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The Tea Party: Salt of the Earth, or Astro-Turf?

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.

Alan Selby

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3 Comments on this post.
  • CTCZ
    17 February 2011 at 17:59
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    Uh, sorry. The tea party is a decentralized awakening of Americans that started with Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential run. It is a movement that promotes returning the federal government to it’s original constitutional boundaries, ending American empire building around the world, ending trillion dollar deficits, promoting states rights, and promoting personal liberites and freedoms.

    It is decentralized. Sure you can point to one tea party group somewhere here or there, and try to characterize the whole movement by it. But, the best way to understand the overall character of the tea party revolution is to understand the Ron Paul platform that birthed it.

    Were the Ron Paul supporters who spontaneously joined together in meetup groups around the country part of a group controlled by a few individuals? Hardly. Not even the Ron Paul campaign knew what was going on. Nationwide, supporters just got together and did what they needed to do, to spread his message. Was there a central planning group? Nope. He may not have won in 2008, but his supporters continued and birthed the tea party groups around the country. Is there a central planning group for the tea party? Nope.

    If anything, the only consistent thing from one group to the next is the Constitution. And that’s fine by us 🙂

  • Chris van Avery
    17 February 2011 at 20:42
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    As someone who has observed, participated in and written about politics in America for the last twenty or so years (and is now a systematic and philosopical theology major at Nottingham–go figure), I think you see the dots, but are missing the manner in which they are related.

    From what I’ve experienced in interactions with people who identify themselves with the Tea Party, they are genuinely–and I think correctly–concerned with the fiscal priorities of America’s political class. They are, however, being heavily lobbied by issue groups to try and steer the activities towards pet solutions.

    In short, the movement is not Astro Turf per se, but they are being manipulated here and there in where they direct their anger and act.

  • Alan Selby
    21 February 2011 at 15:23
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    CTCZ, I think you’ve misinterpreted the aim of the article. The accusation is not that the Tea Party is a wholly centralised instrument of big business; rather that there is a strong case to support claims that there exists a sinister undertone to many aspects of the movement.

    I agree with your claim that the movement began as a decentralised awakening, but take issue with your claim that I characterised the movement at large as anything other than this. The facts that I present draw attention to the growing influence of big business, specifically through AFP, within the Tea Party movement.

    I think your description is probably the view that the majority of supporters would take. However, if you take this view then surely you can appreciate the danger of naively assuming that an organisation such as this is not susceptible to the influence of big business?

    Chris, I think you’ve effectively summarised my view. Again, the intention wasn’t to paint every Tea Party member as an instrument of corporate interest, but rather to highlight the fact that they are, as you say, being manipulated here and there in where they direct their anger and actions, and that this is evident in the growing influence of AFP.

    I did mention George Monbiot, but his hyperbole is pretty draining at times and his tendency to look for a good conspiracy theory often gets in the way of presenting a balanced view. But, at the same time, I think choosing to concentrate on the issues surrounding AFP’s growing influence within the Tea Party effectively demonstrates the underlying issue of corporate influence that I wanted to address.

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