Tea Party Astroturf vs. Grassroots: Does it Really Matter Anymore?
This much is clear: on and around April 15th, conservatives around the nation will hold Tax Day Tea Parties to protest, among other things, President Obama’s wasteful spending, prospective tax hikes on the rich, and other pet issues. What I’m not so clear on is the battle being waged between liberals and conservatives over the significance and “authenticity” of the protests.
Two basic storylines have emerged. If the themed Tea Party events are being secretly organized by outfits like Richard Armey’s FreedomWorks and then systematically promoted by FoxNews then they’re “phony” “fake grassroots” and thus have no real legitimacy. But if they rose up without any real central marching orders, spontaneously bursting into life from the depths of #tcot on Twitter, then they’re organic and true, tapping into an as-yet unappreciated populist rage over public spending and higher taxes on millionaires.
Now, obviously, each side of the political spectrum has an interest in promoting their preferred storyline. Liberals like the idea that a bunch of wealthy lobbyists who really only care about higher tax rates on the rich are trying to fool the (rest of the) media and home viewers into seeing a revolution where none exists. Conservatives like the idea that there’s an army of pissed off everyday folks who are so sick of seeing Obama spend away our GDP that they’re literally bursting out of their front doors to take to the streets (or the coffeeshops, at least).
The problem is, I can’t really figure out why I’m supposed to care about the difference between these two stories anymore. The whole debate over what’s authentic and what’s manufactured seems increasingly meaningless: rooted in the thoroughly elitist vision of a few powerbrokers manipulating amassed rubes. But in this day and age, the “rubes” are mostly fully aware and active participants in the game.
These days, everyone’s meta, everyone is a wanna-be content-creator, everyone “gets” the importance of political organizing and grabbing media attention. People play along or not with this or that mass event for their own purposes, to help promote what they see as their own causes and opinions. And whether it’s some lobbyist calling up a donor list to get people to organize national events, Glen Beck bloviating from above, or if people are simply calling each other up out of the blue, we’re still talking about what is essentially some swath of willing conservatives putting on a show of power for the rest of us. Hoping for more coverage of their arguments and concerns. Liberals can certainly accuse these concerns of being misguided or hypocritical. But I don’t see any dupes amongst the Tea Partiers, or any real lack of sincerity, for that matter.
In the end, the success or failure of things like Tea Party events rests almost entirely on the sheer number of bodies that show up and get involved. The question of exactly how they’ve been organizing is a fascinating one, but it really doesn’t alter the final equation in terms of either real activist passion or effective political power. “Authenticity,” as a measure, seems almost meaningless. Every participant is a “Man-Behind-the-Curtain” in this sort of modern production.
Of course, the really oddity here is that actual, concrete public opinion and outrage is pretty easy to measure these days. Polls may not be perfect instruments, particularly when the questions aren’t well phrased. But they’re usually close enough for broad generalizations about the overall direction and patience of the voting public. That means that anyone who’s honestly interested in the number of people who oppose Obama’s spending plans can find out fairly easily. And the media’s hand-wringing attempts to discern what the public really thinks, especially by the roundabout means of covering and analyzing these sorts of message events, seem a little pointless and overwrought.