Authors: Dick Armey
By the time President Obama arrived in Phoenix, the nascent Tea Party movement was beginning to gain steam. “In two weeks I went from being virtually alone to standing with a crowd of more than five hundred people. This is when I realized momentum was building.”
After returning to Florida, Mary began working to prepare for the national round of tea parties scheduled for February 27, 2009. “I took my small but growing e-mail list, and with the help of a few new friends, we had a Tea Party on Fort Myers beach. More than forty people showed up, and this time the paper and local TV were there to cover it.”
On April 1, a Tea Party event was held in Cape Coral and the number of attendees swelled to three hundred. “We didn't have a stage, but we brought a stump and a megaphone,” Mary recalled. “You could only keep speaking as long as you kept getting thumbs-up from the crowd.”
At the April 15 tax day protest in Fort Myers, more than two thousand citizen activists gathered to make their voices heard. “Now the press was really taking us seriously,” Mary said.
As the health care debate heated up in Washington during the summer, Mary and her local group redoubled their efforts. “We had ten separate events outside of our local congressmen and senators' offices. We called, we wrote letters, and we marched. We were making our voices heard and getting more and more people involved in the political process. It was empowering.”
After a summer of activism, Mary and her husband, Ron, decided to join their fellow citizens from across the country and participate in a march planned for September 12 in Washington. She had come too far to turn back now.
OMETHING WAS GOING ON
outside the Beltway, out in America. People were indeed starting to speak out against those in charge, those who were mismanaging the public purse and abusing the public trust. And the establishmentâthe politicians, opinion leaders, the vested interestsâstarted to notice. And before long, they felt threatened.
By April 2009 one leading indicator of the Tea Party's growing effectiveness was its expanding chorus of critics. They lashed out at the citizens who did not fit comfortably into the categories that normally defined politics as usual. The growing power and positive impact of this citizen revolt could now be measured in inverse proportion to the outrageousness of the claims about it and the attacks leveled against it.
It started with two left-wing bloggersâsuffering from a deep state of denialâin a particularly vitriolic post at Playboy.com. Their claim, as implausible as it seemed, was that the entire protest movement against an out-of-control government was completely phony, a contrived conspiracy. They called it “Astroturfing.” These were not real people with real concerns, they claimed, but a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign designed by partisan mercenaries to stop Barack Obama from achieving his destiny.
As veteran Russia reporters
, both of us spent years watching the Kremlin use fake grassroots movements to influence and control the political landscape. To us, the uncanny speed and direction the movement took and the players involved in promoting it had a strangely forced quality to it. If it seemed scripted, that's because it was. . . . All of these roads ultimately lead back to a more notorious right-wing advocacy group, FreedomWorks, a powerful PR organization headed by former Republican House Majority leader Dick Armey.
This paranoid fantasy about what they termed the “FreedomWorks mega beast” should never have seen the light of day. Indeed,
quickly removed the post from its site. But not before the “Astroturfing” narrative was picked up by the liberal economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman. On April 11, 2009, he referred to FreedomWorks as the “Armey of Darkness
” behind the Tea Party movement on his blog. Krugman repeated the story, virtually unchanged, in the
New York Times
on April 12. “It turns out that the tea parties don't represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment,” he wrote. “They're Astroturf [fake grass roots] events
, manufactured by the usual suspects. In particular, a key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey, the former House majority leader, and supported by the usual group of right-wing billionaires. And the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by Fox News.”
Now everyone was repeating it. After all, it was in the
New York Times
. Three days later, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi parroted the fiction: “This [Tea Party] initiative is funded by the high end
âwe call it Astroturf; it's not really a grassroots movement. It's Astroturf by some of the wealthiest people in America to keep the focus on tax cuts for the rich instead of for the great middle class.”
