The Tea Party (TM) Brand
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Getting a Grip
The Tea Party(TM) Brand
by Michael I. Niman
Whose Tea Are We Drinking?
There’s a growing, media-generated consensus that, for better or for
worse, the Tea Party is enjoying a meteoric ascendancy and is on the
path to taking over the country.
I watched the news on TV. I saw the anchors gushing over Carl Paladino’s
landslide victory in the New York Republican gubernatorial primary. I
read about the upset Tea Party victories in Delaware and Alaska’s GOP
Still, despite the victories of a few high-profile, chest-thumping
fire-breathers spewing a disparate potpourri of ideological
contradictions, there really is no Tea Party.
This thing we call the Tea Party is a loose, acephalous—meaning headless
or leaderless—loose association of individuals. Acephalous movements
range in ideology from the pro-personal recovery Alcoholics Anonymous,
to the pacifist Rainbow Family, to the Critical Mass bicyclists
movement, to the murderous array of al Qaeda terror cells. Like the Tea
Party, these movements share an anarchist, nonhierarchical
decentralization—indestructible because there is no organization to
destroy or co-opt. As individual movements, they may or may not share
any other values.
There is one major way, however, that the Tea Party differs from most
every acephalous social or political movement across the globe. Other
acephalous movements matured into what they are today by evolving a
consensus regarding shared values and ideologies. The Rainbow Family,
for example, is committed to modeling a cooperative, nonhierarchical,
utopian society by creating spontaneous, nonviolent, city-sized
Gatherings around the world. Critical Mass cyclists unite to gather
enough bikers in one mobile mass as to dominate traffic and celebrate
the viability of cycling. Alcoholics Anonymous comes together as a
supportive, healing community fostering recovery from one particular
addiction. Al Qaeda coalesces around a shared fringe religious doctrine
and tactical belief. We can easily identify what these different
movements stand for, what their shared beliefs and values are.
The Tea Party, by contrast, does not have a set of shared beliefs and
values. Early descriptions of the Tea Party focus on core libertarian
beliefs in limiting the role of government and, in turn, limiting taxes
and the size and reach of government. Under this big umbrella, lots of
folks identified themselves as Tea Party—and perhaps the Tea Party
actually existed for a minute as a coherent movement.
Today, the Tea Party’s most visible symbol is Carl Paladino, now
internationally famous for his upset landslide New York State GOP
primary victory. The national media’s obsession with his candidacy
promises to keep him in the news for at least the rest of this year’s
Contrary to wanting to limit the role of government, however, two of
Paladino’s core campaign promises involve expanding the power and scope
of government. One Paladino promise entails expanding the reach of
eminent domain, the power of government to seize private property,
including property seizures based on the ethnicity of the owners. Though
eminent domain historically has been opposed by conservatives, Paladino
promises that, if elected governor of New York, he will use eminent
domain to seize private property currently under development as an
Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan.
The second Paladino expansion of government involves a promise to set up
a system of what he calls “Dignity Camps” for welfare recipients. Arbeit
The contradictions embodied by Paladino are stunning. He’s a
multi-millionaire whose fortune was bolstered by fat government
contracts, subsidies, and tax breaks. Yet he campaigns under an
anti-“ruling class” banner, calling for less of the very government that
continues to enrich him at the expense of taxpayers. He brands himself
as an insurgent running against both Democratic and Republican party
establishments, yet, in his hometown of Buffalo, he remains one of the
largest donors to both establishment parties.
Around the country, some Tea Party activists claim their party stands
for protecting abortion and reproductive rights, while other Tea
Partiers claim it stands for criminalizing abortion and other forms of
birth control. Tea Party spokespersons counter each other, claiming the
party stands both for and against gay marriage, for and against “Don’t
ask, don’t tell,” for and against the separation of church and state,
for and against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and so on. Some are
adamantly against racism, while others speak the language of white
These contradictions challenge the very notion that the Tea Party exists
as anything more than a vapid banner available for any opportunist to
co-opt. The Tea Party’s ideological vacuum stems from the fact that,
unlike the established acephalous organizations cited above, it lacks a
history. It never had the chance to evolve organically over years and
reach some sort of consensus defining a core set of shared ideologies
and values. Where the Rainbow Family and Critical Mass ideologies state
that no individual can speak for these movements, in the case of the Tea
Party, it seems anyone and everyone can take the liberty to speak for
the entire “movement.”
