The Tea Party: A Corporate-Funded Astroturf Project

The “tea party” protests are part of a corporate-funded political project. It’s what the industry calls “astroturf,” or fake grassroots organizing, designed to advance corporate interests over the public interest. As such, the tea party phenomenon is an excellent illustration how corporate power and ideology are used to manipulate people and public opinion. Astroturf has proven to be an extremely successful tactic for industry. I wrote about astroturf in my article “The US Anti-Environmental Countermovement,” published in 2002 by the Sociological Spectrum, so you can seek out that article for more detail.

An Astroturf movement: the “tea party”

In one of the more notorious expressions of the phenomenon, the Republican Party organized a mob to harass vote counters and disrupt the vote count in the 2000 election in Florida. They succeeded in shutting down the Miami-Dade County count, which would have produced more votes for Gore (there were 10,750 previous uncounted ballots in a heavily Democratic district). Bush only led by fewer than 600 votes. The 2000 presidential election was a stolen election. That is the power of fake grassroots.

Much of the media portrayed the mob as “spontaneous,” manufacturing the illusion that there was a popular rebellion against counting votes. The “rioters” were in fact Republican Party operatives. The common sense notion that people do not spontaneously riot over counting votes in a democracy did not seem to count in the minds of most journalists covering the story. They did not find this suspicious. (At least they did not let on that they did.) And even those media sources that reported the truth had no effect because the cable and network news media didn’t put it in the echo chamber. The votes were never counted (nor were thousands of other votes in Florida), and George W. Bush was installed as US president by the Supreme Court. In other words, democracy did not happen in the 2000 presidential election in part because of an astroturfed event. And none of the perpetrators were ever punished for violating election law.

The tea party (or “tea bagger”) protests are only the latest venture of organized corporate power to manufacture the illusion of popular support for pro-corporate policies when the real mission is to thwart democracy. 

The tea party is organized by several corporate-backed and staffed groups, but foremost among them are FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and American Solutions for Winning the Future. These organizations provide logistical support and public relations assistance to protesters, who are joined by industry confederates to direct activities on the ground. FreedomWorks coordinates conference calls among protesters, teaches them how to plan events and write press releases, provides them with how-to guides on how to deliver a clear message, and gives them templates for sign construction. FreedomWorks has established several Internet domain addresses—making them appear to be the work of amateurs—to promote the protests. Americans for Prosperity and American Solutions for Winning the Future engage in the same types of activities.

FreedomWorks is run by Dick Armey, former high ranking Republican congressman who left politics to work for industry public relations. Armey is a right-wing extremist. I could give you several examples of his extremism, but here’s an obvious one that goes straight to the matter of his ideological worldview. In a recent debate with Joan Walsh on Chris Matthews television program Hardball, Armey mocked Walsh saying, “I am so damn glad that you can never be my wife cause I surely should not have to listen to that prattle from you every day.”

Americans for Prosperity is run by Tim Phillips, a partner in Ralph Reed’s lobbying firm Century Strategies (the parent company of Millennium Marketing, a commercial PR firm). Phillips is a long-time Republican Party operative, as is Reed. Americans for Prosperity is funded by Koch family foundations. Koch Industries is the second largest privately-held company in the United States. It is the largest privately owned energy company in the country. Koch industries made most of its money in the oil refining business, but it holds interests in chemical, fertilizer, and forest products. Americans for Prosperity is also connected to oil giant ExxonMobil. Remember the “grassroots” movement “Drill Here, Drill Now” protests? That was the work of Americans for Prosperity. 

Also organizing the tea baggers is former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He heads up the American Solutions for Winning the Future. Gingrich was part of the same Congressional leadership team as Armey when they were Republican Party officials. They engineered the “Contract with America” campaign of the 1990s that aimed to slash government programs for vulnerable populations. Republicans pushing the agenda in the House compared poor children to “alligators” and “wolves.”

Like Armey, Gingrich is a right-wing extremist. In his Reinhardt College address, “Renewing American Civilization,” on January 7, 1995, Gingrich said in explaining why women shouldn’t serve in combat: “If combat means living in a ditch, females have biological problems staying in a ditch for thirty days because they get infections and they don’t have upper body strength. I mean, some do, but they’re relatively rare. On the other hand, men are basically little piglets, you drop them in the ditch, they roll around in it, doesn’t matter, you know. These things are very real. On the other hand, if combat means being on an Aegis-class cruiser managing the computer controls for twelve ships and their rockets, a female may be again dramatically better than a male who gets very, very frustrated sitting in a chair all the time because males are biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes.”

Gingrich provides tea partiers with talking points and sends e-mails to his supporters instructing them to go to the tea party events and help direct the protests. Gingrich’s outfit is heavily funded by polluting corporations, as well. Peabody Energy, which used to be Peabody Coal, is one of the ASWF’s major contributors. This explains why ASWF is so big on laying astroturf around burning coal (a major source of global warming pollution). Have you seen this campaign? They get a bunch of average-looking Americans standing around chanting about how great coal is. Right, that happens all the time. Next we will see rallies for nuclear reactors.

The tea party astroturf campaign is heavily pushed by the corporate media, particularly Fox News, which has been exposed organizing protesters and leading them in anti-government chants. Here’s a sampling of the broader Fox News PR campaign for the tea bag protests put together by Media Matters. Note how Fox News commentators admit that Fox News got the map from Newt Gingrich. 

