The Many Faces Of The Tea Party

Malice in Wonderland - Tea PartyOn the cover of the new Weekly Standard is a caricature of two people that the magazine’s cover story regards as the banner carriers of the Tea Party movement. They are Rick Santelli, a correspondent for the cable business network CNBC, and Glenn Beck, a delusional Fox News host with a Messiah complex. The title of the cover story is The Two Faces Of The Tea Party.

The article by Matthew Continetti is an overly verbose examination of the Tea Party founding and philosophy. It employs a comparative clash between conflicting visions of the movement represented by Santelli as a sober, businesslike advocate for economic rationality, and Beck as a feverish, paranoiac warning of impending economic and social doom. The problem is that, even as Continetti defines the battle in terms of this duality, he entirely misses the real source of the Tea-volution. He insists on distilling it down to these two charactors, despite recognizing in his opening paragraph the multiple personalities residing in the body of the Tea Party:

“Is the anti-Obama, anti-big government movement simply AstroTurf fabricated by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks? Is it a bunch of Birthers, Birchers, conspiracists, and white power misfits? Is it a strictly economic phenomenon […] Or are the Tea Partiers nothing more than indulgent Boomers […] Reagan Democrats and Perotistas?”

Continetti correctly answers his own question saying, “All of the above.” However, he then immediately retreats to present the argument as one between Santelli and Beck for the remainder of his interminably long essay. And Continetti takes sides. He characterizes Santelli and Beck in starkly different terms. Santelli is the “former businessman” who “you’d expect to find at the Rotary Club,” while Beck is the “former Top 40 DJ” who “was addicted to alcohol and drugs.”

On Santelli: They are the words of a man who is worried about America’s future, but who thinks the right mix of policy and leadership can cure the nation’s ills. They are the words of a forward-looking, optimistic, free-market populist.

On Beck: For Beck, conspiracy theories are not aberrations. They are central to his worldview. They are the natural consequence of assuming that the world hangs by a thread, and that everyone is out to get you.

As if to confirm Continetti’s portrayal of Beck as perennially victimized, Beck’s producer, Stu, posted a response that blasts the article and the magazine with both barrels. He condemned the author for his laziness and accused him of deliberately lying. But worst of all, says Stu, is that these attacks appeared in the Weekly Standard, an organ he must have presumed would always be friendly.

But Stu wasn’t finished. He helpfully published the Standard’s phone number so that readers could boycott the magazine by canceling their subscriptions. And then, in a fit of hysterical hypocrisy, Stu adds a postscript asserting that he doesn’t believe in boycotts.

The Weekly Standard (until recently owned by Rupert Murdoch) is one of the few remaining advertisers on Beck’s program. They may not take kindly to spending scarce advertising dollars on a program whose producer is encouraging people to cancel their subscriptions. Is this a trend on the part of Beck and company to insult their advertisers? Just a few weeks ago the Vermont Teddy Bear Company was blindsided by Beck bashing Mother’s Day in an intro to the company’s ad for Mother’s Day gifts.

I have to give Continetti some credit for drawing sensible distinctions between Santelli and Beck. Not that Santelli was right. He basically rallied a bunch of commodities traders to whine about financial aid for working people while supporting bailouts for their employers. But there is still a difference between his greed-infused ranting and Beck’s fear mongering.

There are many faces of the Tea Party that Continetti didn’t even mention. Nowhere in his eight page opus did he recognize Tea Party Queen, Sarah Palin, even though he is the author of a book called “The Persecution of Sarah Palin.” I think he is desperately trying to shift attention to folks he feels are reasonable and away from the Becks of the world. But Continetti’s most egregious failing was something that ought to have been pretty obvious. As the Tea Party was forming, neither Santelli nor Beck were representatives of the people. They weren’t activists or politicians or academics or citizen advocates. They were, and are, media personalities. They represent a class of elite, well-to-do broadcasters working for giant, multinational corporations.

Look back at the opening paragraph of Continetti’s article where he identified lobbyists, birthers, racists, etc., as the components of the aborning Tea Party. Notice that he left out what is arguably the most influential component of all – the media. Fox News acted as the public relations arm of the Tea Party. They hosted the early organizers and candidates. They produced lavish rallies that aired live with custom graphics and music. They dispatched their top anchors across the country to perform the duties of masters of ceremonies. They literally branded Tea Party events as Fox News productions.

The question as to what the face of the Tea Party is can be debated for hours on end. But there is one thing that is indisputable: Without the media, there would not have been any Tea Party.

Robin Hood vs. The Tea Baggers

When CNBC’s Rick Santelli roused his mob of commodities traders to indiscriminately oppose any sort of taxation (even though they have representation), he set off a campaign that hitched its identity to the revolutionary war era activists who came to be known as the tea party. Unfortunately, there was very little forethought to this aborning movement and the participants began referring to themselves as Tea Baggers. When they learned of some of the other less flattering connotations of the term, they tried to distance themselves from it. But it was too late and besides, some of their comrades decided to embrace it.

The progressive community never really countered this crowd with anything organized. There was an awkward attempt to launch a Coffee Party, but it, so far, has not gained much traction.

