There's a newly published study that's making a big splash right now. It implies that the Tea Party movement was founded, in part, by big tobacco. A story up on Huffington Post right now, "Study Confirms Tea Party Was Created by Big Tobacco and Billionaire Koch Brothers ", doesn't just imply this, however. It explicitly states it.
This is unfortunate because one, it isn't true, and two, it overshadows the true origins of the Tea Party which is still largely unknown and far more interesting.
But before I get to that, I want to acknowledge that the authors of the study did dig up a pretty interesting discovery. I spent about a year researching the origins of the Tea Party for another publication, and I didn't know that way back in the 90s, Burson Marsteller, the big PR firm that ran Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, proposed a plan to use the theme of "The New Boston Tea Party" to launch a campaign for the Coalition Against Regressive Taxation (CART), a front group for tobacco companies trying to lobby against excise taxes.
April 6, 1992
Mr. john Doyle
Director, Media Relations
American Trucking Associations
2200 Mill Rd.
Alexandria, Va. 22314-4677
Thank you for inviting Burson Marsteller to submit a strategic proposal to the Coalition Against Regressive Taxation...
Grounded in the theme of "The New American Tax Revolution" or "The New Boston Tea Party," the campaign activity should take the form of citizens representing the widest constituency base mobilized with signage and other attention-drawing accoutrements such as lapel buttons, handouts, petitions and even costumes.
This is a delightful find that sets the mind reeling (read the whole letter here
). What it doesn't do is advance the case that the tobacco lobby has been scheming in the shadows for the last 20 years to build a Tea Party movement, or that, in the spring of 2009, they had anything to do with it.
But as interesting as this is, the truth is, people have been trying to resurrect the Boston Tea Party theme since long before most of the people at Burson Marsteller were even born. A simple search through Google's News Archive will demonstrate that quite clearly. If you click and scroll, you'll see that scattered throughout the 20th Century, there were many attempts to resurrect that Tea Party script. The Chamber of Commerce tried it in 1957. And they have more ties to Freedomworks than big tobacco. So should we say the Tea Part has been in the works since the 50s?
That a tea party themed PR campaign was proposed by Burson Marsteller back in 1992 is somewhat interesting, but certainly not surprising. And it in no way proves an operative connection between anyone.
The other big find of the study is that the PR group Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), which back then, did work for big tobacco, split off and became Americans for Prosperity and Freedomworks, which is now behind the Tea Party. But the fact is, CSE wasn't just funded by big tobacco. Like all these groups, they were funded by a whole host of big, right wing corporations. Here's just a partial list of CSE's corporate clients/supporters:
Archer Daniels Midland
F.M. Kirby Foundation
U.S. Sugar Corp
By this same logic, all of these guys "created" the Tea Party, along with perhaps Hillary Clinton.
Look, it's true that many of the same players involved with CART back then are involved with Freedomworks and Americans for Prosperity groups now. But the truth is, the whole right wing PR front group racket is a big, incestuous crowd. Many go in the same circles, draw from the same talent pool, and work for all the same corporate interest groups. Finding a connection between Freedomworks, CSE, AFP, and any other organization or group, is like finding fish in a fish tank.
But what matters here is not just six degrees of Fred Koch, but an operational connection. And this study fails to present any evidence that even suggests that one existed in 2009 between the Tea Party PR campaign and big tobacco. Have no doubt that tobacco is still a client, along with scores of other banks and big businesses. But this study provides zero evidence that big tobaccos was the client that pulled the trigger on the "Operation Tea Party" in the spring of 2009.
The Important Part
Now this is why I think this is important enough to write up and risk offending some good people who've taken this story and run with: Trying to make the Tea Party movement about big tobacco only diverts away from the important story of how this Tea Party, the one of 2009-2013, really began.
For this story, we need to remember back to February of 2009. The country was still in shock from both the financial crisis, and the anger over the bailouts. Many don't remember this, but before the Tea Party came along, people were camping out in front of bankers houses. A groundswell of protest was rising. Foreshadowing the later Occupy movement, the people were getting riled up, and the oligarchs were getting frightened.
Part of this populist ascendency manifested itself in strong pressure for the newly sworn in president, and Democrats in Congress, to pass a strong housing rescue plan. Since taxpayers were being forced to bail out Wall Street banks, it didn't seem too much to ask for a little help for Main Street. Right? A lot of Democrats in Congress certainly thought so.
So, on February 18, 2009, one day after signing the stimulus bill, president Obama went to Mesa Arizona to announce his new Mortgage Relief Plan.
"We will help between 7 and 9 million families restructure or refinance their mortgages so they can avoid foreclosure,'' the president said. Good news to a lot of homeowners. Bad news to a lot of Wall Street sociopaths who feed off of foreclosed on properties. So called Vulture investors.
On February 19, 2009, the very next day after Obama announced his Mortgage Relief Plan, CNBC hosted guest billionaire, Wilbur Ross. Many people remember the February 19 appearance of Rick Santelli and his now infamous "rant." But few remember the guest who preceded him. This was Wilbur Ross. Ross got the ball rolling by railing against foreclosure relief. And why would he care? Because Wilbur Ross runs a Vulture Fund. He buys up distressed, foreclosed upon properties for cheap and and sells them higher.
