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 politics 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 in South Carolina, where a "smaller than expected" crowd came to see Michele Bachmann for a Tax Day Rally back in April (just as Sarah Palin and Donald Trump also drew small crowds on the same day), 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 the The 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. (By the way, Tea Party nation's founder just endorsed Newt Gingrich for president... you think that's a game changer?) 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.
The 2010 election was supposed to be the warm-up for the Tea Party's ultimate goal, which was turning Barack Obama into a one-term president. But where is the Tea Party candidate for the White House? The self-declared members of the Tea Party who entered the race -- most notably Bachmann -- are sinking like stones. And then there's Rick Perry, who studied at the right hand of Glenn Beck and turned himself into a master of extreme rhetoric, suggesting that Texas could secede from the Union and then calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme -- positions that seem to being doing more harm to his quick-rise-and-quick-fall candidacy than good.
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 canvass 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.