By Mark Ames and Yasha Levine and Alexander Zaitchik, AlterNet
Posted on April 15, 2009, Printed on April 15, 2009
They will carry signs and deliver speeches expressing outrage over the Democrats' stimulus bill, over entitlements, over budget pork, over taxes. They will dump boxes of tea on the ground and wear three-cornered hats. The leading lights of the Republican Party will be on hand to cheer them on.
But as with so much on the right, these apparent displays of populist rage are not what they will seem.
Six weeks ago, two of us (Mark Ames and Yasha Levine) published an investigation exposing the nascent "Tea Party" protest movement for what it really is: a carefully planned AstroTurf (or "fake grassroots") lobby campaign hatched and orchestrated by the conservative advocacy organization FreedomWorks. Within days, pieces of the scam had crumbled, exposing a small group of right-wing think tanks and shady nonprofits at its core.
The Tea Party movement was born on Feb. 19 with a now-famous rant by second-string CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli, who called for a "Chicago Tea Party" in protest of President Barack Obama's plans to help distressed American homeowners. Santelli’s call blazed through the blogosphere, greased along by a number of FreedomWorks-funded blogs, propelling him to the status of a 21st century Samuel Adams — a leader and symbol of disenfranchised Americans suffering under big-government oppression and mismanagement of the economy.
That same day, a nationwide "Tea Party" protest movement mysteriously materialized on the Internet. A whole ring of Web sites came online within hours of Santelli's rant, like sleeper-cell blogs waiting for the trigger to act, all claiming to have been inspired by Santelli's allegedly impromptu outburst.
At first glance, the sites appeared to be unconnected and unplanned. But many were suspiciously well designed and strangely on point with their "nonpartisan" and "grassroots" statements. It was as if all of them were reading from the same script. The Web sites heavily linked to each other, spreading their mission with help of Facebook and Twitter feeds. FreedomWorks, as if picking up on rumblings coming from the depths of the conservative netroots, linked to them, too.
But as our investigation showed, the key players in the Tea Party Web ring were no amateurs, but rather experienced Republican operatives with deep connections to FreedomWorks and other fake grassroots campaigns pushing pro-big-business interests.
FreedomWorks has a long history of using such campaigns. Founded in 2004 by Dick Armey, the former Republican House Majority Leader and lobbyist from Texas, and publishing titan Steve Forbes, FreedomWorks represented the consolidation and rebranding of two older think tanks, Citizens for a Sound Economy, founded by the notorious Koch family, and Empower America, a powerful lobbying firm that has battled health care reform and minimum-wage bills while championing deregulation, corporate tax cuts and whatever else their corporate clients desire.
The idea was to bring these two dinosaurs into the Internet age so they could compete with the newly created MoveOn.org.
FreedomWorks got caught AstroTurfing their sponsors' agendas almost as soon as the group was formed. In 2005, when President George W. Bush was trying to get the public to go along with his plans for handing Social Security over to Wall Street bankers, the New York Times revealed that a "regular single mom" paraded by Bush's White House in its PR campaign was in fact FreedomWorks' Iowa state director.
Last year, the the Wall Street Journal exposed FreedomWorks’ role in sponsoring AngryRenter.com, a site designed to imitate an amateur blog with a plutocrat’s agenda: to shoot down a $300 billion bill meant to help distressed American homeowners. Freedomworks and its clients understood that if the superwealthy Republicans who opposed the bill were fronting the campaign, it wouldn’t fly with regular Americans buckling under the housing crisis, so they set up Angryrenter.com to give the impression that millions of ordinary Americans were the ones opposing it. The bill passed, but AngryRenter.com served as a warm-up exercise for the Tea Party movement.
Freedomworks and its clients understood that if the super-wealthy Republicans who opposed the bill were fronting the campaign, it wouldn't fly with regular Americans buckling under the housing crisis, so they set up Angryrenter.com to give the impression that millions of ordinary Americans were the ones opposing it. The bill passed, but AngryRenter.com served as a warm-up exercise for the Tea Party movement.
The Tea Party improved on the AngryRenter.com model by diversifying its AstroTurf assets. Rather than put all its efforts into one vulnerable strategic entity, FreedomWorks distributed its campaign across a network of smaller, seemingly independent blogs and sites. If one was outed as a fake, the rest of the machine could deny affiliation and survive.
But what reeked of AstroTurfing on the Internet also reeked on the street, when protests hit over 30 cities across the country on Feb. 27.
In Santa Monica, Calif., the crowd was no bigger than the kind that mills around taco trucks at lunch hour. Other locations reported the same pathetic tally. In Cobb County, Ga., which should have been teeming with outraged freedom-loving, small-government activists, turnout was only marginally better.
It was clear that this grassroots movement was meant as a TV-only event. In the following days, as our article generated controversy about who really backed the Tea Party, FreedomWorks came clean and admitted to staging the whole thing. Santelli, the movement's own larger-than-life hero, published a lawyer-crafted statement on CNBC's site renouncing his role in the rebellion and throwing himself at the feet of Obama.
It was a crushing and humiliating blow to see the movement's leader buckle so quickly, as if Adams had rushed to King George's palace, three-pointed-hat in hand, and threw himself at the monarch's mercy. To add to the humiliation, Santelli's appearance on the Daily Show was canceled, and his employer, CNBC, soon became the laughingstock of the American network TV world.
The Tea Party movement seemed like it was dead in the water. But what seemed to be another failed FreedomWorks project came back one month later with a vengeance.