So CNBC producers brought out Ross as the setup, and then Santelli as the main attraction so he could launch a spirited tirade against freeloading homeowners.
This is what launched the Tea Party:
...You know, the new administration’s big on computers and technology– How about this, President and new administration? Why don’t you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages...
REBECCA QUICK: Wow. Wilbur, you get people fired up.
SANTELLI: We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m gonna start organizing.
Now, after all this time, and countless hours investigating this story, I still cannot say for certain that Rick Santelli's "Chicago Tea Party" idea was related to the one that ended up taking off. Though highly improbable, it is possible that his tea party idea was independently conceived and the Freedomworks crowd saw an opportunity, took the ball and ran with it.
And even if the Santelli rant was part of the PR campaign set up by Freedomworks and company, which seems highly likely, it is still unclear who came up with the Tea Party part. Santelli didn't say to whom "We're" was referring. As I pointed out above, the Tea Party idea has been around for ages. Was Burson Marsteller involved in the campaign for the modern Tea Party? Did someone from the old days of the Koch club remember it and pull it off the shelf? We still don't know.
But one thing is clear, the Tea Party astroturf campaign was not about taxes, or tobacco, or freedom or any of that crap. It was about Wall Street. And it served two primary functions:
One, it was meant to put pressure on legislators, including moderate Republicans, to defeat the Democrats mortgage relief plan, and any future measures the Democrats might try to pass to appease the country's rising populist sentiments.
And two, it was a preemptive strike against a rising protest movement against the Wall Street.
This is a transcript for the March 27, 2009 episode of Bill Moyer's Journal with guest William Greider:
BILL MOYERS: I read just this morning that there's a nation wide grassroots protest planned for April 11th.
WILLIAM GREIDER: I know some of those kids.
BILL MOYERS: You do?
WILLIAM GREIDER: Yeah, no, I'm excited by it.
BILL MOYERS: They're young people who want to take on banking reform, and reform the financial systems, as a campaign, an ongoing witness.
WILLIAM GREIDER: I know. They call themselves A New Way Forward.
BILL MOYERS: New Way Forward.
WILLIAM GREIDER: And you can find them online. But I actually knew a couple of the organizers. I've been talking to them, for some years. And they're full of, you know, just...
Young people are part of my optimism. They smart kids, want to be engaged in their times, see the injustices of their society. And they don't quite trust the great, big existing organizations. And with some good reason, as you know. And particularly, they're not totally sold on the Democratic Party as the vessel of reform.
So they're now engaged in putting together the 11, 12, I'm sure they'd like to have 50, little bonfires around the country. These demonstrations. There's going be one in Washington and one in Wall Street, and a number of other cities. I think if people do those things with or without any help from big organizations, that collectively becomes the voice that tells Washington, we're on to your silly ideas that Wall Street wants you to do about reform. We see through them. And we have some ideas of our own. And we're going to come talk to you, and if you decline to talk to us, we're going to come after you. That's the voice of democracy speaking.
This protest never had a chance. For the past month, Fox News and countless right wing radio stations had been promoting the Tea Party protest for April 15, tax day. By the time April 11 came along, no one was even paying attention.
Perhaps you remember March and April of 2009. It was a spectacle of right wing crazy.
The planned protesters from the left didn't know what had hit them. The whole spectacle of angry right wingers blasting on TV daily intimidated a lot of people. And for many more, it soured them on the idea of protesting at all, lest they resemble the crazies.
It was ingenious. Straight from the counterinsurgency handbook. How do you stop a protest? You create an even bigger, counter protest. This technique has been used again and again from Iraq, Egypt, Libya to Europe. I've never seen it used so masterfully and effectively as in the spring of 2009.
The Tea Party idea may have been the brainchild of right wing corporate PR groups. But it was only possible with the help of the corporate television media. And not just Fox. Whoever pulled the trigger on Operation Tea Party has powerful friends. If Occupy Wall Street had had such friends, we'd probably be living in a different country by now.
So where is the Tea Party now? It's already served its primary function and there are forces on the right who are ready to retire it. Most post-election "analysis" I've seen by the plutocrat press appeared to be quietly showing them the exit. Maybe Freedomworks and company are trying to use them for pro tobacco stuff. But, as the heretofore discussed study pointed out, people aligned with the Tea Party poll out the same on anti-tobacco laws as normal people do. So I don't really see a lot of movement there.
But it was a good idea, from a PR perspective. Associate the right wing agenda with the Boston Tea Party patriots of American legend. It looks good on paper anyway, until you actually get to see these modern day patriots. Then the target of said PR campaign is likely to have an association inversion and start thinking the real Boston Tea Party was a lot creepier than Mrs. Barnacle's 4th grade textbook implied. PR only goes so far you know.
And one last thing. On April 15, 2009, the day of the Tea Party's first "big" protest, which also happened to be tax day, and almost exactly two months after president Obama announced his mortgage relief plan, the Wall Street Journal ran this story on their front page: