“Tea Bagging” as Seen Through a Community Organizer's Lens

By Al Giordano

Protests on “tax day” are certainly nothing new, nor particularly novel. In my salad days as a cub reporter, I used to cover, every April 15, the picket outside a local IRS office by late friend Wally Nelson and other “war tax resisters.” They’re Americans who feel so strongly against contributing for military adventures that they refuse to pay for them; an economic version of conscientious objectors. They never sought to hide it or “evade” taxes. To the contrary, many wrote letters to the IRS explaining why they had refused to pay, saying essentially to the authorities, “come and get me.” Many, like Wally, lived simply enough on subsistence farming and such that they owed almost nothing anyway, but I still thought that it took guts to hold themselves up as targets in Gandhian tradition. And some did lose their homes and bank accounts as a result of their convictions. 

Today’s Fox News-promoted “tea-bagging” protests across the country don’t carry any similar risk for the attendees, yet they are are being hailed – whether naively or disingenuously - by conservative pundits and bloggers as some kind of second American Revolution, or at least as the beginnings of one.

As a student of organizing and movements, my ears perk up at any suggestion of grassroots rebellion. Whether or not I agree with a cause is a separate consideration than the cold and rational study of the tactics and, if any, strategy that deployed by movements, whether authentic or merely aspiring. Most tactics are not ideological; they can be deployed by right and left alike. So if the right comes up with a new innovation in organizing, I think it’s worth studying and, if it works, appropriating.

Blogs are a good example of such appropriation: post September 11, 2001, the popularity of blogs first skyrocketed as a mostly pro-war genre with “conservative libertarian” tendencies. Before the Daily Kos and the left side of the screen came to dominate the blogosphere, the most widely read bloggers were from the right. Some on the left saw that the tactic worked, and appropriated it as our own. The rest is history.

In that light, is there anything to be learned – tactically or strategically – from today’s tea-bagging protests said to be taking place in between 300 and 500 locations across the USA?

The short answer is, “so far, no.”

From a community organizer’s perspective, the only “innovation” to be found in the tea-bag protests is available only to a very narrow group of people: If you’re a billionaire – and therefore among the top five percent of Americans who are the only ones about to pay higher taxes under the Obama tax policies – and if you also own a TV network, you can wield that network as a weapon to create the illusion of a grassroots protest.

But not even that can really be called an American innovation: TV networks in Venezuela and in Mexico have been pulling off these kinds of charades for years, with mixed results. In Venezuela in 2002 commercial TV station stoked “protests” were used as a cov er for an attempted military coup d’etat. It failed because there was an authentic grassroots organizing movement that countered it (literally overwhelming military troops and re-taking the public TV station from them). And in Mexico in 1999, the national network, TV Azteca, tried to use the assassination of one of its on-air personalities to drum up a citizen revolt against the center-left Mexico City government, only to have its poutrage fall apart and backfire when it turned out the slain figure was involved in narco-trafficking and was likely killed because of it

Authentic organizing projects always have clearly stated goals, whether to have a stoplight put up in the neighborhood or to, as in 2008, to take the White House.

But what are the goals of today’s tea-bag protests? Is there a list of grievances or demands around which the participants will rally?

That there is no such clear platform is our first indication that something is amiss.

Tea-baggers generally raise a few vague themes to explain their complaint. I just watched Fox News interview two of them waiting for the protest to begin in Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. One asserted that he was protesting against “the government not respecting the Constitution.” No detail was offered - nor asked by the reporter – as to what exactly he meant by that claim. The other said he was protesting against “the government spending our tax dollars on things we don’t want them spent on.” The tea-bag events have thus become the Mad Libs of right-wing protest: “We’re united and marching against ______________.” What is lacking is coherency. And as the French Situationist Guy Debord said, the first duty of a revolutionary is to be coherent.

Instead, they’ve served up a menu of (some of them contradictory) complaints and conspiracy theories (some rail against “socialism” and “world government,” with large doses of the same paranoia and victimhood of that kept the United States left self-marginalized for three decades and more until now). In other words, the tea-baggers are now repeating every mistake made by the “activists” of the US left in their own string of failed attempts at launching effective political movements throughout the 80s, the 90s, and in the first years of this century.