Well now we may have a far better branding opportunity, with a far more appealing image. And it is all thanks to the new movie Robin Hood, and its star Russell Crowe. At a press conference for the opening of the film at the Cannes Film Festival in France (oh no, not France), the discussion turned to what Robin Hood would be doing were he to be present and wandering in the woods today. Crowe offered a damn good theory that was aimed directly at the media audience he was addressing:

“Would he be political? Would he aim at certain figures and try to bring them down? Would his aim be economic? Would he be looking at Wall Street and the huge sums of money that people have been patting themselves on the back with, and the subprime mortgage collapse?

“Or would he be looking at what you guys do for a living and realizing that the true wealth lies in the dissemination of information? And my theory would be, if Robin Hood was alive today, he would be looking at the monopolization of media as the greatest enemy.”

Exactly! If there is any authority in the 21st century that is brazenly exploiting the masses for its own benefit; if there is any institution that considers itself to be above the peasants and entitled to the power and money they hoard, it is the media. They travel in elite circles and cover for one another. Once in the club you can never be ejected. That’s why so many pundits are still given airtime despite how often they are wrong. And the Sheriff of Nottingham, known to his friends as Rupert Murdoch, keeps a tight reign on the fiefdom he rules.

Crowe’s insight is not merely recognizing the threat that media consolidation and monopolization represents, but he explicitly rejected the easy analogy of Robin Hood being a Tea Bagger himself due to his opposition to the then-current administration. No, Robin is much more likely to be a liberal as evidenced by his distaste for the opulently wealthy who have no concern for working people. Robin’s policy of taking from the rich and giving to the poor made him an early practitioner of “redistribution of wealth.” He certainly would have battled the Wall Street barons, the environmental abusers, and he would have demanded that all subjects of the realm receive adequate health care, food, and housing.

Tea CrusadesSo get ready for the Tea Crusaders to mount up in opposition to Robin and his Merry Men and Women. Brace yourselves for the 9/12ers and Glenn Beck’s Army of the Delusional. Be vigilant as Fox News amasses the troops on the border of Sanity. Robin Hood, the movie and the legend, will soon come under attack because the Dark Ageists won’t abide this champion of social justice and enemy of free market greed. And if you think they won’t go after a beloved cultural icon like Robin Hood, remember, the Tea Baggers already denounced Captain America.

The progressive movement, however, would be wise to embrace Robin Hood and build our future on the philosophy he represents. It is an ethical and moral philosophy, and an appealing and inspirational tale of heroism and beneficence. And it’s way better than Tea Bagging.

What’s Up With CNBC?

The cable news wars have been raging for years. But for the most part the combatants have been confined to the big three: Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. Headline News and CNBC have been regarded as niche players that weren’t really on the front lines.

All of a sudden CNBC has become the most talked about cable news network, just as the nation has inaugurated a new president and tries to weather a fierce economic storm. Much of the attention is couched in ridicule. Rick Santelli’s rant, that cast a bunch of elite commodities traders as emblematic of average Americans, was only taken seriously by the likes of Michele Malkin and her mush-brained followers. Jim Cramer was exposed as the clown that he is by a much better and more professional clown, Jon Stewart.

The backwash of this publicity parade is a boost for CNBC’s ratings and visibility. But why is it happening now?

CNBC has long been a friend to the business community. Its reporting rarely alerted viewers to imminent crises (like the the one we are enduring now) or corporate malfeasance (like Enron and Madoff). The anchors were openly chummy with CEOs, whom they courted for access, and some, like Larry Kudlow, were overtly partisan. CNBC elevated the art of bloviating by introducing the Octo-Pundit, where as many as eight self-styled experts yelled at each other from their respective video cages.

But with a lineup like Fox News and current events that favored their niche, they still needed a little extra push to get the recognition they felt they deserved. So along comes Santelli and Cramer and a concerted effort to expand their conservative profile.

Despite the blathering of Bill O’Reilly, the NBC News division has never been left wing. MSNBC was once the cable home of Michael Savage, Oliver North, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and it still features Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan. The rise of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow occurred strictly because of their success, not ideology. Nevertheless, in the past NBC has demonstrated its cowardice in the face of criticism. They are the network that canceled their own number one rated program, Phil Donahue, for fear of being tagged anti-war.

By ramping up the rightist rhetoric on CNBC, NBC News is attempting to harvest popular outrage from both ends of the political field. They can continue to throw liberals a bone with their primetime MSNBC schedule, while cozying up to their natural right wing allies on the business-oriented CNBC. And neither network will have its programming muddied with ideological balance. As an ancillary benefit, NBC will try to tamp down the criticism they receive from the right by pointing to their new heroes of ham-handed conservatism.

In the end, CNBC just hopes to siphon a few viewers away from Fox News, and to smother the new born Fox Business Network in its crib. Unfortunately, the way they have chosen to do that is to emulate the Fox model which is focused on aggressive conservatism, and hysterical, paranoid personalities. That won’t work for CNBC in the long run because Fox viewers are too cult driven. They won’t abandon the comfort of that with which they are familiar for a subsidiary of that which their Fox masters have convinced them is evil.

Now, more than ever, CNBC needs to concentrate on providing responsible financial journalism. By making themselves truly indispensable in the field for which they claim expertise, they will be far more likely to succeed and to serve the interests of their viewers.