During the 2008 debate over President Bush's first tranche of what would be many bad taxpayer investments, totaling hundreds of billions of dollars, designed to prop up bad mortgages, Matt Kibbe was arguing with a reporter over activist participation with a FreedomWorks Web site called AngryRenter.com. Tens of thousands of very real people had signed our Angry Renter petition against the bailout, many leaving comments that reflected an economic wisdom woefully lacking in Washington. It was fake grass roots, the reporter claimed. “Well,” Matt responded, “what do you consider real grass roots?”
“I'm conducting this interview,” the reporter answered. “I don't have to define my terms.”
In truth, the definition of
sometimes depends on what side of the debate you are on. It depends on what the meaning of the word
New critics started speaking up, sporadically at first, as willful ignorance of this rising tide of citizen discontent gave way to the realities. The social status of each voice seemed to increase as well, from the lunatic fringe to respectable scions of the Democratic establishment, as the status quo felt more challenged, more threatened, more at risk of losing power. The critics came from the left and the right of the political spectrum. They came from fringy bloggers and left-wing talk show hosts. Then they came from the mainstream media, think tanks, and elected officials.
Eventually, the biggest of big dogs started to bark: House speakers, former presidents, even The Man himself. The Obama administration itself would ultimately play the Astroturf card to explain the wave of opposition to the President's health care plan that arose at the congressional town hall meetings in August 2009. At an August 17 press gaggle aboard Air Force One, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked to identify which special interests were opposing their hostile takeover of the health care system. “Dick Armey's group is out there
,” he responded, “actively getting people to go to town halls and yell at members of Congress.”
HE PRESIDENT WAS DEMANDING
that legislators rush a health care bill through Congress before the August recess. Another hurried, opaque, secretive legislative fire drillâreplete with backroom deals cut behind closed doors with powerful pharmaceutical and health insurance interests. It's not difficult to understand why folks might get frustrated, even angry, that another trillion-dollar proposal, particularly on a topic as personal as your family's health care, was to be hurried to the president's desk and signed into law without a full, transparent, and honest debate.
It sure seemed like official Washington was willfully ignoring the wishes of its constituents, didn't it?
It seemed that way, because it was that way. In an undisciplined moment of inconvenient candor after the election, the new White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told the
Wall Street Journal,
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” There was a short window for the new Obama administration, “an opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before
So the American people flooded town halls in August, prepared to ask tough questions about the Democrats' health care proposal. They showed up in droves because Washington was trying “to do things that you could not do before,” just like it did with the stimulus bill in February and with the Wall Street bailout the prior fall.
As the Tea Party grew, the Democrats and their allies let their deepest insecurities get the best of them. The public was starting to understand! Accusations of Astroturf quickly gave way to uglier smears against the grassroots citizens who opposed big-government policies.
On August 10, 2009, Nancy Pelosi and House majority leader Steny Hoyer published an opinion editorial in
entitled “ âUn-American' Attacks Can't Derail Health Care Debate.” “It is now evident,” they argued, “that an ugly campaign
is under way not merely to misrepresent the health insurance reform legislation, but to disrupt public meetings and prevent members of Congress and constituents from conducting a civil dialogue.”
Before the August recess, Pelosi had let another of her own insecurities slip out, responding to reporters asking her about the failure to complete a bill by the end of July. “I'm not afraid of August
,” she said. “It's a month.” Was she goading citizens into actionâto rise up and prove her wrong?
Well, that's exactly what they did.
Once upon a time, the American Left celebrated grassroots participation in town hall meetings and a full-throated legislative debate as one of the very best American traditionsâthe vanguard of participatory democracy. This was the stuff of Norman Rockwell paintings. This was Freedom of Speech, circa 2009. They ought to have lauded these brave citizens for their willingness to get informed and challenge the political wisdom of the ruling class. That's part of what it means to be an American, right?
We've been involved in public policy debates long enough to know that when someone is losing an argument based on the facts, they try to change the subject. Thus liberals' hysterical reaction to the rising public opposition to their hostile government reboot of the American health care system. Thus Democrats' hostile attacks on the citizens who overwhelmed congressional town hall meetings over the August recess. It was “un-American.”