As one who suffered through those Lost Decades of the Left, banging my head against that brick wall of ineffective “activism,” I confess to be thoroughly enjoying this day when we get to watch the right stumble through the same clueless and boneheaded maneuvers that already failed for our own ideological siblings.

Lacking coherency – without which, authentic and effective political movements have never emerged – what are the goals of today’s tea-bagging events? Roger L. Simon of Pajamas Media (a conservative blogging consortium that has championed today’s protests) gropes at a goal for today, which turns out to be merely a personal and self-serving one:

“I was interviewed early this morning by CNN’s Jim Acosta (for broadcast Wednesday morning - don’t know what they will use) and he asked me if I thought the Tea Party movement was the right’s response (via the Internet) to the ‘netroots. It well may be. And if it is anywhere near as successful as moveon.org, Kos, etc., we are headed for some big changes indeed.”

In other words, for Simon and other wanna-be intellectual authors of a “grassroots” movement from the right, the goal is imitation: they want to be “as successful” as Daily Kos and MoveOn. For Simon, it’s about getting himself interviewed on CNN, adding web traffic, page hits, and the blogger ad revenues that would come if he could somehow put himself forward as a leader of these tens (but not likely hundreds) of thousands of discontented folk gathering in vague protest today.

The major recruitors of most of today’s protest attendees are, truth be told, outside of the conservative blogosphere: Fox News in first place and the followers of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign in competition with it to define these protests. Thus, the aspirations of Pajamas Media are strictly parasitical: It is happening, therefore we want to lead it.

As such, they’re the equivalent of the many aspiring socialist fringe party “vanguards” that hand out their newspapers and literature at anti-war protests: the ones that imagine that by offering a “party line” they can step out in front of the parade and take credit for it, thus setting themselves up to reach and inspire the masses (although it never quite works out that way). The front page of Simon's Pajamas Media seeks to make it Tea Bagging Central. Atop the page this morning were headlines like these: “Revolution Rekindled: Tea Party Movement Blossoms, " and, “Why You Should Attend a Tea Party," and,“Why I Am Attending a Tea Party.”

Yep, Roger L. Simon and Glenn Harlan Reynolds are the new version of the “socialist with a shopping bag,” ready to show you their collections of dog-eared manifestos as evidence that they can lead you to the barricades; aspiring leaders without followers, spokesmen without a platform, protesters unable to articulate a single grievance that anybody is going to rally around. We already know these people on the left (and most of us cross the street when we see them coming). How much more fun could we have than to see the right wing now wander into the same activist cul de sac?

Here’s an interesting clip from Fox News this week in which a fly enters the ointment in the form of Faiz Shakir of the center-left Think Progress, a critic of the “tea party” faux-movement, laying it strictly at the feet of Fox and three well-funded top-down lobbying outfits on the far right:

The best coverage so far of the tea-bagging protests has from the beltway political humor site Wonkette, which has demonstrated journalistically how the Republican National Committee is also in on promoting the protest-of-the-vague and how the many organizations on the right are already fighting with each other over who began and/or is leading the tea-bagging protests.

The most interesting point that emerges from Wonkette’s snark coverage is a journalistic scoop: that it’s the followers of former GOP presidential candidate US Rep. Ron Paul that started the ball rolling and will swell the rank-and-file at today’s simulation of protest. And this will get interesting as many of their positions (regarding theories of what happened on 9/11, the Iraq war, gold standard economics, etc.) are at odds with those of the more traditional right wing networks trying to jump out in front of them.

Tea Bag Day is, so far, a non-starter in terms of capturing public interest or imagination. The fascination with it on the right and left sides of blogdom simply is not matched among the masses, even with the life-support offered by a major cable news network. Google News is a pretty good indicator of what news stories are being followed most closely by the most members of the public, because it ranks placement of top stories according to how many clicks the topic gets via its pages.

As of 8:30 a.m. today the top stories were the clean-up on the rescue from Somalian pirates, the announcement by former US Rep. Pat Toomey that he will challenge US Senator Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Republican primary, and the trial of a defendant in the case of last November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. That’s what people around the Google universe are searching for today.

