A friend of mine recently said, "Hey, you’re pretty smart. Can you explain what’s going on with these tea parties?" I started to explain about PACs and astroturf and Waterloo and town meetings, but then I decided to organize my thoughts by writing them down. I collected a mixture of history, motives, and attitudes of the various tea parties. Follow me below.
A Brief History
• November 2007: You might not remember this but way back in 2007 the libertarian/Republican candidate, Ron Paul, organized an online fundraiser with a tea party theme. Here’s a DKos diary about it: Ron Paul Supporters Plan $10M Tea Party. So the libertarians used the phrase first.
• November 2008: Obama won the election, which spawned various conspiracy theories, including the birther CT, the Acorn/Alinsky/Soros/MoveOn CT, the FEMA camp CT, etc.
• February 16, 2009: A day before President Obama signed the stimulus bill, some people organized "Porkulus protests" (from a Rush Limbaugh neologism combining pork and stimulus). In my hometown of Seattle, there was a President’s Day Porkulus protest led by a local blogger named Liberty Belle. It was hyped by Michelle Malkin. Here’s a link to some photos: Anti-Porkulus Protest in Seattle. There were no tea bags and no mention of tea parties – and lots of pictures of pigs. Within a week, these people would come to identify with tea parties.
• February 19, 2009: Three days later, Rick Santelli, a CNBC reporter, delivered a now-famous rant from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Here’s what Ben McGrath said in the New Yorker (The rise of Tea Party activism):
By most accounts, the Paul Revere figure of this Second American Revolution is an excitable cable-news reporter named Rick Santelli, a former futures trader and Drexel Burnham Lambert vice-president who stood on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange last February and sounded the alarm on CNBC about the new Administration’s planned assistance for homeowners facing foreclosure. He proposed a nationwide referendum, via the Internet, on the matter of subsidizing "the losers’ mortgages," winning both the attention and the vocal support of the working traders in his midst. "President Obama, are you listening?" he shouted, and then said that he’d been thinking of organizing a Chicago Tea Party in July, urging "all you capitalists" to come join him on Lake Michigan, where "we’re going to be dumping in some derivative securities."
• February 20, 2009: Within 24 hours, the tea-party meme went viral. The CNBC rant got a zillion views on YouTube. Dozens of people started websites and Facebook groups. Fox News and Drudge started promoting tea parties every single day. People ranted on Free Republic or Red State. Various events around the country were organized by local groups. But because each group was local, there wasn’t a national organization or national leader or even a unifying set of principles.
Pretty soon various groups had started their own national organizations and/or websites. I think the founders of these groups had two very different motives: political power or money. I’ll get to the examples a little later in the diary.
The Political Motive
Some tea party leaders have a political agenda. And it reminds me of the old saying about leaders. Some leaders have a vision for the future and they convince the crowd to follow them. Other leaders figure out which way the crowd is moving and they run to the front of the crowd, so they can claim that they’re leading it.
I would divide the political leaders into four groups:
• Republicans: They lost the 2008 election and they see tea parties as a way to replenish their base of voters. They can’t afford to lose this group.
• Libertarians: They like small government and lower taxes, but they also tend to be less religious. They often favor gay marriage, legalizing marijuana, or a smaller military.
• Third Party/Independents: They might be called the leftovers from the Ross Perot campaign. They don’t like the Democrats or the Republicans. They don’t like Washington, DC, or Wall Street. They want to start a third party.
• Crazies: They include the KKK, militias, birthers, truthers, tenthers, secessionists, LaRouchies, the John Birch Society, and Glenn Beckerheads, to name a few.
It almost doesn’t matter that different factions disagree. The libertarians might want to legalize pot and bring our military home and a different group might believe in mandatory death penalties for drug dealers and an invasion of Iran. What’s important to them is that they’re united in their hatred of Obama and his policies. They believe Obama is the enemy and, as the saying goes, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
The Money Motive
Some of the people who call themselves tea party leaders are basically entrepreneurs (or con men). They’re in it for the money. They want people to buy memberships or to donate to the cause – or to buy T-shirts and coffee cups and bumperstickers – or to attend conventions or leadership seminars. If the con men can collect enough money from the poor saps, they can then pay themselves a big salary. It’s pure capitalism at its cynical best. If you think about it, the failure of tea parties (to elect people to office) will mean a continuing opportunity for the entrepreneurs to make even more money from them.