ILLFUL DENIAL EVENTUALLY GAVE
way to ridicule and mockery, starting with juvenile locker room humor. On an April 14 report, CNN's Anderson Cooper opted for dirty jokes
rather than his heavily branded expertise in investigative journalism, joking on-air that “it's hard to talk when you're teabagging” to a stunned audience. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow actually managed to say the words
an amazing sixty-three times during a seven-minute segment on the April 15 tax day protests. This tasteless double entendre soon became good fun for the Far Left, seemingly a useful substitute for substantive policy arguments. Eventually, it too worked its way from the unserious fringes to the Oval Office.
On November 30, President Obama himself would pick up the derogatory phrase, telling Jonathan Alter that Republican opposition to his politically disastrous stimulus bill “helped create the teabaggers
and empowered that whole wing of the Republican Party where it now controls the agenda for the Republicans.”
Then the ridicule and mockery gave way to straight-up hate.
“THEY'RE CARRYING SWASTIKAS AND
symbols like that
to a town meeting on health care,” Nancy Pelosi said of health care town hall participants, implying that at least some of these citizen activists were Nazis. At the same time, liberal politicians and their allies were decrying the Obama is Hitler motif that they claimed dominated Tea Partier signage. The media loved to show photographs depicting protesters with a poster of Obama sporting Adolf Hitler's infamous mustache. The image made it into virtually every news story about the Tea Party movement. The sign did indeed appear at some protest rallies. But they never pointed out that the signs were carried by the leftist supporters of Lyndon LaRouche. These folks had nothing to do with the Tea Party movement, either organizationally or philosophically. It's hard to know what they want exactly (they used to protest with signs of George W. Bush with the same addition of facial hair), but it was easy to see they weren't Tea Party activists. At least to those who cared to look.
MyBarackObama.com, the Web site for the partisan advocacy organization that replaced Organizing for Obama after the 2008 presidential election ended, took the rhetoric to a whole new level. In an effort to generate counterpressure for Obamacare, on September 11, they issued a call to action for “Patriots Day, designated in memory of the nearly three thousand who died in the 9/11 attacks. All fifty states are coordinating in thisâas we fight back against our own right-wing domestic terrorists
who are subverting the American democratic process.”
This post was quickly removed after Tea Partiers called them out, but the Democratic establishment continued to pursue this offensive narrative. Talk about out of touch with reality. The Democrats, suffering from a wicked case of rhetorical whiplash, went straight from calling Tea Partiers phony to senior White House adviser David Axelrod's inferring that they were somehow dangerous. “I think any time you have severe economic conditions,” Axelrod told
Face the Nation,
“there is always an element of disaffection that can mutate into something that's unhealthy.” When asked again if the tea parties were unhealthy, Axelrod hedged, saying “this is a country where we value our liberties
and our ability to express ourselves, and so far these are expressions.”
While it was generous for one of the president's top advisers to allow for a modicum of liberty and “our ability to express ourselves,” we worried that some on the Left didn't take the First Amendment to the Constitution nearly as seriously as we had hoped. Were there now two sets of rules regarding our right to peaceably assemble and our right to petition the federal government with grievances?
Former president Bill Clinton would pick up the Democrats' “domestic terrorist” narrative in 2010 in another attempt to score some points against the Tea Party movement and FreedomWorks. This time the attack strategically arrived the day after our big April 15 Tax Day Tea Party in front of the Washington Monument on the National Mall. In a speech commemorating the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing plotted by Timothy McVeigh, Clinton was none too subtle:
I loved seeing that picture of him in the
âthe outlineâArmey with his cowboy hat on. I remember when he called Hillary a socialist. . . . But what we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold, but that the words we use really do matter because there areâthere's this vast echo chamber. And they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike; they fall on the connected and the unhinged alike.
You get the point.