(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.