A cantankerous one-year-old
The Tea Party has a birthday: February 19, 2009. And it has a founder:
CNBC wonk Rick Santelli. On that day, standing on the floor of the
Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Santelli launched into a televised diatribe
against the Obama administration’s proposed, and as yet mostly
unfulfilled, promise to aid homeowners facing foreclosure. Arguing
against government help for “losers’ mortgages,” he called for a Chicago
“Tea Party” to be held in July.
His tirade went viral on YouTube, and within one week, there were 40
disparate Tea Parties around the country—but no coherent, unified
message. In April 2009, more than a quarter million Americans
participated in tax day Tea Party protests, and activists from all
around the political spectrum claimed the populist discontent as their
own. By July, angry protesters claiming to be from the Tea Party started
disrupting district meetings held by Democratic members of Congress. On
the first anniversary of Santelli’s rant, a group calling itself the
“Tea Party Nation” organized a for-profit “Tea Party Convention,” with
promoters charging self-proclaimed Tea Party representatives $549 a head
to attend, and paying Sarah Palin $100,000 to speak.
With its demonstrated selling power, the Tea Party brand became both a
coveted political asset and a perpetually sensationalistic headline for
a sound-bite-rich, substance-free corporate media culture. By the summer
of 2009, it seemed as if we were in the middle of a Tea Party
revolution, only there was, as there is today, still no coherent or
easily identifiable Tea Party. There was just noise, particularly from
radical right-wing media sound cannons like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh,
and their host of less-talented impersonators.
Charles, right, and David Koch, the multi-billion dollar bankroll behind
the Tea Party movement.
Bankrolling the party
Into this fray stepped the multi-billionaire brothers David and Charles
Koch, whose combined fortune is only bested by those of Bill Gates and
Warren Buffett. Together, the Koch brothers fully own Kansas-based Koch
Industries, identified by Forbes as the second largest private company
in the US, operating subsidiaries in oil refining and distribution,
lumber, agribusiness, chemicals, ranching, finance, paper, and mining. A
University of Massachusetts study named Koch Industries one of the
nation’s top 10 air polluters. Greenpeace calls the company a “kingpin
of climate science denial,” with the brothers and their business
interests allegedly outspending Exxon/Mobil in support of the climate
crisis denial propaganda industry. This includes funds for
anti-environmental think tanks, junk science, foundations and political
The Kochs are central to the Tea Party story. Through their political
lobby, Americans for Prosperity, they dominate the Tea Party brand
through the funding and organization of Tea Party branded events. For
example, the brothers are currently spending, according to public
campaign finance records available online at the California Secretary of
State’s website, $1 million dollars underwriting a California ballot
initiative, Proposition 24, aimed at repealing that state’s
groundbreaking environmental regulations curbing carbon emissions.
Included in their propaganda arsenal are a series of so-called Tea Party
rallies in support of Proposition 24.
Useful window dressing
The Tea Party appears to be useful window dressing in this otherwise
anti-populist effort to roll California’s popular climate change
legislation back to the dark ages. Likewise, manipulation by other
corporatist groups similar to Americans for Prosperity seems to have
successfully hijacked the Tea Party brand in service to just the sort of
entrenched oligarchy one would logically expect a populist movement to
unite against. Carl Paladino’s victory in New York typifies this
cooptation of populism in service to power.
All of this recent history serves to contextualize the infant Tea Party
as something other than the populist. acephalous movement its boosters
and the mass media claim it to be. Yes, it’s acephalous, but it has no
coherent ideological foundation to support it. Hence, rather than truly
being leaderless, it seems to have been hijacked by a progression of
self-proclaimed, or media-anointed, leaders and spokespeople. Its short
history has proven that its mantle is up for grabs, ready to be snatched
by whoever writes the fattest check.
Trashing the brand
Riddled by contradictions, and claimed by adherents of divergent
political and cultural beliefs, the Tea Party isn’t really a movement at
all. It’s just another brand projecting itself across the media torrent.
Like the Nike or Apple brand, it stands ready to serve and market
whatever product its stamped upon. Unlike running shoes and tank-tops,
or iPhones and iPads, opposing political ideologies can’t be marketed
under the same brand.
Eventually, when the Tea Party starts winning elections, and its diverse
constituencies realize who they’ve elected, the party will be over. In
its wake will be a Republican Party split in two, with social
conservatives on one side and fiscal libertarians on the other.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at
Buffalo State College. His previous Artvoice columns are available
globally through syndication and archived at mediastudy.com.
New book: _Weird Words: A Lovecraftian Lexicon_:
My collected fiction: _The Unspeakable and Others_
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News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
in charge on this island?
Professor: Why, no one.
Skipper: No one?
Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
-- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"