Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saul Allinsky-type

What You’d Find at a Real Tea Party

Unlike most of the mainstream media and punditocracy, Glenn Reynolds has been to a lot of tea party protests, interviewed scores of activists, and spent time to understand what they  are all about. Not surprisingly, the mainstream-media portrait bears only a passing resemblance to the real thing.

For starters, there is the tone. Reynolds writes of the Nashville gathering and the movement more generally:

Pundits claim the tea partiers are angry — and they are — but the most striking thing about the atmosphere in Nashville was how cheerful everyone seemed to be. I spoke with dozens of people, and the responses were surprisingly similar. Hardly any had ever been involved in politics before. Having gotten started, they were finding it to be not just worthwhile, but actually fun. Laughter rang out frequently, and when new-media mogul Andrew Breitbart held forth on a TV interview, a crowd gathered and broke into spontaneous applause.

Nor is the group merely waiting for Sarah Palin to sweep them off their feet. (“Press attention focused on Sarah Palin’s speech, which was well-received by the crowd. But the attendees I met weren’t looking to her for direction. They were hoping she would move in theirs. Right now, the tea party isn’t looking for leaders so much as leaders are looking to align themselves with the tea party.”) And these are hardly a bunch of racists, as Chris Matthews et al. would have us believe. It seems they are backing a number of African American candidates. (To echo Pete’s point, Tom Tancredo does the tea partiers no favors by spouting racial venom and peddling in conspiracy theories; activists as well as elected officials would do well to reject his eagerness to “play to people’s worst instincts.”)

What the tea party activists do have is a well formulated set of ideas — small government, debt reduction, spending restraint, and an aversion to hurried, secret deal making. It is an agenda that is resonating with conservatives and independent voters who see the opposite behavior in Washington.

This is, as much as anything else, yet another “mainstream media misses the boat” story. First they ignored and ridiculed the tea party activists. Now the media misrepresent them to the point of deliberate distortion. The media’s distorted characterization is not simply a matter of getting the details wrong, I think. This is, just as surely as that Big Labor slush fund, an effort to kill the movement in its crib and discredit it among average Americans. Treating them as rubes, extremists, religious nuts, and racists seems to be a bit of Saul Allinsky-type strategy. (“Pick the Target, Freeze It, Personalize It  and Polarize It,” was Alinsky’s mantra.)  But the media is less and less credible and the tea-party activists are doing a good job of getting their own message out.

In a contest between the elite media and the tea-party protesters for control of the message, I’m betting on the latter. For one thing, the tea-party activists’ numbers are increasing while the elite media is shrinking. That should tell you something about their relative health.

Unlike most of the mainstream media and punditocracy, Glenn Reynolds has been to a lot of tea party protests, interviewed scores of activists, and spent time to understand what they  are all about. Not surprisingly, the mainstream-media portrait bears only a passing resemblance to the real thing.

For starters, there is the tone. Reynolds writes of the Nashville gathering and the movement more generally:

Pundits claim the tea partiers are angry — and they are — but the most striking thing about the atmosphere in Nashville was how cheerful everyone seemed to be. I spoke with dozens of people, and the responses were surprisingly similar. Hardly any had ever been involved in politics before. Having gotten started, they were finding it to be not just worthwhile, but actually fun. Laughter rang out frequently, and when new-media mogul Andrew Breitbart held forth on a TV interview, a crowd gathered and broke into spontaneous applause.

Nor is the group merely waiting for Sarah Palin to sweep them off their feet. (“Press attention focused on Sarah Palin’s speech, which was well-received by the crowd. But the attendees I met weren’t looking to her for direction. They were hoping she would move in theirs. Right now, the tea party isn’t looking for leaders so much as leaders are looking to align themselves with the tea party.”) And these are hardly a bunch of racists, as Chris Matthews et al. would have us believe. It seems they are backing a number of African American candidates. (To echo Pete’s point, Tom Tancredo does the tea partiers no favors by spouting racial venom and peddling in conspiracy theories; activists as well as elected officials would do well to reject his eagerness to “play to people’s worst instincts.”)

What the tea party activists do have is a well formulated set of ideas — small government, debt reduction, spending restraint, and an aversion to hurried, secret deal making. It is an agenda that is resonating with conservatives and independent voters who see the opposite behavior in Washington.

This is, as much as anything else, yet another “mainstream media misses the boat” story. First they ignored and ridiculed the tea party activists. Now the media misrepresent them to the point of deliberate distortion. The media’s distorted characterization is not simply a matter of getting the details wrong, I think. This is, just as surely as that Big Labor slush fund, an effort to kill the movement in its crib and discredit it among average Americans. Treating them as rubes, extremists, religious nuts, and racists seems to be a bit of Saul Allinsky-type strategy. (“Pick the Target, Freeze It, Personalize It  and Polarize It,” was Alinsky’s mantra.)  But the media is less and less credible and the tea-party activists are doing a good job of getting their own message out.

In a contest between the elite media and the tea-party protesters for control of the message, I’m betting on the latter. For one thing, the tea-party activists’ numbers are increasing while the elite media is shrinking. That should tell you something about their relative health.

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