There’s also a lot of corporate money involved. Various PACs started by corporations, conservative think tanks, or rich people are either donating money to tea party organizations or starting their own. These PACs want to push an agenda that benefits them economically – either by stopping laws that would bring health care reform (or carbon taxes or EFCA or whatever) or by promoting issues that would make money for the corporation. You could call this a political agenda, but they’re really just trying to make more money.
And now, let’s look at a few of the numerous tea party groups that I’ve managed to find. The Wikipedia entry (Tea Party movement) is fairly good, especially the various links to news articles at the end.
Tea Party Patriots
Their website is here. They’re a 501(c)(4) organization, which means they can spend money on political lobbying, but donations to them are not tax-deductible. From Wikipedia:
The Tea Party Patriots are a national organization that claims to have over 1000 local chapters, run with the help of FreedomWorks, a conservative nonprofit led by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
They say they have three core beliefs: Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government, and Free Markets.
According to their website, their partners include: FreedomWorks, Red State, Michelle Malkin, New Patriot Journal, Regular Folks United, Let Freedom Ring, and several others. Sourcewatch.org says they’re also connected with Glenn Beck’s 912 Project. Here’s the Sourcewatch link (Tea Party Patriots).
Here are links to the Rachel Maddow Show (Aug. 11, 2009), where she talks about Dick Armey’s lobbying clients in the healthcare/pharma industries and how FreedomWorks is a fake grass-roots (astroturf) organization: video (skip ahead to about 3:00) and transcript.
I couldn’t find anything about their finances in 2009 (too early, probably). FreedomWorks took in and spent about $4.3 million in 2008 (but that was before the rise of the tea party phenomenon).
Tea Party Express
These guys own a bus. In 2008, their bus tour was called "Stop Obama/Our Country Deserves Better." In 2009, from August to September, their "Tea Party Express" tour drove from Sacramento to DC. In 2010, "Tea Party Express II" zig-zagged around the country from March 27 to April 15, starting in Searchlight, NV, going up to Utah, across to Nebraska, down to Alabama, up to Minnesota, over to Boston, and ending up in DC. Their website is here. Wikipedia says:
The Tea Party Express is a national bus tour run by Our Country Deserves Better PAC, a conservative Political Action Committee created by Sacramento-based GOP consulting firm Russo, Marsh, and Associates.
Tea Party Express is sponsored and run by Our Country Deserves Better (OCDB), which is owned by Russo, Marsh, and Associates, a lobbying firm run by people (Howard Kaloogian and Sal Russo) who have political connections going back to Ronald Reagan. I don’t know their tax status. On their website, their partners include: OCDB, Free Republic, ResistNet, Tea Party Nation, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, Grassfire Nation, Michigan State Sovereignty, and some others.
Their slogan is "Just Vote Them Out." Their list of issues includes: Lower Taxes, Opposition To Bailouts, Strong National Defense, Secure Borders, Sound Energy Policy, and Judges Who Respect The Constitution. Here’s their statement of principles: "You, the politicians in Washington, have failed We The People with your bailouts, out-of-control deficit spending, government takeovers of sectors of the economy, Cap & Trade, government-run health care, and higher taxes! If you thought we were just going to quietly go away, or that this tea party movement would be just a passing fad, you were mistaken. We’re taking our country back!"
Funding: According to Talking Points Memo (here), roughly two-thirds of the money they spent in 2009 went to Russo, Marsh (the lobbyists who started the group):
Our Country Deserves Better (OCDB) spent around $1.33 million from July through November, according to FEC filings examined by TPMmuckraker. Of that sum, a total of $857,122 went to Sacramento-based GOP political consulting firm Russo, Marsh, and Associates, or people associated with it.
