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- Publication Date: September 28, 2014
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Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party Kindle Edition
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Decades from now, when academic historians describe today’s Tea Party movement, they will almost surely repeat the tripe we often hear today—that the movement is motivated primarily by racism, that Tea Party members have no real principles, that instead their main goal is to deter President Obama from achieving significant accomplishments, that the movement is funded and largely controlled by the Koch brothers, who support the movement mainly because it would help their personal financial interests, etc.
When such academic histories are written, some of us will want to explain that the truth was quite different. We will be aided by Joel Pollak’s excellent new book, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party.
Pollak’s first step into the world of punditry occurred in April, 2009, when he was a student at the Harvard Law School. During the Q&A period of a speech by Barney Frank, Pollak asked Frank a simple question: How much, if any, responsibility do you have for the sub-prime mortgage crisis? Frank became defensive and visibly agitated. In fact, Pollak had to persist through several interruptions by Frank before he could even finish his question. Frank kept evading the question, and at one point Pollak offered “You can say ‘none’. That’s fine.” Frank still would not answer. Soon after, Greta van Sustern invited Pollak on her show to discuss, what she called, his “showdown” with Frank.
After an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Rep. Jan Schakowsky from the House of Representatives, Pollak received an offer from Andrew Breitbart to become the chief legal counsel for his “Big” web sites. Pollak accepted, and he still holds that position, while also serving as an occasional editor and writer for the sites.
In March, 2012, Pollak appeared on CNN to discuss a video, which Breitbart.com had recently released, showing a young Barack Obama expressing his support and admiration for law professor Derrick Bell, an advocate of “critical race theory.” People who’ve spent significant time at a university campus know that the theory is radical and held only by people on the very far left. The CNN moderator, Soledad O’Brien, however, insisted that the theory was much more tame, that it is nothing more than the study of “the intersection of race and politics and law.” When Pollak wouldn’t concede to O’Brien’s point, one of her panelists chimed in. “Can I say something as a white person? What are you so frightened of? Are you frightened that some black people are going to do something to you? … What are you afraid that Barak Obama is going to do to you? Is there a secret black movement that’s going to start killing white people? What are you talking about—as a white guy?”
At the time (and still), Pollak was married to a black woman, yet he chose not to mention that. Instead, he calmly responded, “You’ve accused me of being a racist. You’ve accused me of being afraid of black people. And that doesn’t even deserve a response. But let me respond anyway. No, I’m not afraid that black people are going to be violent and take over the country. What I’m trying point out is that there is a pattern in Barak Obama’s associations with Derrick Bell, with Rev. Wright, that carries over into his governance…”
Similarly, when O’Brien spouted an inaccurate definition of critical race theory, the most natural response would have been to point out her intellectual shortcomings—to respond something like “Soledad, you have no idea what you’re talking about”—yet he did not. Instead, he coolly responded, “I’m glad that we’ve got you saying that on tape.”
In many ways the tone that Pollak adopts in Wacko Birds is similar to the tone he adopted during his CNN appearance.
First, in Wacko Birds he almost never makes himself part of the narrative. Although this helps make the book more detached and scholarly, at least at times I think it may detract from the book. For instance, Pollak never relates inside stories about his interactions with Breitbart, one of the most important figures of the Tea Party, even though I’m certain that most readers would appreciate such stories. Similarly, Pollak does not mention his on-air scuffle with O’Brien, even though many believe that it was a major embarrassment to CNN and it contributed to O’Brien’s dismissal from the news channel.
Second, although Pollak is a strong supporter of the Tea Party, his tone for the most part is stoic and even-handed. Indeed in many paragraphs of the book he sounds more like an opponent than a supporter of the Tea Party. His goal seems more to chronicle events—to get them “on tape”—than to argue for a position.
A major contribution of the book is Pollak’s efforts to define the Tea Party and, as part of the definition, to list its principles and purpose. This is a slippery endeavor, since the Tea Party has no founding documents, no headquarters, no organizational structure, nor a leader. He writes that the Tea Party is a “grassroots conservative movement restoring the spirit of the U.S. Constitution, restraining a runaway federal government, and bringing power back into the hands of the people, often against the will of an entrenched GOP establishment that prefers power to principle.”
