The ‘Tea Party’ comes in for close scrutiny in a new book by Anthony DiMaggio, which exposes that faction’s pretensions to be a real social movement as false, dominated as it is from the top-down by established right-wing forces, argues William Alderson.

Anthony DiMaggio, The Rise Of The Tea Party: Political Discontent & Corporate Media in the Age of Obama (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 288pp.

The Tea Party has been routinely presented in the US as an independent grass-roots movement which represents a widespread rebellion demanding that the Republican Party move to the right. In fact, such a combination is so contradictory as to be virtually impossible, and so it is unsurprising that Anthony DiMaggio confirms that the Tea Party is the opposite of this. As he shows, it is actually an attempt, organised by established Republican leaders, to re-brand the Republican Party and make its more extreme policies appear popular.

DiMaggio analyses the nature of the organisation of the Tea Party, the source of its political and financial support, the role of the media in constructing the Tea Party’s image, and the way that its existence influenced the debate over reform of the healthcare system. What he reveals is that the Tea Party has virtually no base, and is unable to draw on a dozen activists to build for a protest even in its heartland around Chicago. Meetings are dominated by Republican politicians and candidates for election, with little time provided for audience involvement in debate, planning or organisation. Its local activists, he explains, ‘are fundamentally ignorant as to what constitutes a social movement’ (p.100).

Far from being independent, the Tea Party includes among its key political supporters such well established Republican leaders as Dick Armey, former majority leader in the House of Representatives, and Sarah Palin, a vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 election. In a further hypocritical twist, 18 of the 29 Republicans in the Tea Party Caucus in late 2010 had been politicians long enough to have voted in favour of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999 and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act in 2000. The deregulation supported by these acts led to the very economic crisis in the banking sector which the Tea Party condemns (pp.57-8).
Financial support for the Tea Party has been substantial. The average amount contributed to the campaign of candidates for the House of Representatives in 2010 was $805,583, and for candidates to the Senate, $9,603,091. The source of these funds is also interesting, with the health and insurance sector among the top ten contributors in around 94% of campaigns, providing an average of $88,878 per Tea Party candidate (pp.64-5).

With so invisible a popular base and so great an involvement with the establishment for political and financial support, the Tea Party relied on the media to create in the public’s mind the wholly false image of it as a social movement. The comparisons DiMaggio makes between coverage of the Tea Party and genuine social movements are particularly striking. To take just one example, four key media outlets described the 2010 Tea Party marches (turn-out up to 200,000) as a movement in 106 articles, whereas only 48 articles described the global anti-war protests of 2003 (turn-out 6-10 million) as a movement (p.114).

Having shown how Republican influence over the media could lead to the public being deceived about the Tea Party, DiMaggio goes on to show how this device was used to manipulate public opinion on the issue of healthcare by controlling what was discussed. On the one hand, this involved shifting the debate away from specifics (where most people agreed with the proposals) and onto generalities (which could be made confusing). On the other hand, it involved inventing threats. For example, in July 2009 Sarah Palin claimed, without justification, that the Democrats planned to set up ‘death panels’ which would decide who would be treated. As a result, the media focussed on this spurious issue and ignored the tens of thousands of Americans already dying due to lack of access to healthcare (p.164). In fact, between July and September 2009, the proportion of people who were following the healthcare debate closely and found it hard to understand actually increased to over 60% (p.205)!

The research about the Tea Party in this book is generally detailed and thorough (though I should mention that there are some frustrating errata which I have listed at the end of the review). The only issue which I feel should not have been ignored is the evidence of a reduction in public opposition to the healthcare reform between October 2009 and March 2010 (pp.190-1) at a time when DiMaggio argues that support for the Tea Party’s ideas was growing.

Apart from all this detail, however, there is another crucial aspect which DiMaggio identifies in the opening words of his introduction: This book is not simply about the Tea Party. Rather, it is an exploration of the ways in which business interests dominate society through the power of ideas and the pull of material influence (p.9).

Most chillingly, he later remarks that … so many prominent pundits on the left [were] unable to recognize the Tea Party’s elitist top-down organization structure. That a majority of those writing in the media cannot distinguish between real and artificial movements is troubling for those calling for a renewed grassroots movement politics in order to pursue progressive change. (p.123)

The history and nature of the Tea Party is not an academic issue, nor one confined to politics or to the US. What this book makes clear is that it is imperative that socialists learn to recognise this process of manipulating the media to deny access to full information and of creating of spurious ‘independent’ and ‘popular’ opposition.

In his analysis of the motives for the attacks on healthcare reform in the US DiMaggio comments that: Even such limited reforms are seen as unacceptable by conservatives and business elites, because they potentially benefit the masses as well as the healthcare industry (p.152, original emphasis).

He is writing as an expert in ‘the study of mass media and public opinion’ (back cover), but he overlooks a fundamental point peculiar to healthcare. Society in general benefits from the population being healthy, but the healthcare industry profits from people being unhealthy. The greater the degree of public control over healthcare, the greater the tendency for it to establish the aim of increasing public health and reducing necessary care. The greater the control of private business over healthcare, the greater the tendency to generate illness. In this context it is no surprise that ‘the United States, as the only country with private healthcare in the first world, provides the worst quality of care for its citizens at the greatest cost’ (p.164).

At a time when the government in the UK has taken a major step towards abolishing all public control over healthcare, and when alternatives to pharmaceutical companies are still under major assault, this book has lessons which I hope it will not be too late for us to learn.

Notable Errata

•    In Table 1.3 the value for average campaign contributions to incumbent Democrats in the House of Representatives is identical with that for all incumbents. Either the former value should be $1,489,237, or the latter should be $1,380,285 (p. 63). N.B. All the figures are out of date.
•    The word ‘more’ in Table 4.1, first column, second box should be ‘less’ (p.141).
•    There is no Figure 5.1, but only a duplicate Figure 5.2 (p.156).
•    Table 6.1 lists only 10 questions instead of 13, and questions 4 and 5 are identical (p.178).