Tea parties: a liberal view (Bill Berkowitz)

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Richard Moore

Apr 21, 2009, 3:54:13 PM4/21/09
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US: Tax Protests Channel Enmity for Obama

Written by Bill Berkowitz

OAKLAND, California, Apr 17  (IPS)  - Reports vary about how many people actually showed up at Tax Day Tea Party rallies in dozens of cities across the United States on Wednesday, Apr. 15 - the deadline for paying taxes in the U.S.

OneNewsNow, the news service of the conservative Christian evangelical group, the American Family Association û one of the chief sponsors of the Tea (Taxed Enough Already) Parties - reported that ”tens of thousands of protesters” showed up ”to tap into the collective angst stirred up by a bad economy, government spending, and bailouts.”

Other reports estimated that crowds at events in such cities as San Antonio, Texas, New York City, Cincinnati, Ohio, Atlanta, Georgia, Kansas City, Missouri, and a number of smaller towns across the country, were small but enthusiastic.

(Added all together, however, the numbers of Tax Day protesters did not come anywhere near the number of people that attended anti-Iraq War demonstrations in the winter of 2002-2003, during the run-up to the invasion.)

”The events of Apr. 15 turned out to be pretty weak tea, considering the enormous resources that went into promoting them by conservative groups, the GOP [Republican Party] and Fox News,” Frederick Clarkson, the co-founder of the blog Talk2Action, told IPS.

”From the perspective of the history of American political protest, including recent national protest rallies, this one is way down the list,” he said, ”and for example, does not even compare to the national gay and lesbian protests in the wake of the passage of Prop 8,” California's anti-same sex marriage constitutional amendment which passed last November.

While the focus of the Tax Day Tea Parties was mainly on taxes, the debt and government spending, many attendees took the opportunity to bring in other issues as well directly attack President Barack Obama.

One sign in the crowd in Madison, Wisconsin, compared him to the Antichrist; at a Tea Party in Slidell, Louisiana, a woman held a sign that said ”As Obama Thrives Democracy Dies”; a person at a Montgomery, Alabama, Tea Party carried a sign that showed the president with Hitler-style hair and mustache and said, ”Sieg Heil Herr Obama.” Other protesters called Obama ”a socialist,” ”a fascist,” and ”a communist.”

”The effort has also aroused, incited and arguably helped legitimise some of the ugliest strains of the far right who rallied strongly to the cause,” Clarkson pointed out. ”These elements were last seen on the national stage with the militia movement and anti-abortion clinic violence during the Clinton administration. It is extraordinary to watch conservative political leaders who are long on advocating respect for authority when they are in power, seek to rally the most extreme forms of anti-government feelings when they are not.”

Although politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties were told that while they were welcome to attend the rallies, they were not welcome to speak, nevertheless, several Republican Party pols used the opportunity to rev up their own political campaigns.

In New York, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose organisation, American Solutions for Winning the Future - which calls itself non-partisan, yet takes in millions of dollars from longtime Republican Party donors - had early on endorsed the gatherings, addressed a small but enthusiastic crowd in front of City Hall that chanted, ”We are America!” After his speech, passers-by yelled, ”2012, Newt!” and ”Run for president!”

But when asked about a run, Gingrich shook his head emphatically and said, ”I'm just part of a citizen movement.”

In Texas, Governor Rick Perry, who is facing a potential gubernatorial challenge from current Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, had the crowd in the palm of his hand when talking about opposing the federal government. Some started chanting ”Secede!” Later, answering news reporters' questions, The Dallas Morning News reported, ”Perry suggested Texans might at some point get so fed up they would want to secede from the union, though he said he sees no reason why Texas should do that.”

In Atlanta, the main draw was the Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity, who broadcast his programme from a rally outside the Capitol.

Although enthusiastic, the crowds were eerily reminiscent of the type of audiences that turned out for McCain/Palin rallies during the presidential campaign - overwhelmingly white and middle-aged.

Although Tax Day Tea Party organisers have claimed that the rallies were organised by ordinary citizens concerned with runaway government spending, liberal bloggers pointed out that in addition to the Fox News Channel's team of reporters and political pundits who talked up the Tea Parties for days and fanned out across the country to report on the events, several longtime Republican politicians played a significant role in the day's events.

The Washington-based FreedomWorks, a conservative group led by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, who is now a lobbyist, was an early Tea Party supporter.

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, pressed to comment on the Tea Parties - one of which was happening outside the White House - said that the president had just recently passed a ”tax cut that covers the most people in the history of this country”.

”The president promised significant tax relief for working families of this country, and in the first month of the administration delivered that to the American people,” Gibbs said.

While one of the mantras of the Tea Parties was ”Taxed Enough Already,” in reality, 95 percent of all U.S. families - which likely included the vast majority of those attending the Tea Parties - received a tax cut from the Obama stimulus package. And, while thousands took to the streets, an early April CBS News/New York Times poll found that nearly 75 percent of the U.S. public supports Obama's proposal to roll back the Bush tax cuts for those earning over 250,000 dollars to Clinton-era rates.

On Monday, Apr. 13, a Gallup Economy and Personal Finance poll found that 48 percent of U.S. citizens say ”the amount of federal income taxes they pay is ‘about right,' with 46 percent saying ‘too high' - one of the most positive assessments Gallup has measured since 1956.”

Were the Tea Parties a hoped-for springboard to relevance for a demoralised Republican Party? Were they an opportunity for a core group of bitter former McCain/Palin supporters, who still can't get over the idea of the country having elected Barack Obama president, to voice their anger?

Were the rallies a chance for Religious Right organisations to get back in the game? Were they a potential recruiting ground for white nationalists, the near-dormant militia movement, and a host of anti-immigration organisations?

”Based on the interviews with participants I saw in the media, I'd say these TEA events consisted mainly of the farthest fringe of the far-right, people who seemed only dimly aware of what they were protesting,” Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told IPS.

”These mad hatters may try to host more confabs, but I doubt many Americans will choose to sample their fetid brew. Religio-political extremism has never been this country's cup of tea,” he said.

The Tea Parties ”seems more like a beginning than an end, as the GOP and the conservative movement seek to reinvent themselves after the debacle of the Bush era, and historic losses in the last election,” Frederick Clarkson added. ”The conservative movement, both inside and beyond the Republican Party, finds little on which it can agree these days. The tea parties seem designed to find a rallying point. I think it succeeded in that.”

*Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column ”Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.
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