2009 was the year when many journalists concluded they were slow to recognize the anti-government, anti-Obama rage that gave birth to the tea party movement.
2010 is the year when news organizations have decided to prove they get it.
And get it. And get it some more.
Part of the reason is the timeless truth in media that nothing succeeds like excess. But part of the reason is a convergence of incentives for journalists and activists on left and right alike to exaggerate both the influence and exotic traits of the tea-party movement. In fact, there is a word for what poll after poll depicts as a group of largely white, middle-class, middle-aged voters who are aggrieved: Republicans.
But just read the succession of New York Times stories, profiling newly energized activists who are “bracing for tyranny.” Or follow the dispatches of the CNN crews who went along with two national Tea Party Express bus tours. Or delve into the crosstabs of polls conducted in the past few weeks by the Times, CNN, and, POLITICO about the opinions and demographic characteristics of tea partiers. Or check out the blogger the Washington Post hired to chronicle their movement.
The findings have been unveiled with the earnest detachment of Margaret Mead reporting her findings among teenage girls in Samoa.
Indifference has given way to curiosity, and —in recent weeks especially— to a nearly manic obsession that sometimes seems to place the tea partiers somewhere near the suffragettes and the America-Firsters in the historical ranking of mass political movements.
Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, which tracks media reports, found that the tea parties consumed a steady measure of news for most of this year before exploding during tax week to compete with the Icelandic volcano for attention and outstripping health care with 6% of all media reports that week.
But various sides have their own reasons for finding something new and arresting in the spasms of outrage personified by the tea partiers. The right sees the protests as evidence of a popular revolt against President Barack Obama—proof of a changing tide they believe will bring massive victories in 2010 and 2012. The left sees them as evidence of incipient fascism and an opposition to Obama rooted in racism—proof of the beyond-the-pale illegitimacy of large swaths of the conservative moment.
The tea party “movement,” meanwhile, has little organizational structure to speak of. True tea party candidates – as opposed to establishment figures like former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio who have gladly adopted the label – have failed to make a dent so far in Republican primaries. The one true tea partier poised to make a splash, Kentucky GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul, is an imperfect example thanks to his being the son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), who still commands a national following after his quixotic presidential race.
The tea parties’ main expression has been public gatherings. But last week’s Tax Day crowds were not representative of a force that is purportedly shaping the country’s politics. About a thousand people showed up in state capitals like Des Moines, Montgomery and Baton Rouge – and even fewer in large cities like Philadelphia, Boston and Milwaukee. In some cases, turnout was less than the original protests spurred by the stimulus, bailouts, financial crisis and new Democratic president last April 15th.
In Washington, about 10,000 people showed up on the national Mall last week – a rally worth covering but far fewer than the tens of thousands who marched in support of immigration reform in March.
“If I organized a rally for stronger laws to protect puppies, I would get 100,000 people to Washington,” Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell cracked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. “So, I think the media has blown the tea party themselves out of proportion."
What’s more, the eruption of protest after a president of a new party takes the country in a new direction is a standard feature of modern American politics. Ronald Reagan’s election produced record-breaking rallies for the now-forgotten Nuclear Freeze movement. The right, with rhetoric and occasional excesses that are almost identical to those of today, rose up angrily against Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s.
And just a few years ago, hundreds of thousands of Americans turned out to rally against the Iraq war. Now, veterans of those protests – covered largely as spot news and spectacle – wonder why they didn’t get the weighty, anthropological treatment assigned to the tea parties.
“They’re being treated with a lot more respect than the anti-war movement was,” said Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq, who became the most visible face of those protests.
“The anti-war movement has always been treated as a fringe movement – even though at the height of our movement we had hundreds of thousands of people at protests and the majority of public opinion on our side,” said Sheehan, who spoke to POLITICO from a bus on her way to an Oregon protest against the Afghan war.
“Nobody is poling us to find out our thoughts and opinions on things,” she added.
The polling has discovered what the Republican officials who have allied themselves with the tea parties already knew: That the new energy and organization is a function of an inflamed conservative grassroots already basically aligned with one party.
“There is definitely some anger at the GOP over our big spending ways, but generally this is an Obama protest vote,” says Republican strategist Mike Murphy.
Polls indicated that tea party adherents overwhelmingly support GOP candidates. Over 70 percent backed John McCain in 2008, according to POLITICO’s own in-person survey of those who attended the tax day rally in Washington. And a New York Times poll released last week showed that 40 percent of self-identified tea party supporters indicated a desire for a third party – less than the 46 percent of overall respondents to the survey who said they’d like to see an option besides the Republicans and Democrats.
“No one should mistake tea partiers for swing voters,” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala, noting surveys that show the group largely identifies as either Republican or independents who lean toward the GOP. “Those who say they're independent do not choose that status because the Democrats are too liberal but because the Republicans are too conservative.”
Other polling suggests that the protests, while much discussed within the political class, hasn’t entirely pierced the consciousness of average Americans.
A new Pew poll out this week with a national sample of 2,505 found that 31 percent of those surveyed had never even heard of the tea party movement – and another 30 percent had no opinion of them.
The media fascination, trickling down from A1 of the New York Times, for instance, to A1 of the Arizona Republic, is prompting a second round of anthropology, this time from aggravated political professionals.
Murphy, who calls the attention “absolutely ridiculous,” sees it of a piece with what has become the biennial compulsion in the political community to hold up a newly-discovered, and always pivotal, bloc of voters; Like the Angry White Males, NASCAR Dads, Soccer Moms of election cycles past – only on steroids.
“There is this urge to give any political development a catchy name and a picture,” he lamented, adding the familiar Republican complaint that well-educated, left-leaning, coast-dwelling reporters view middle America through an elitist lens.
“These young reporters fly to the wilds of Oklahoma or Kentucky, find a bunch of folks in Uncle Sam suits hollering and come back thinking they’ve got some hot scoop,” Murphy said.
The coverage began, notes Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, with not much more than bemused mockery: “’How amusing, the peasants are revolting’”
Now it has reached a level of worried fascination. Or, as Castellanos put it, “The peasants actually are revolting!”
In some ways, perceptions of the tea partiers have become much like the politician most frequently identified with the movement – Sarah Palin.
For both the left and the right, both have become symbols that outweigh their actual impact – thanks largely to excessive media attention. Conservatives mostly rush to defend them while liberals delight in mocking them, and reporters can’t get enough of the spectacle.
And, as with Palin, the tea parties enjoy an unlikely convergence of saturation coverage from media outlets across the political spectrum.
The more ideologically-driven cable networks have something near ideal for television news in the modern era: vivid images of political activism that can either be celebrated (Fox) or mocked (MSNBC). And columnists and editorial writers from the mainstream media have something to celebrate or deplore.
“It feeds the paranoia of the New York Times and provides pictures of conflict and color for TV,” said Murphy.