Some may disagree with this characterization, but I believe it is at least an accurate approximation. That is, if one were to survey people who call themselves members of the Tea Party, I believe that the vast majority of them would define their movement something like the way Pollak describes.
If so, an interesting aspect of Pollak’s definition is that it is silent about social issues. That is, for instance, it does not mention things like abortion, gay marriage, or legalizing drugs. Indeed, I suspect that at a typical Tea Party rally the participants would not be at anything close to a consensus on these issues.
Another aspect of Pollak’s definition is its emphasis on minimal government. This is consistent with an academic study by UCLA graduate student Emily Ekins, who attended a number of Tea Party rallies, at which she photographed all the signs she saw. She notes that a plurality of the signs advocate, in some form, minimal government.
The most interesting aspect of Pollak’s definition, I believe, is the part about “restoring the spirit of the U.S. Constitution.” I think this aspect of the Tea Party has gone largely unnoticed by the left—that is, the left has not yet recognized that people really can get worked up over things like the rule of law and constitutional principles. However, to such skeptics, I invite them to conduct the following experiment: 1) Enter “constitutional conservative” in Google, Twitter, or any other search engine or social media site. 2) Note the frequency of the phrase and how many people use it to describe their political views. 3) Do the same with the phrase “constitutional liberal” or “constitutional progressive” and note the scarcity of people who use the phrase to describe their political views.
As the above experiment demonstrates, there is a genuine asymmetry between conservatives’ and liberals’ regard for the Constitution and the rule of law. While the asymmetry, I believe, was small three or four decades ago, I believe that now the asymmetry is large, and it is growing larger. Pollak’s book and the very existence of the Tea Party help to illustrate this asymmetry.
The closest thing I have to a criticism of the book is that most of it is little more than a retelling of recent events that involved the Tea Party or its key figures. In the retelling of these, Pollak is often short on analysis and reporting of new news.
While the book’s descriptions of these events will be extremely useful to, say, students reading about the Tea Party twenty years from now, they will be less interesting to present-day news junkies who lived through the events.
Still, many readers will be like me: They will have forgotten, or never learned, some of the important details of these events, and they will appreciate Pollak’s re-telling. Some examples of such details include the following:
• During the IRS scandal (in which the IRS devoted heightened scrutiny to conservative groups), its staff urged a pro-life group to give equal weight to the pro-choice side of the abortion issue.
• The Treasury Department completed an internal investigation of the IRS scandal in mid-2012. However, that was not revealed to the public until after the 2012 election.
• Once the investigation became known, President Obama expressed his outrage at the IRS. However, once evidence was revealed that suggested possible White House involvement, Obama mocked the scandal. “[S]uddenly everybody’s outraged,” he told MSNBC’s Chris Mathews in December, 2013.
• According to conventional wisdom, the debt-limit crisis of 2011 occurred because John Boehner and House Republicans provoked the White House into a political fight. However, the confrontation began in January, 2011, when with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner sent a letter to John Boehner. Before that time Republicans were not even discussing the issue.
• After CNBC’s Rick Santelli delivered his “rant heard round the world,” Mark Ames, a frequent guest on MSNBC, claimed that the rant was not spontaneous but part of a carefully planned campaign engineered by the Koch brothers. (Pollak—as would any reasonable person, I believe—dismisses this theory.)
Another interesting detail that Pollak provides involves Andrew Breitbart, a man whose status, deservedly, is legendary in the Tea Party movement. Breitbart, in a moment of spontaneous passion, gives a description of the Tea Party that is perhaps better than anyone else has ever offered or will offer.
First some background: In 2011, during his first weeks as governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker decided to reform public-sector unions in his state. When Walker had earlier served on the Milwaukee County Board, he’d seen how collective bargaining forced local authorities to provide lavish benefits to their employees, which the localities often could not afford. Worse, the benefit plans of these employees were run by companies that were controlled by the unions. This meant that the benefit plans could charge exorbitant fees not charged by their private-sector competitors. To change this, Walker wanted to restrict the ability of unions to bargain collectively for non-wage provisions.
