The ‘Tea Party’ Smear

One sign of the tea party movement’s success is that the term “tea party” is becoming an all-purpose smear term for any more-or-less right-wing person or activity that the writer doesn’t like. In fact, I think “Tea Party” is replacing “neocon” as an all-purpose word for “the people I hate.”

Take a look at this article, teased on the cover of Newsweek as “France’s Tea Party” and online as “What a Tea Party Looks Like in Europe.” When I saw the cover on the newsstand, I thought, “A tax revolt in France? Cool! And about time!” But what is the article actually about? It’s about the National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who

for decades has played on the inchoate fears, xenophobia, knee-jerk racism, and ill-disguised anti-Semitism of many of his supporters.

Is that Newsweek’s view of the “tea party”? The article went on to explain that at 82 Le Pen is yielding party leadership to his daughter, who is “a passionate advocate of its core message: strong French nationalism, relentless Euro-skepticism, and a lot of hard-nosed talk about fighting crime and immigration.” And lest that you think that such culturally conservative and unsavory attitudes simply go hand in hand with a belief in lower taxes and smaller government, the authors point out that

she’s also a big believer in the state’s ability and obligation to help its people. “We feel the state should have the means to intervene,” she says. “We are very attached to public services à la française as a way to limit the inequalities among regions and among the French,” including “access for all to the same level of health care.”

That combination of nativism and welfare statism seems very different from the mission of the tea party movement. The Tea Party Patriots website, the closest thing to a central focus for tea party activists, lists their values as “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government, Free Market.”  In fact, I note that writers Tracy McNicoll, Christopher Dickey, and Barbie Nadeau never use the term “tea party” in the body of the article. So maybe we should only blame Newsweek’s headline writers and front-page editor.

In another example, the Guardian newspaper of London wrote sensationally about “Lobbyists behind the rightwing Tea Party group in the US” arriving in London for “an event organised by the UK’s controversial Taxpayers’ Alliance.” (Why is it controversial? Apparently because it agitates for lower taxes.) These groups, it is said, have “close links to the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch” and “have lobbied … to maintain tax breaks for the rich” – and for everyone else, a point that author Phillip Inman inadvertently omitted. And, contrary to the article, Cato didn’t sponsor a taxpayers’ conference in London; we cosponsored the venerable European Resource Bank, a networking conference for free-market think tanks across Europe.

Inman writes, “The Cato Institute, which promotes its views on Fox News and other rightwing media, is one of the Tea Party’s main backers.” That’s sort of true, except for the point that our scholars have appeared more often on CNBC than on Fox. And that we don’t back any political or grass-roots movements, though many of our scholars have written generous – and sometimes more cautious – articles about the tea party movement.

My colleague Aaron Powell suggests that that many left-liberals, including many journalists, have a Manichean worldview that posits a fundamental conflict between corporations and government. And so if you dislike corporations, you perforce stand on the side of government. And when it’s energy corporations, like the Kochs, then anything they touch becomes The Enemy. And “Tea Party” is now, to some people, the generic name for The Enemy.

For more sensible views of the tea party movement from journalists, see this John Judis article that I praised before and a new analysis from Jonathan Rauch in National Journal.