Even in the US News section, the top stories are the Blagojevich indictment in Chicago, Obama’s economic speech yesterday, and the California rape-murder trial of Melissa Huckaby.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds (the blogger known as Instapundit, and part of, with Simon, the leadership of Pajamas Media) has a column in that esteemed populist pamphlet (cough), The Wall Street Journal, today, in which he simply bullshits his way through trying to explain this Astroturf as a legitimate grassroots movement:

Today American taxpayers in more than 300 locations in all 50 states will hold rallies -- dubbed "tea parties" -- to protest higher taxes and out-of-control government spending. There is no political party behind these rallies, no grand right-wing conspiracy, not even a 501(c) group like MoveOn.org.

So who's behind the Tax Day tea parties? Ordinary folks who are using the power of the Internet to organize…

"There is no political party behind these rallies," Glenn?

Oh, my:

As Shakir of Think Progress, in the video above, and others have documented, that’s demonstrably untrue: there is a political party (Republican National Committee) pushing its troops to participate. There are beltway based PACs and lobbyists behind it, pushing their email lists to come out and tea bag. And most significantly, there is Fox News, property of the billionaire Rupert Murdoch, which today is pretty much all-tea-bagging-all-the-time.

Reynold’s optimistically concludes:

This influx of new energy and new talent is likely to inject new life into small-government politics around the nation. The mainstream Republican Party still seems limp and disorganized. This grassroots effort may revitalize it. Or the tea-party movement may lead to a new third party that may replace the GOP, just as the GOP replaced the fractured and hapless Whigs.

James Wolcott is having none of it, and takes Reynolds to the woodshed:

In a drivelly press release masquerading as an op-ed, Glenn Reynolds did his bit to drum up the dramatic and political import of the forthcoming Tea Parties that he and his colleagues at Pajamas Media are fanfaring. The faux populism of this project is conveyed with this rhinestone:

“These aren't the usual semiprofessional protesters who attend antiwar and pro-union marches. These are people with real jobs; most have never attended a protest march before. They represent a kind of energy that our politics hasn't seen lately, and an influx of new activists.”

How lately is "lately"? I would think that even a pseudo-libertarian righty would concede that the Obama campaign possessed energy and attracted a fresh crop of recruits. It may be hard for Reynolds and his allies to credit, but liberals have "real jobs" too, or least jobs as real as being employed as a law professor with enough leisure to blog all day.

But let that slide…

Wolcott then moves in for the kill, exposing the disgusting underbelly of the tea-bagger movement as a mere cover for its racially based indigestion:

It's remarkable and telling how some of the biggest peaceful political rallies this country has ever seen took place only three years ago, only to be flushed down the memory hole. I'm speaking of the tremendous pro-immigration rallies that took place in 2006, with an estimated half-million people assembling in downtown Los Angeles alone. Those rallies did not lack energy, enthusiasm, or organization, and I daresay among those hundreds of thousands of people lobbying for enlightened immigration legislation were low-income workers with "real jobs."

Of course, their groundswell efforts were mocked, attacked, derided, and dismissed by the likes of CNN's Lou Dobbs and the right blogosphere, who had a righteous snit over the presence of Mexican flags. "Welcome to Reconquista" blared Michelle Malkin, the strands of whose fearmongering were disentangled and tox screened by David Neiwert at Orcinus. (Mickey Kaus, putting on his thinking cap and then taking it off again, mused that the immigration issue might very well be the stealth bombshell issue to boost Republican chances in the 2006 midterms, and we know how niftily that worked out.)

Three years later, the scope and sweep of the pro-immigration rallies has been erased from the record books and general discourse as the Tea Party movement is augured in as the first authentic grassroots stirring of protest from the American heartland since, like, whenever.

Jill Tubman at Jack & Jill blog finds the same undercurrent:

I’m starting to become pretty convinced at this point that “socialist” is a some kind of code word for “nigger”.

Wolcott and Tubman have hit the nail on the head: “Tea-baggers,” without agreed-upon grievances to unite them, are merely groping for a stage upon with to vent what really has them upset but they know they can't say aloud: ooh, scary, there's a black man in the White House.

That the divided factions of the right choose tax day to make their play – when the wheels are set in motion for each of their households to receive an $800 tax-cut check, thanks to the President whose mere incumbency causes them irrational panic – is a pretty thin cover for their nostalgia for more racially segregated times. Well, most of us knew they’d be out there. And it’s just too much fun to see them borrowing the worst and least effective tactics that made the American left so irrelevant for so long, ushering in what very well may become the Lost Decades of the Right.

 

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About Al Giordano

Biography

Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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