against a broad canvas that seems to be missing the existence of an actual Tea Party.

Did the Tea Party become, in that famous Sherlock Holmesian expression, the dog that did not bark?

For the most part, yes. So what was all that barking that woke America up in the middle of the night?

It was the right-wing media, and its echoes, that you heard.

When historians look back on the surge and decline of the Tea Party movement in America, and they will, I believe the focus will be how something that was real -- anger and fear among a segment of the middle class that has been decimated by the decline of the U.S. economy -- was hijacked by a band of high-def hucksters, starting with media stars and their bosses seeking ratings, attention, and cash, not necessarily in that order. The behind-the-scene billionaires eager to save their oligarchy, and the craven politicians that they own, piled on later.

I've been thinking a lot about the Tea Party recently. It's been just over a year since my book on the birth of the movement -- The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama -- was published (and it's just been released in more affordable paperback and e-book editions.) When I reported and wrote the book in 2009 and 2010, it was undoubtedly a current event, but now already it has the feel of history -- a moment in American politics that was both remarkable and alarming in nature.

How has the main premise of The Backlash -- that a cauldron of fear among the denizens of the American heartland over their grim economic fortunes and the rise of a non-white majority, punctuated by the election of a black president, was then stirred up by cynical manipulators like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin -- held up over a year's time?

So well that the president of Fox News, Roger Ailes, just essentially pleaded guilty to that central argument. This week, Ailes told Newsweek's Howard Kurtz, in a much discussed article, that his FNC has undergone ...

... a “course correction,” quietly adopted at Fox over the last year. Glenn Beck's inflammatory rhetoric -- his ranting about Obama being a racist -- “became a bit of a branding issue for us” before the hot-button host left in July, Ailes says. So too did Sarah Palin's being widely promoted as the GOP's potential savior -- in large measure through her lucrative platform at Fox. Privately, Fox executives say the entire network took a hard right turn after Obama's election, but, as the Tea Party's popularity fades, is edging back toward the mainstream.

Fascinating, but there's also a part of the tale here that's more than a tad disingenuous. One reason that the Tea Party is fading is that Fox is no longer promoting it aggressively, especially not since Beck departed at the start of this summer. And more importantly, the Tea Party would not have burst onto the scene in the first place without Ailes' Rupert Murdoch-owned network playing such a large part in creating it.

Remember, the concept of the Tea Party itself came not from the masses but from a TV rant -- not on Fox, surprisingly, but by CNBC's Rick Santelli surrounded by affluent traders on the floor of the Chicago financial exchange. To be sure, there was genuine public rage about the 2008 economic crisis and the bailout of the big banks, but the right-wing media -- which have remarkable influence in the top-down, narrowcasted “Dittohead” world of American conservatives -- steered anger away from Wall Street before January 20, 2009, and toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue after that date.

Credit that abovementioned “hard right turn” on Fox -- which incessantly promoted Tax Day rallies on April 15, 2009, to drive up turnout and then covered them as major news events, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Helping to pay for some of the events was the Americans for Prosperity, the front group for the Koch brothers, which had every incentive to tap the public's raw energies for its pet issues, including low taxes for billionaires and climate-change denial.

Do you still doubt that the froth of the Tea Party was whipped up by the media? Think about this: The zenith for Glenn Beck (whose show launched on the day before Obama took the oath of office) came on Friday the 13th of March 2009, when in an emotional rant (“I just love my country,” he wept, “and I fear for it”) he invoked the spirit of post-9/11 America and even announced a companion movement to the Tea Party called the 9/12 Project. Like magic, this 9/12 Project attracted thousands of enthusiastic joiners who posted anti-Obama rants online (in the post-9/11 spirit?), formed local chapters, and turned out in decent numbers on the National Mall on September 12, 2009, in an event that of course got considerable coverage on Fox.

Then Glenn Beck got bored with the 9/12 Project that he had created from thin airwaves. Then he went off the TV altogether. And the 9/12 Project also disappeared completely off the face of the American political map.

In The Backlash, I wrote about the fulfillment of the mid-1980s prophecies of the late media critic Neil Postman, who worried in his landmark book Amusing Ourselves to Death that entertainment values would subsume political discourse, that the powers-that-be would not resort to Orwellian censorship because we could be so easily and happily be manipulated instead. This is what exactly what we saw in Glenn Beck and the Tea Party, which not coincidentally pretty much rose and fell the same time.

Even at its peak in 2009-10, the Tea Party movement had the politicial juice to do one thing, which was turn out an energized army of Fox-watching zombies to win low-turnout primaries, as they did in Alaska with Joe Miller, in Nevada with Sharron Angle, and most famously in Delaware with Christine O'Donnell. None of these extremists were able to win the general election, even in a throw-the-bums-out GOP tidal wave election.

And so suddenly it's 2011, and Roger Ailes and Fox News decide to pull a “course correction.” And just like that, the Tea Party is barely anywhere to be found.

But here's the funny -- OK, actually not that funny -- thing. The chaos unleashed by Fox and friends on the American political system during those two years of the Obama backlash is going to be with us for a long, long time. Some of that is in the extremists like Kentucky's Rand Paul and Utah's Mike Lee who did zig-zag through the electoral maze of 2010 and we are now stuck with for the next six years, at least. But mainly it's in the fear that forces of nature like radio's Limbaugh and the brief surge of the Tea Party has created in the mainstream GOP, its members so afraid now of losing a primary like Delaware's Mike Castle did to O'Donnell at this time last year. That smell of fear moved once-compromise-minded Republicans like Arizona's John McCain to the extreme right and scuttled what in 2008 had been bright hopes that Washington would take action on climate change and real immigration reform. It's what inspired so many GOPers to sign a no-tax-increase-ever pledge that will hamper America's efforts to dig from the current hole, even as the very real problem of unemployment is ignored.

And now comes Roger Ailes to essentially tell us that the whole thing was a politically motivated ratings gimmick. And yet the Beltway pundits and the politicians still can't realize or admit that the Tea Party was at its brief peak just a 26 percent tail wagging the American dog ... or that the dog stopped barking months ago.