Who controls the Tea Party narrative?


There’s a question going around the blogosphere today of whether John Boehner’s quick-hit Affordable Care Act repeal bill — a largely symbolic measure that will go nowhere in the Senate — will be enough to appease the Tea Party activists who made rabid ACA opposition one of their litmus tests in 2010. The bill is scheduled for a vote two weeks before the State of the Union address, with no debate or CBO scoring, so it will likely not become an ongoing news story, but will be checked off the GOP’s list of campaign promises and will continue to be used as a fundraising and turnout tool in 2012.

While Jonathan Bernstein takes this move as evidence that Boehner sees the Tea Party as “a fairly easy bunch to manage,” Matthew Yglesias points to conservative messengers’ power in this process:

Suppose there’s some sellout that John Boehner wants to implement. Boehner recognizes that he needs to pair this with a symbolic but meaningless gesture. Now suppose he sits down in a room with Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Donohue, and David Koch and persuades all three of those people that this is the right way to proceed. Then the next day, Boehner unleashes his symbolic gesture and his compromise, and the coverage of it on Fox News, The Rush Limbaugh Show, and the fox-affiliated radio shows is all positive. That alone gets you the three most popular talk radio shows, the television network, The Weekly Standard, a dose of influence at every single conservative think tank in America, and the important organizing efforts of Americans For Prosperity.

I think this misses a couple layers of complexity. First, any discussion of the Tea Party needs to keep in mind that there really isn’t a Tea Party, per se, whether or not you buy the formulation of the movement as largely elite-created. You may recall that the whole thing seemed to kick off when CNBC barker Rick Santelli delivered a rant against foreclosed homeowners who didn’t deserve the same consideration as the banks who’d lent to them. Then it turned into a traveling health care town hall freak show. Then it became about the UN’s plot to make us all ride bikes and Michelle Obama’s War on Dessert. This is why it’s so easy to find large numbers of people claiming Tea Party membership — every angry conservative in the country can find something within the “movement” to latch on to.

Given that, it’s easy to see major conservative media as the organizing loci of the Tea Party, because that’s where these ideas can all come together and be passed around. But suggesting, as Yglesias does, that nobody will be willing to cross Rush on these matters, and thus potentially split the ideaspace, doesn’t quite make sense to me. First, while the dominance of institutional media in the Tea Party is certainly one of the key factors in its growth, we shouldn’t ignore the role played by social media. For every birther flirtation by a respectable conservative pundit on Fox, there are a dozen images of Obama as a Kenyan tribal chief being distributed through social networks online. The woman who interrupted today’s partial reading of the Constitution in the House may have gotten the birtherism idea from some recognizable source, but I’m sure wasn’t Limbaugh and Hannity supporting her at her blog or her Facebook page. Social media makes it much easier to tell that when someone’s pissing on your head, it’s not actually raining.

The other factor here is the likely make-up of the 2012 GOP field. Some candidates will be in no position to be too aggressive with Rush (i.e., Mitt Romney) and will have to show their fealty at every opportunity. But some — Palin, Huckabee — are conservative media figures in their own right. Given that there will probably be several candidates vying for the hardcore Tea Party vote, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for someone like Palin to pick a fight with the established bigwigs, both to try to differentiate herself as a candidate and, more importantly, to try to leapfrog Limbaugh as the biggest of big names in conservative media going forward.

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