The USA’s mid-term elections saw widespread gains for Republicans, but have also shone new light on another influential party: the Tea Party. Far from being a new political movement the Tea Party harks back to colonial times, the Boston Tea Party and the fight for ‘no taxation without representation’. Then, colonists were becoming increasingly disenfranchised under the sovereign British government, who did not recognise their demand for taxation only through their own elected representatives. Events culminated in the American civil war, and the rest is history.
Today, questions are being asked of the Tea Party and whether or not the connotations of its name are in fact representative of the modern movement. It campaigns for reductions in taxation and an increase in limitations on the role of central government: it is seen by many as a populist, grass-roots movement motivated by the libertarian concerns of private citizens’ groups. Recently, however, the grass-roots factor that is so often appealed to by supporters as being evidence of the will of the people has been challenged. The accusation is that the Tea Party is one of the best examples in recent times of astro-turfing: an effort by big business to stir activism on its behalf, creating false grass-roots movements which serve to further their interests through the manipulation of concerned citizens’ groups.
Astro-turfing, like the Tea Party, is not a new concept. Examples include the National Smokers Alliance, a group campaigning against regulation on tobacco products, which was effectively a front for the Philip Morris Tobacco company. Formed in 1993, it was implemented as a means of campaigning on behalf of the tobacco industry whilst concealing the true influence of the companies which funded it.
Many have denounced the claim that the Tea Party is the same kind of campaign, but striking similarities have recently emerged. One of the most influential drivers of the Tea Party campaign is Americans for Prosperity: an organisation founded by Charles and David Koch, 84% stakeholders in Koch Industries – the second largest private company in the USA. The Kochs have diverted millions of dollars into AFP, which has in turn supported the Tea Party movement.
In a recent interview with New York Magazine David Koch explicitly stated “I’ve never been to a tea party event. No one representing the tea party has ever even approached me.” Despite this, video has emerged of Mr Koch giving the keynote speech at one of the latest AFP conferences, an event which also included several Tea Party speakers and which has served to demonstrate the close ties between AFP and the Tea Party.
Since 1989, Koch Industries’ oil and gas interests have spent more than any other company on gaining favour in government, with at least $50m going to lobbying firms. One of their chief concerns has been reducing federal regulation of the energy industry, with at least $1m being diverted into a campaign to repeal California’s anti global warming legislation. This perhaps grants us an insight into why an organisation as demonstrably influential as Koch Industries wants to keep secret their backing of one of the most powerful political campaigns of recent times.
The Obama administration has promised to implement an increase in regulation of big business, along with greater taxation on the rich. This spells a dilemma for David and Charles Koch, who each hold a personal fortune of around $21bn and operate a company with annual revenues of around $62bn. Few would feel sympathy for these men in the current economic climate.
However, by fomenting unrest and likening their concerns to those of the disillusioned citizens involved in Tea Party movements they have been able to execute a masterstroke. Their trick, as George Monbiot has written, is to conflate crony capitalism with free enterprise. By preying on the fears of genuine grass-roots activists it seems they have been able to not only manipulate the Tea Party into effectively campaigning for their interests, but to keep their hands relatively clean in the process.
The evidence has shown that Koch Industries has effectively been influencing unwitting activists into campaigning for reduced taxation and regulation, measures which will benefit the rich above all else. From this it seems there is indeed a strong case to support the claim that the Tea Party is far from the grass-roots organisation many claim it to be, but is in fact a prime example of how big business can manipulate those who feel disenfranchised into fighting for their cause.