The following is a paper/talk that I presented at the 2011 Georgia Communication Association. I didn’t want it to just sit around.
Political speech is characterized by unbroken narratives. These narratives are made up of, and track along, a multitude of different strands: they move historically, socially, and toward the future. Most often, they provide logical causal chains for the way that things are and how things can one day be. In order for these narratives to remain unbroken, they require institutional support. In effect, they need organization to spread the narrative in order for it to flourish. We can see this most easily in the two largest political parties in the United States. The Republican party enjoys interpreting America’s history as one of the individual struggling to craft jobs and industry out of the aether, and Democrats quietly suggest that social programs and grassroots activism will craft a beautiful, egalitarian playing field for all. These narratives are at the very core of these political parties, and the constant pushing and rearticulation of the same points both pulls people into the fold and comforts the people already there. But what about fracture? And what about interruption of those narratives? It is important to see what a new narrative, one seemingly birthed outside of the established political rhetoric, can do as a forced that breaks the old, established lines of official discourse. I am speaking about the Tea Party, of course, and in the next couple minutes I’m going to attempt to crash-course through the generation and absorption of the Tea Party and its political rhetoric.
The Tea Party was born out of two things. The first, of course, is the Ron Paul presidential campaign in 2008. The spoken goals, and there were many, included stopping the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, ending the War on Drugs, and removing large portions of the Patriot Act; all of these things were justified under the traditional ultra-Libertarian idea that basically any government intervention is objectively bad for the individual. Paul’s campaign, of course, was a total flop, but that did not stop the rollover of the mentality. Paul’s campaign had aligned in a lot of ways with conservative Republicans, and after the election, the second moment that signified the Tea Party’s birth occurred: on February 19, 2009, Rick Santelli went absolutely crazy on television. This is the image that we have all seen a hundred times: Santelli on the CME exchange floor, yelling about people who carry the water and people who drink the water, and calling all capitalists to dump derivatives in Lake Michigan. Santelli’s speech and the imagery that he uses functions as what Gabriel Tarde called a magnetizer, an image or a person that inherently draws other images or people into itself, creating a crowd that becomes mobilized around the focal point. More than that, the magnetizer becomes a chain of images that “must always be renegotiated and renewed.”
It is easy to see the renegotiation happen over the past couple years. The Birthers, Christine O’Donnel, immigration laws in Arizona, Obama’s faith–all of these have become objects of fixation and comment for the Tea Party. More than that, these moments have become both recruitment tools and crystallized definitions for the Tea Party. Often called “ill-defined”, the Tea Party is more of an umbrella for laissez-faire generalities than any specific political agenda. How, then, does it fit into the stable system of political narratives that I outlined above? It doesn’t.
The Tea Party is, in its very form, interruption. The image of the Ron Paulites standing outside the Republican tent during the 2008 election is a suitable one here; pushed away from the party that was closest to their politics, the conservative and libertarian hybrid group formed around Santelli’s call in order to create a “new” political narrative that eschewed all of the Republican conservativism for a real conservativism. Sure, as many have pointed out, the Tea Party meetings were bankrolled by the Republican party from the very beginning, but that does not alter the fact that most of the people in the party believed that they were part of something new, something profound, something that represented very specific conservative concerns.
In those first months–from Santelli’s speech through the summer of 2010–the Tea Party looked like it could be something, even if the party itself didn’t know what that could mean. “Beneath the surface,” writes Matt Taibbi, “the Tea Party is little more than a weird and disorderly mob, a federation of distinct and often competing strains of conservativism that have been unable to coalesce around the leader of their own choosing.” In those summer months, the rhetoric of the Tea Party was so out of control that it couldn’t even be expressed in a coherent manner. Even though it was a strong political movement, it was neither controlled by an institution nor even controlled by itself. In Mazzarella’s words, the Tea Party functioned as a crowd, a large group that defined its own subjectivity and aroused others to action through mimesis; it acts as a “crowd contagion.” Mazzarella writes: “In a crowd I feel what you feel; mirroring each other we amplify the sentiment to infinity and pass it on those around us until the crowd is a single buzzing block of unified affect.” Amplifications don’t only occur where we would normally expect crowds; with the onset of the mass media age, crowds can exist over large swaths. Taibbi’s “snapshot” of the Tea Party confirms the amplification process: “elderly white people with Medicaid-paid for scooters imagining themselves as revolutionaries.” These old-guard semi-political Bush-era Republicans are a far cry from the staunch libertarians that planted the seed of the movement in the political sphere.
In short, the Tea Party has operated in two ways. The first is as a form of interruption of traditional political rhetoric. In its various forms, the Tea Party has pulled from both liberal and conservative ideologies. It has fractured the very way that politics operates in America today, functionally creating a real third party for a full year. Though it has been absorbed into the GOP proper, for the most part, it still continues to function along the political fringes. For every Michele Bachmann who integrates fully into the Republican party there is an Andrew Ian Dodge, a local organizer in Maine.
The second way that the Tea Party operates is as a creation of crowd. The push toward this crowd formation is apparent in all of the uniquely Tea Party events: the push for town hall meetings, the marches and rallies in Washington, D.C.–these are all moments for the group to come upon itself, recognize itself as a political power, and assimilate around images that resonate for the entire group. The danger comes when this turns back in on itself. The resonance of the crowd can turn back in on itself and “give rise to collective hallucinations.” The Tea Party experiences a collective hallucination of this sort all the time–the Birther movement and the incredulity about Obama’s Christian faith are part of this. The ideological amplification allows for these “wild excesses” and then the same inability to recognize those excesses; the allegations of racism in the party and the party’s inability to see that racism come to mind.
If the Tea Party is to continue on, and it probably will, it will simply be fractured. The year before midterm elections saw a massive amount of Tea Party activism, and as we move further away from those elections, the Party simply has less to do. Without new images to fix on, new things to pick out and support or hate, the power of the crowd will fade away. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.