Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why the Tea Party Is and Is Not Overblown

(I'm trying my hand at blogging about the academic subjects I tend to be writing about--I think it should be fun)

The Tea Party movement has obtained a lot of visibility of late. A slick article at Politico made the point that the movement's impact has been overstated, both in terms of the "actual" people that subscribe to it, and in the incentive that mass media has to fixate on the Tea Party as a shiny object to promote easy partisan deliberation (The Left mocks, the Right defends). I'm interested in how the Politico piece minimizes the impact of the Tea Party by turning it into something that is "merely" a media production, in much the same way that enemies of rhetoric turn an important piece of argumentation into "mere rhetoric", a weak adorning feature of an externally constituted reality.

The difficulty, of course, is in figuring out just how many people identify with the Tea Party movement, and, just as tellingly, how many people violently react against identifying with it. One might say that the only fair measure of the Tea Party's impact will be to wait and see for the result of the midterm elections in November. Perhaps. My suspicion, though, is that even if we want to temporarily eschew traditional measures of the "importance" of the movement (polling, electoral results), we can still speculate about what the appearance in public of the movement really signals. That is to say, the fact that its a topic of conversation throughout the cable news world and over the Interwebs means that examining how discourse about the Tea Party circulates might provide us with a helpful index for what individuals think the character of America is "like" at this particular moment.

Take Politico's argument that both the left and right have good reason for sitting on the movement--the Left, to point to the foolishness of their opposition and solidify their own identity as the organized population in power (and no doubt committed to a form of "rational" debate to which the Tea Party movement is wholly alien in left eyes) and the Right in order to constitute something like an image of "the people" useful for producing the political position of a legitimately aggrieved population to argue against the Democrats in power. In this case the argument embedded within the Politico piece undermines the piece's own conclusion, that the impact of the movement is overblown. Why? Because the movement's framing in the media, and the reactions to it by political actors gives us insight into how current social space is constituted during a midterm election year.

Consider, for example, that the right's arguments valorizing the Tea Partiers will easily serve as the same topoi the conservatives will use in the upcoming election. For example, the Tea Partiers are often positioned as "revolutionaries" who "want to take their country back". A recent ad campaign underscores this point. Found here (h/t to TPM), the ad uses a provocative metaphor, implying that Barack Obama is an illegitimate fascist leader, the product of a cult of personality who is destroying American values. Utilizing imagery and symbols found throughout the film V for Vendetta (and presumably the comic as well), the film seems to imply this November will contain a revolution of sorts. This campaign comes from Haley Barbour's people, an important young moving and shaking element in the Republican party.

So on one hand Politico can say: the Tea Party movement doesn't really matter. On the other hand, the GOP is producing advertisements that indicate they believe the sort of people who might identify with the Tea Party movement are also an important target population for the 2010 midterm. So the GOP is behaving "as if" the Tea Partiers do matter as a political consituency. The GOP has had success drumming up fears, and it seems will continue to do so.

The leftist mockery is also valuable for study. For example, The Daily Show has done a good job of pointing to the lack of demographic diversity attached to the movement. This post, circulated throughout the Facebook, has also really resonated with people, pointing to how the movement's embrace of tacit threats of violence has continued to be present, avoiding the sort of criticism that might be levelled at a more diverse crowd making similar claims. Obviously, the Democrats want to claim that the Tea Partiers don't represent a proper cross-section of the American population.

I don't really have any conclusions here, just wanted to jot some thoughts down.


  1. I get you're running a Ranciere on this, and this is what I'd have to say:

    This is the thing, the GOP is still subsumed within the larger category of democracy, which still forces all speaking actors under its umbrella as 'speeched'. Regardless of their political affiliation, liberal or conservative alike cannot but treat the teapartiers as having 'speech,' they are not just 'noise' but an important, already incorporated constituency. Inanity does not equate to unintelligibility, or speechlessness - that category belongs to an exterior, an explicitly exterior, subservient or subordinate class. An example would be the immigrants in AZ, for instance. They are non-speeched once identified, even though they might walk among, 'passing' as speeched actors. Because Tea Partiers are exterior to this structure, the logic of incorporation, or even of the interpellation of a public under the guise of its popularity cannot function according to Ranciere's proposed theory of 'politics' per se.

    It is one thing for Politico to be engaging in a fantasy of wish fulfillment (that the Teap-artiers be hailed out of existence by evaporating media coverage) and entirely another that the GOP 'incorporate' a 'speechless' totality. Either a) Politico assumes that the Tea Parties are 'speechless' because their of their inanity, while the GOP builds upon their nonsense by hailing Tea- partiers and those with latent affiliations into the inherent gravity of right wing policy, or b) The GOP recognizes these people as 'speechless' already, either by their own design (the whole 'we're not going to count' thing) or because they actually believe Tea-partier rhetoric that their voices are not being heard/believe that Tea-partiers believe their own rhetoric, and imaginarily opens them a space for speech within what would be a subset of the larger democratic political discourse, creating for the GOP an audience to which only the GOP could speak.

    The Ranciere is going to be complicated on this one, that's all I'm thinking. And you'll almost certainly have to go through psychoanalysis, although I know you're not averse to that.

    I'm not sure that you should trust everything I wrote here, by the way. I shouldn't be held accountable for it, in any case.

  2. Hmmm. I don't think Paul is necessarily running Ranciere here. If he is, I'm not sure it's the best choice to reveal what's going on.

    The tea-partiers can't qualify as the part which has no part, because there is no measure by which they can prove that they are left out: economics, enfranchisement, race, etc. They don't like what's going on, but they are counted by any measure we have.

    Laclau is what's going on here, as I think Paul's tag indicates he is preparing to work it. The signficance by Laclau's measure would not be determined not by their outcome in the midterm election, but their ability to form a chain of equivalence between differential demands, and to sustain that chain behind an empty signifier. To build such an unusual coalition would be an important material test of his model. It would be especially important given that this is a right-focused chain. It proves his point that there are no guarantees that moments of "the political" will be progressive.

    Election results and the number of stories about them may not be the measure that makes them significant. The measure may instead be if what they've done sets up a precedent or establishes some kind of structure that makes such a construction more likely to result again.