Union members and their supporters were naturally angry, and they mounted a vigorous opposition. This included a “disappearing quorum,” whereby Democratic legislators fled the state in order to prevent a vote on Walker’s reforms. It also included many union members and supporters skipping work or school so that they could attend demonstrations. Some sympathetic doctors roamed the crowd of the demonstrations, offering to write notes that would falsely claim that the workers and students were ill and thus needed to skip work or school.
Two months after the union demonstration, the Tea Party staged a counter demonstration. Several union members showed up to disrupt it, and police officers directed them to stand at the periphery. One of their tactics was to shout down the Tea Party speakers. One speaker said that the union members were so loud that he could not even hear himself.
Andrew Breitbart was at the counter demonstration to introduce Sarah Palin. As Pollak notes, “When Breitbart spoke—wearing an open-necked shirt in a driving snowstorm—he took on [the union protesters] directly:”
"I was here two months ago—good to see you guys! … Do you know what you’re seeing on the periphery here, and what you’re hearing? The death of community organizing. … The Tea Party has been the most peaceful, law-abiding, clean-up-after-themselves group in the history of American protest. And to be lectured by you in the periphery, who have lied in getting the “doctors’ notes”—you have no right to lecture us on civility. You have no right to lecture us on language. Your “Koch suckers” business—Go to hell! No, serious! Go to hell! Go to hell! You’ve been so rude, you’re trying to divide America. Class warfare is not American. Class warfare is not American. …"
Thanks to Pollak’s excellent book, details such as this are now preserved for posterity.
The book provided two key insights to me. First, contrary to an oft-held narrative, the Tea Party did not emerge as a result of the policies of President Obama. Rather the Tea Party has its roots in conservative/libertarian opposition to the policies of George W. Bush. President Obama’s policies and approaches energized and shaped the movement, but its roots predate President Obama.
Second, the book drove home to me what a heterogeneous population exists under the rubric “Tea Party.” Some of the most interesting and effective chapters in the book discuss the careers of prominent politicians identified with the movement. Congressman Paul Ryan has thought at length about entitlement spending in the federal government and has made constructive proposals to rectify its challenges. Senator Rand Paul has continued his family’s interest in the Federal Reserve system and, perhaps more constructively, has pointed out the large-scale diminution in civil liberties that has emanated from the vast expansion in national security powers over the last ten years (well predating the current presidential administration). Governor Scott Walker has taken on entrenched political unions to lead to more cost effective governance in his state. The book also discusses Senator Marco Rubio, widely identified as a Tea Party star. Yet Senator Rubio’s views on immigration reform have proven to be in conflict with other self-identified Tea Party leaders. It’s hard to see a thread connecting the population of individuals who identify themselves with the Tea Party.
I came away from the book with a sense that the only reason we speak of the Tea Party as a unified movement at all is because President Obama has been so maladroit in his handling of the legislative process. He hasn’t been able to forge coalitions with some of these folks, at least on an issue-by-issue basis. The book notes how President Reagan and (the first?) President Clinton succeeded in cobbling together cross-party coalitions to move forward their agendas. President Obama has been unable to do so and has attributed this failure, at least in part, to a “movement” that has coherence perhaps only in his eyes and because of his actions.
Pollak, to his credit, notes what he terms the Tea Party’s “troubled candidates.” However reluctantly, we get to re-live, for instance, Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell’s ill-fated U.S. Senate candidacy. Indeed, there were numerous times through the book where I cringed recalling episodes (e.g., “birther” conspiracy theories, the failed 2011 budgetary “grand bargain,” apparent IRS differential treatment of Tea Party-like groups, the 2013 government shutdown) that evoke emotions akin to bad outfits and music from high school. Gosh, this country has had dysfunctional governance in recent years! Perhaps my only quibble in this vein is Pollak’s apparently continued fondness for and lack of criticism of Sarah Palin (who provided a blurb for the book’s cover).
I’m not sure the Tea Party is even a movement or party at all, but Pollak does an admirable job providing an overview of what has gone on in recent years under this wide-ranging rubric.
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