The other news organizations cite conservative numbers of millions and liberal numbers of thousands and chalk up the discrepancy to ideological bias, leaving the viewer to suppose that maybe the millions number could be correct. But the new media is supposed to report the facts, and the fact is that these rallies are small compared to, say, anti-war rallies, which are almost never covered by the corporate news media. 

The numbers of the largest tea bag rally, which was the march on Washington, was somewhere between 25,000 and 60,000 persons. That’s respectable numbers, but nowhere near millions or even hundreds of thousands of people claims. Pictures were floated on the Internet showing the massive tea party crowd with the claim that there is no way this could only be tens of thousands. However, the photos turned out to be more than a decade old, taken in 1997 and had nothing to do with the tea baggers (they were quickly exposed as fakes because they don’t include the National Museum of the American Indian, which is located on the corner of Fourth Street and Independence Avenue, which did not open until late 2004).

If we think about it for a moment, we shouldn’t expect that right-wing rallies would be the equivalent of the massive rallies we see emerging from the left in quality or quantity. Protests and movements supporting corporate interests and opposing popular democratic desires are not naturally emergent mass phenomenon; they therefore must be organized. It would be odd indeed for any significant proportion of the majority of humanity—workers, women, persons of color—to rise up and oppose their own interests. Indeed, when such movements wane, we wonder why the people have become passive. Movements—or more accurately countermovements on the right, represent the interests of a small proportion of the population and therefore have to be concocted by and mass marketed by elite groups like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks. 

I think we would all recognize that a pro-war rally would almost always have to be a manufactured thing. Organically speaking. Drives for war are elite-manufactured phenomenon (which is why we don’t debate them). So why would it strike anybody who spent any time thinking about it that ordinary Americans would in any great numbers naturally protest against universal health care and environmental protection, two things broadly and consistently supported by the public?

To be sure, the right can often make their projects appear successful because of the amount of money power and wealth its members possess. Corporations manufactured the New Right movement—with its network of foundations and think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation—that, once in power, dismantled much of the New Deal. It was major corporations that backed the neoconservatives who manufactured the threats that politicians used to justify invading other countries and limiting our civil rights. It wasn’t like the masses were going to tear down the good stuff or desire to invade countries that had never attacked us or give up their Constitutionally-protected freedoms, so corporations had to do it.

This is easy to see if we look at other moments in history. Under feudalism, for example, the king’s interests were obviously contrary to the interests of his subjects; but, because of his power and wealth, he could be heard, and he could always find a mob to defend his interests against popular forces seeking greater freedom. The illusion was that the king had the numbers on his side. But the reality is that he didn’t have greater numbers on his side, or especially the majority on his side. He had a lot of power to deceive people so he could exploit them more. And he had this power because he, and the nobility he served, controlled the wealth the serfs produced with their labor. This is a general principle of class-based societies: the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas. When you control the material means of production, you control the ideological means of production.

It is worth noting that similar tactics were used by corporations in Germany and Italy during the fascist countermovement. Corporations funded gangs of disaffected citizens, coordinated by right-wing intellectuals, and legitimated by former army officers and small business owners, to harass labor union meetings and disrupt progressive political rallies. Some of these groups eventually organized themselves around notions of military rank and discipline, for example the paramilitary Blackshirts in Italy and the Brownshirts in Germany. There are always reactionary members of the working class that can be mobilized by right-wing forces to thwart popular democracy. Tragically, a lot of good-hearted people get caught up in these things.

Studying the tea party events reveals that unwitting participants typically have a poor and frequently confused understanding of political and economic power, process, and history. For example, one of the claims made at the rallies—you see it written all over the signs—is the claim that Obama is a “socialist.” Socialism is an economic system in which the means of production—resources, tools, machines, buildings, investment capital, etc.—are owned and controlled by the working people to their benefit. Under socialism, corporations go away. Under socialism, the president doesn’t hand over taxpayer money to big financial institutions. Socialists don’t assemble a team of Wall Street insiders to serve as advisers to the president. The notion that Obama is a socialist is ludicrous on its face when you have an understanding of the idea and the history of socialism.

Another claim made by tea baggers is that Obama is a “fascist.” The signs often claim Obama is simultaneously a socialist and a fascist. Pictures of socialist leaders appear alongside Hitler’s picture. Obama’s pictures are modified to make him look like Hitler. Again, if you know the idea and history of fascism, you know that these depictions are absurd (you also know that fascism and socialism are opposites). Fascism is a right-wing corporatist capitalist ideology and practice. Fascists were organized and bankrolled by big industry and big finance capital to smash the left, the labor movement and democratic parties. And while it is true that state monopoly capitalism in the Untied States presents with fascistic elements—military patriotism, perpetual warfare, oppressive criminal justice system, white supremacy—the Democrats are political centrist or center-right, not right wingers. Ever since Woodrow Wilson, Democrats have been establishment progressives. Democrats support rights for gays and lesbians, minorities, women, and immigrants—all causes opposed by the right. Whatever Obama may be, he is not a fascist.

What we are looking at here is a disinformation machine, one that dispenses images of Obama and the Democrats that are erroneous, organized by political front organizations for big corporations, designed to undermine the interests of working people, while advancing the interests of monopoly capitalism, while integrating disaffected and reactionary elements of the working class into anti-democratic reactionary cells. The purpose of all this is to send flak in the direction of the Democrats to constrain their ability to do the things they were elected to do, as well as create the appearance of a mass movement of people opposing progressive government policies, so that viewers at home will think, “Where’s there’s smoke there’s fire, so maybe I should jump on board this tea party thing.” That’s astroturf in a nutshell.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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