FreedomWorks is now running the show completely out in the open, coordinating a vast and confusing army of Web sites, selling Tea Party merchandise (with proceeds going straight into FreedomWorks' coffers) and tapping Republican celebrities for speaker slots. Fox News will provide around-the-clock, coast-to-coast coverage of today's Tea Party event. (The network's newest star, Glenn Beck, will hold a $500-a-plate fundraiser for the cause before zooming over to a tea party scheduled to take place at the Alamo in San Antonio.) Last week, Newt Gingrich, former Georgia congressman and Speaker of the House, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced they'll keynote tea parties of their own in Texas and New York.
The Tea Parties have gone large — and they've gone populist. Today's Tea Parties are sure to dwarf the duds of February. Somehow, a movement that was exposed as a fraud has persevered and morphed into something that is channeling and redirecting legitimate concerns about Obama's handling of the financial crisis.
To understand what the Tea Parties are really about, timeline is everything. The Tea Parties were never about the little guy's fight against big government or Wall Street. FreedomWorks did not uncork Santelli while the government was bailing out the banks. The FreedomWorks machine was idle while Citibank and GE pocketed their billions. (The latter, incidentally, a big donor to FreedomWorks).
Freedomworks kicked off its anti-tax, anti-spending movement only when the government announced it would give money to regular Americans to help avoid a wave of housing foreclosures.
How did the right-wing get people behind its absurd and unpopular economic platform of tax cuts, deregulation, status-quo health care, slashed entitlements and leaving homeowners to the wolves?
Enter the AIG-bonus scandal and a steady trickle of news about the mismanagement of the bailout billions and the corrupt backroom cronyism that has guided the whole process, from the Henry Paulson era straight into the Larry Summers/Tim Geithner era. These developments, all under liberal Democratic governance, enraged a lot of people and muddied the waters of outrage — and policy.
The AIG-bonus scandal put a handle on the irresponsible government policies that the Tea Party movement was supposedly rallying against. What could be more irresponsible than allowing financial executives that got America into this mess to walk away with multi-million dollar bonuses lifted from taxpayer money? The same people who cost millions of Americans their jobs and homes were taking what was left of the kitty to ensure that they could maintain their mansions-and-yachts lifestyles.
Somehow, the Right twists this issue by getting people to focus their rage on the government and not the banker. The problem is the Left has been subdued, to put it mildly, in channeling rage at the bankers, in part because Obama's economic team is the bankers and so far serves the bankers in programs that are corrupt, opaque and infuriating.
The Left should have been there to claim this genuine outrage from the very beginning. But it was late to the game. Until a new initiative called A New Way Forward began picking up steam a few weeks ago, a lot of people outraged by Obama's economic policies had only one place to go: their local FreedomWorks Tea Party.
Luckily, and not a moment too soon, this is no longer the case.
It is hard to imagine more different origins from the FreedomWorks creation than those of A New Way Forward. The seed for the initiative was planted on the ratty couch in a 19th century farmhouse on a western Massachusetts apple orchard. It was there that 29-year-old Tiffiniy Cheng sat one night watching Bill Moyers Journal with her 86-year-old landlord. Moyers' guest that night was MIT professor and former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson.
A fierce critic of Obama's handling of the crisis, Johnson explained on the show that there were plenty of roads not being taken, all of which led to nationalization and strict new antitrust laws.
As they listened, Cheng and her landlord grew increasingly despondent. When the show ended, the old woman turned to the younger woman and said, "You kids need to go out and do something. The world is changing so much, you need to take control of things." Cheng decided to take up the challenge.
"I knew a lot of people like me were upset that the banks are driving the process," she says. "So I decided to coordinate among all of the frustrated people out there, who are angry about the bailouts and want to break up the massive institutions who brought us here."
Unlike a lot of people who might have shared the same thought, Cheng actually had the organizing experience and tech chops to do put it together. A self-described nonprofit "technologist" and activist with a decade of experience -- she was part of the group that launched OpenCongress.org and has developed software designed to facilitate Internet organizing -- Cheng sketched out a plan and called some colleagues.
Soon they had a manifesto based on three principles: nationalize, reorganize and decentralize. A Web site followed, and word quickly spread with the help of some well-connected and supportive advisers, among them Zephyr Teachout and Joe Trippi, both architects of Howard Dean's pioneering 2004 presidential campaign.
Aided by social-networking sites and Cheng's own organizing software, more than 10,000 soon signed NWF's petition to break up the banks. The petition now holds more than 40,000 signatures and counting.
Last Saturday, NWF held the first day of rallies -- the left's answer to the Tea Parties. Hundreds gathered in 60 cities around the country (including on the East Coast, despite heavy rains). The organization is also picking up its share of media attention, including a mention last month on Moyers’ Journal, which brought the nascent group full circle.
"Having been around politics and political organizing for many years, this feels different," says William Greider, a New Way Forward senior adviser. "The 'Tea Party' gambit is the opposite example -- planned and promoted top-down with the old hands of the right and lots of money. One of our democratic difficulties in this mass-market age is figuring out what's real and what's cleverly constructed propaganda."
It's hard to get more real than the first line of the NWF manifesto: "Big bankers ruined our economy, and now they are gaming the political system so they can profit even more off the crisis they caused. They must be stopped."
Stopping the big bankers from plundering America. That's what protest against the administration's economic policy must be about.
And whatever the Tea Party organizers scream today while standing on tea boxes, their sponsors at FreedomWorks have no intention of ending the plunder.
Instead, FreedomWorks and its clients want to ensure more of the national wealth is at their disposal -- which for them means more deregulation, lower taxes for the rich, fewer government programs for distressed homeowners and no pricey national health insurance.
The suckers in the Tea Party movement have no idea that while their anger is genuine, they're doing the king's bidding, not their own.
Mark Ames and Yasha Levine are editors of eXiledonline.com. Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist.
© 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.