Tea Party Nation
The people from Tea Party Express like to jump in a bus and drive around the country. Tea Party Nation, on the other hand, likes to sponsor conventions and have people come to them. Their website is here (warning, you can’t get past the front page unless you register, which is something I refuse to do). From Wikipedia:
Tea Party Nation held a National Convention February 4–6, 2010. The event featured Sarah Palin as keynote speaker, but was criticized for charging $549 per ticket, as well as the fact that Palin was apparently paid $100,000 USD for her appearance. In the face of criticism by Tea Party activists, Palin has said she plans to donate the fee to unspecified conservative causes.
Their first convention was in Nashville. Sarah Palin showed up, but several other scheduled speakers cancelled. They’re now planning a second convention in July called "The National Tea Party Unity Convention" in Las Vegas.
Their statement of principles follows: "Tea Party Nation is a user-driven group of like-minded people who desire our God given Individual Freedoms which were written out by the Founding Fathers. We believe in Limited Government, Free Speech, the 2nd Amendment, our Military, Secure Borders and our Country!"
It’s run by a for-profit company registered in Tennessee by a DUI lawyer named Judson Phillips (entrepreneur, maybe, or con man?). The Nashville Convention was widely criticized by Freepers and Redstaters, even Fox News. In January, 2010, Erick Erickson wrote this:
I have much good to say about groups like Tea Party Patriots, but I think this national tea party convention smells scammy.
Let me be blunt: charging people $500.00 plus the costs of travel and lodging to go to a "National Tea Party Convention" run by a for profit group no one has ever heard of sounds as credible as an email from Nigeria promising me a million bucks if I fork over my bank account number.
For more information, here’s a link to Sourcewatch.
But wait, there’s more!
Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Express, and Tea Party Nation seem to be the big three – the national organizations that get the most attention. But there are a number of other, smaller groups (sorry, no links, but they’re easy to Google):
National Tea Party Federation: "A broad coalition of national and regional Tea Party groups." They have a secure login (and I refuse to join) with very little else on the main web page. The objectives they list are the same as TPP.
Americans for Prosperity: Astroturf group started by billionaire David Koch of Koch Industries (oil refining and pipelines).
The 912 Project: Glenn Beck started this. It’s not really a tea party and it’s got a religious bent. But there are close connections with various tea party groups. They believe in nine principles and twelve values.
Boston Tea Party:They’re planning a national convention (online only) in May. They will also have live events at the same time and same place as the Libertarian convention.
Tax Day Tea Party (aka Patriot Caucus): Sponsored by Liberty First PAC, started by Eric Odom, a libertarian blogger/activist from Chicago.
Tea Party of Nevada: They’ve registered as a third party and they have a candidate running for Harry Reid’s seat. And the Nevada Republicans are really angry at the prospect that he’ll siphon away votes.
Teaparty.org (aka 1776 Tea Party): Have you seen that photo of the guy holding the sign that says "Congress = Slave Owner/Taxpayer = Niggar"? That’s retired Naval officer, Dale Robertson, who registered the URL, teaparty.org. Later he tried to sell it on EBay. It’s a remarkably crappy web page, poorly designed, with a different typeface on every line. And for only $57.76, you can send a pink slip fax to every member of Congress!
Armed Forces Tea Party Patriots: This one was started by a (non-retired) Marine named Sgt. Gary Stein. His superiors told him he couldn’t criticize the commander-in-chief, so he took his Facebook page down, but later modified it.
Leadership Tea Party: They apparently teach classes where you can learn how to be a grassroots tea party leader. The next one is February, 2010. Oops. I guess the web page hasn’t been updated in a few months. Richard Viguerie is the keynote speaker. (Really? I thought he was dead.)
Nationwide Tea Party Coalition/Conservative Radical University: Started by some guy named Michael Patrick Leahy, who apparently teaches classes about how to be a conservative radical. And the cover of his book looks almost exactly like Saul Alinsky’s "Rules for Radicals" but with the word "conservative" added! The website hasn’t been updated since November 2009.
Facebook: I did a quick search and there are over 500 groups both for and against tea parties (lots of them with 1 or 2 fans). A lot of groups called "The Green Tea Party" (because dozens of people had the same not-very-funny idea). The Tea Party Union, sponsored by some guy in IL, has 5700 fans. The Tea Party Patriots page has 173,000 fans.
And that’s what I’ve discovered about the tea parties so far.