So, until Wednesday, I hadn’t taken much notice of the whole “Tea Party” phenomenon. Like about 98 percent of public protests, it had struck me as little more than a stunt, guaranteed to reduce a legitimate argument to a spectacular competition for the dumbest, craziest slogan. Protests may—occasionally—make sense when either you need to draw attention to an issue that’s simply not on the radar screen, or when you’ve got such impressive numbers that you send a clear signal about the scope of public dissatisfaction. In the latter case, though, you typically want an issue that’s fairly clear-cut and binary, so the signal that’s sent is unambiguous. And in all cases, you want to be sure that the event doesn’t backfire—as polls suggest that many protests do, turning off moderates by presenting a movements most crankish and extreme face.
As James Joyner notes, protests are generally pretty ineffective, and these seem likely to be, if anything, unusually counterproductive. At any rate, signs demanding Obama’s birth certificate or endeavoring to remind him that this is a “Christian nation” don’t bode well, even if they’re unrepresentative. Even without them, it hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that the conservatives jumping on the bandwagon now weren’t nearly as exercised about exploding spending under Bush, bolstering the perception that this has less to do with any principle than with partisan animus—and desperation. Finally, it seems a little tone deaf to claim the mantle of revolutionary resistance to colonial government when your actual beef is with the scope of an elected administration’s borrowing and spending.
Still, I think Andrew Sullivan puts it a bit too strongly when he suggests that it’s pointless to complain about excessive spending unless you’ve got a detailed notion of what you want to cut. It probably makes sense to stress that there’s popular discontent with a general lack of fiscal restraint, rather than with any particular set of budget items. Certainly there’s no coherent policy program detectable at these rallies, but a big public demonstration doesn’t seem like a terribly good venue for laying that out anyway. If events like these serve any useful function—my suspicion is that they don’t, but one lives in hope—it’s in moving people from anger to engagement, preparing the ground for more useful and targeted activism down the road. I’m waiting for signs they’re actually moving people past the “anger” stage.
That said, most of the anti-teabagger venting I’ve watched unfold over the past 48 hours has been as grating as anything at the events themselves. When it first debuted a decade ago, the “Billioinaires for…” schtick seemed sort of clever. But the thing about satire, as with most other sorts of humor, is that it tends not to age well: That knee-slapper of a joke loses some impact after the ninth or tenth time you tell it, and this one is years past its sell-by date. In this case, it doesn’t even make a whole lot of sense: To the extent there’s a theme beyond animus for Obama at these protests, it’s populist indignation about massive government handouts to corporate America, a point on which I’d expect these tuxedoed college kids to be on more or less the same page as the middle- and working-class folks they’re mocking.
The big Twitter-meme for the day seemed to be progressives countering the teabaggers by listing all the reasons they’re just absolutely giddy about paying taxes, proving that for every action, there is an opposite and equally vapid reaction. Popular items: Paving roads! Less popular: Cluster-bombing third world countries! Sure, this is the flip-side of the point they like to throw at the protesters: You weren’t complaining when it was Bush’s out-of-control spending. (Some of them probably were, of course, but Fox News wasn’t screaming “socialism.”) But it’s not actually any more substantive a contribution than “taxes, bad!” I can think of plenty of government spending I’m in favor of. Give me a moderate tax bill that goes to fund the provision of important public goods the market won’t supply and I’ll pay it with a smile. But especially if you’re going to poke fun at the crudeness of teabagger slogans, you might think twice about circulating zingers like “I pay my taxes because I don’t know how to pave roads myself.” (Is that the criterion for government action now? I don’t know how to make an iPod either.) Even if taxes reached a level that everyone agreed was ruinously excessive, some of that money would be spent on things of some value. This is just the leftish equivalent of: “So, you’d rather have Saddam, huh?”
Finally, there’s the “astroturfing” charge. Now, on a gut check, this thing does feel pretty manufactured, and there’s no question that Fox News and a handful of well-funded DC conservative groups were pushing this pretty hard. Whether they were jumping on a bandwagon or cooked up the whole notion in some backroom months ago I have no idea. But the photos of the rallies I saw also seemed a hell of a lot less slickly produced than, say, an ANSWER-organized peace march. The signs looked homemade rather than prefab, and most of the attendees looked like the sort of relentlessly ordinary folks who don’t make a habit of attending the protest du jour. Liz Mair has a fairly persuasive rundown of reasons to think there’s something genuine there, notwithstanding the role of Fox or FreedomWorks. Short version: A top-down orchestrated campaign would have been a lot better orchestrated.
Come to think of it, maybe there’s something to be said for that. If people are worked up enough to turn out on behalf of fiscal restraint, they may as well do it strategically, and with more coherent talking points. And while inchoate anger about “taxes” or “big government” may not get you too far, channelling it into more specific policy debates—especially at the local level, where a few hundred people with a few hours a month to spare can actually make a difference—might. Not that I’m holding my breath: The right has spent the last year desperately careening from one gimmick to another. I’m betting this is just the latest in a series destined to keep growing for some time.