Everyone knows that the Tea Party was a spontaneous, populist uprising of ordinary Americans who were fed up with taxes and regulation and who, without national leadership or direction, created in 2009 a potent national force dedicated to “taking the country back.” According to a new academic study of the Tea Party’s origins, what everybody knows is wrong.
Of course, the Tea Party’s Creation Myth has never rung true to anyone with a passing familiarity with what it takes to organize a family reunion, let alone a national movement. Where did all those busses come from, we wondered as the plain people gathered in their thousands to demand the government keep its hands off their Medicare. Where did the money come from for all those professionally printed signs and the goofy hats? To rent those enormous and expensive venues for populist rage?
The answers are contained in a University of California study that — despite its odd title and strange patrimony — is exhaustive and authoritative in debunking the Tea Party myth. The title is obtuse: ‘To quarterback behind the scenes, third-party efforts’: the tobacco industry and the Tea Party. To which one’s initial response is: What? As to patrimony, the study was commissioned by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health. Again, What? Is the Tea Party like a cancer?
No, it turns out the study was aimed at the connection between Big Tobacco and the Tea Party. And it was conducted by the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. But what the study confirms is much bigger and more important that the role of tobacco lobbyists in midwifing the birth of the Tea Party. What it reveals is a massive fraud perpetrated not just on the targets of the Tea Party, but upon its members, who have no idea they are working against their own interests.
What the study was looking for, and documented, is interesting: Big Tobacco originated the widespread use of astro-turf (that is, synthetic grass-roots) organizations to influence legislators and regulators by appearing to express wide public support; and operatives experienced in these methods were used to create the Tea Party. It seems a stretch to suggest, as reports about the study do, that Big Tobacco was instrumental in creating the Tea Party. (The entire study is available here, but behind a pay wall.) The investigators were looking for Big Tobacco, but they found the Koch Brothers.
The Koch Brothers (Charles and David, a.k.a. Koch Industries, rhymes with Coke) run the second largest privately-held company in the United States. To spend a few minutes reading the list of familiar brands they own — and you buy — go here. To spend a few months comprehending the enormous amount of cash they spend eviscerating the power of government to tax them or regulate their activities, go here.
The organizational and financial bedrock of the sudden rise to prominence of the Tea Party in 2009 was, according to the UC analysis, the work and money of two organizations called “Americans for Prosperity” and “Freedomworks.” These were once one group, “Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE).” CSE was founded in 1984 by the Koch Brothers. Funded in part by Big Tobacco (over $5 million by one count), the group became expert at astro-turfing on behalf of tobacco companies — creating the impression that large populist organizations were coming together to oppose the regulation of cigarettes.
By 2002, the anti-anti-cigarette fight was pretty much over, and Big Tobacco companies such as Philip Morris were changing their names (Philip Morris became “Altria” — no bad associations there) and were acquiring legitimate companies like the Mafia buying up trash trucks. Now their biggest problems were not anti-smoking activists, but regulators and tax collectors. So in 2002, CSE rolled out a new chunk of astroturf: The Tea Party.
That’s right. Seven years before the rest of us ever heard of the Tea Party, it had a website and a low-tax, libertarian agenda. But no members.
It took seven years, plus the election of a black Democrat as President, plus the expenditure of untold millions of dollars, before the spontaneous upwelling of popular sentiment known as the Tea Party erupted in 2009.
The saddest thing about this sorry story is the duping of hundreds of thousands of decent people into working for the benefit of Koch Industries while thinking they are trying to take their country back. The country desperately needs a spontaneous uprising of ordinary people, it needs to be taken back — FROM the Koch Brothers, not FOR them.