Tuesday, October 12, 2010


For a while now, the blabosphere and Facebook status-klatches have been sporadically abuzz with the story of the wealthy, conservative Koch brothers. Supposedly they've been busily at work manipulating public disgruntlement by diligently, quietly seeding a little astroturf garden called the "Tea Parties."  The story has never felt especially credible, given the 'epidemiological' patterns of the TP movement's efflorescence, from Santelli's rant, on outward. It just felt too organic for such claims to hold much water with me.

An amusing little editorial by Andrew Ferguson, in Commentary more or less echoes my initial reservations about the story, and provides more context. It deals with the style of meme-weaving which lends itself to the kind of conspiracism that's become such the stock in trade for this administration and its backers:
The story of the Koch brothers and their involvement in politics, unknown as it is to most readers, is undeniably worth telling. But mere interest isn’t the reaction that ThinkProgress and Mayer, who is as much a party apparatchik as a reporter, meant to provoke. This is five-alarm journalism. “In many places,” Mayer told Maddow in a back-scratching interview, the Tea Party movement “has been considered a spontaneous uprising that came from nowhere.” In fact, it is merely one of the Kochs’ “stealth attacks launched on the federal government, and on the Obama administration in particular.” Maddow summed up the theme of top-down manipulation: “Tea partiers who attended these rallies, particularly the early ones, were essentially instructed to rally against things like climate change by billionaire oil tycoons.” 
Now, as the editorial points out, the Koch brothers have hardly been shy about their political positions: public financial records, not to mention public appearances...and even one run for VPOTUS on the Libertarian ticket are kinda hard to square with any attributions of attempted stealth!  Nonetheless, the brothers' perfectly above-board contributions to a group which shared their clear political proclivities were reported by "Think Progress"as though they were late-night dead drops of envelopes stuffed with unmarked bills and coded instructions.

But such is the perfectly consistent belief system of the collectivist on proud display. The very notion of the spontaneous emergence of a political phenomenon is anathema for those who maintain that humanity can truly advance (or "progress") only through the deliberate action of duly-designated elites.

And, of course, the irony that the heavily Soros-backed Center for American Progress should be the source of this story is apt to be altogether lost on those who've hitched their wagons to the Statist star. Pretext of principles, indeed!

But Star Chambers and Secret Groves have always been the preferred provinces of those who harbor an unnerving skepticism about the capacity of people to come to their own conclusions without being managed from the shadows...or from the Capitol. Since the Tea Parties arose, they have been: catspaws for the GOP, fronts for racist organizations, and Trojan horses for social conservative groups. Now they're a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries. Must be quite a challenge for the CAP "idea factory" to have to re-tool its assembly line so frequently!

Quoth Ferguson:

One mark of the paranoid style in American politics, Richard Hofstadter wrote in his famous essay, is its concern with “factuality,” a piling up of random details to create a coherence that reality itself can’t provide. Journalism of a certain sort becomes a convenient instrument of the paranoid partisan. “The paranoid’s interpretation of history,” Hofstadter wrote, “is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will,” an “amoral superman” who “manufactures the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way.

With the Kochs, the American left gets two amoral supermen in one. Mayer’s article, and the larger campaign it’s a part of, is meant not only to alarm its audience but to soothe it as well. Any Democrat unnerved by the rise of the Tea Party movement will find it comforting to learn that it’s a giant confidence trick. The belief requires both a deep cynicism about one’s fellow citizens and a touching credulity about the ease with which they can be manipulated. All those angry, badly dressed people shouting into megaphones on TV: they’re not evil, they’re just stupid. [Hofstadter link added]
A charitable characterization of Progressive thought is that it believes humanity can be remade, perfected by a benevolent and comprehensive manipulation of its environment in order to foster the development of its highest potentials. For one who holds such beliefs, the idea that such large numbers of people can be so thoroughly hoodwinked and herded must at some level be a hopeful one. After all, if they can be prodded over to the Dark Side so easily, then they can be just as easily coaxed back into the light, right?

This endless cavalcade of narratives which opponents --on the Right and Left-- have hatched to try and fathom the Tea Parties resembles nothing more than the twitchiness of a species in response to the appearance and adaptive mutation of a rival species. One might imagine the reactions of Neanderthals, perfectly comfy in their lush valleys, to the arrival of those bald, skinny Homo Sapiens with their silly big heads...

[Shamelessly and extensively edited 10/12/10, to correct grievous violations of proper syntax and other late-night crimes against the English language]

Late update (3/29/2011):  Here is a lengthy, excellent account of the Koch brothers' history, and the evolution of the ginned-up, Outrageously Outraged campaign to smear and demonize them. Worth a read.


Mike said...

Hey 'Cyte and Hengist: I have a favor to ask of you guys:

A few months ago 'Cyte and I had a brief back and for about the Tea Party movement in which he cautioned me about selecting sources for info about the movement. I took heed of the warning and did some cursory research but I'm having a bitch of a time trying to get my head around the zeitgeist.

So, the favor: I assume you've both been to Tea Party meetings. Could one or both of you post your impressions of what actually goes on at these things? What kind of people did you meet? What did you talk about with them? Did they have anything in common apart from a concern about the budget (my main interest here: Is the movement decidedly hawkish?)? Any tidbits that might help an outsider gain some insight into the movement at the ground level.

My primary reason for requesting this is my own desire to better understand the Tea Party movement. However, it also occurs to me that if your goal is to counter the misinformation out there about the movement (and, may I add, there are clearly several metric fucktons of it out there for you to counter), what I'm requesting is probably a better way to go about it than directly addressing the bullshit. So, for example, "I went to a Tea Party meeting last week and had a fascinating conversation with an accountant named Bob about [something]" might work better than, "Here is a link to stats showing conclusively that less that 5% of Tea Partiers goose step on a regular basis."

What do you guys think?

Mr.Hengist said...

No help here - I've never been to a Tea Party event.

Noocyte said...

Ditto here. The practice, the Li'l 'Cyte, and Madame 'Cyte, et. al. place pretty significant obstacles in my path (yah, I know: Joseph Campbell's shade is cringing). Or, gods forbid I get a mic in my face, and have to spend the next few weeks processing the serious breach of therapeutic neutrality with a client who happened to tune in. The gods' gods forbid I should find myself saying something remotely memorable (hey, it could happen), and get turned into "Noocyte The Shrink," or something horrid like that.

In any case, I do appreciate the extra-skeptical, empirical approach you are taking to the understanding of the TP. I'm flattered at any role I may have played in giving you the heads-up on that one. Still, any such information I would give you would be anecdotal at best, and thus tainted with whatever filters I employ in processing what I experience.

For example, I would be acutely mindful of the very mixed bag I would almost certainly encounter with respect to a "hawkish" foreign policy (excluding matters of border enforcement and illegal immigration, of course). You would appreciate the Misean streak which is liberally (har-har) present in the mix. There's also a spectrum of Realists and a smattering of Neocons, who tend to grant a qualified thrift exemption for the maintenance of a judiciously muscular foreign policy. This is predicated --as I understand it-- on the inextricability of security and prosperity. On most other matters of consequence to the TP movement (that just sounds wrong!), there's not a lot of daylight.

Recent hullabaloo has been made of the number of Social Conservatives in the ranks. I see this as another example of reasonable demographics being [deliberately] misconstrued and turned into cudgels: Yup, with just north of 90% approval for Obama (and, by extension, his policies) among the Black community, is it sensible to scream "RACISM!" when --surprise-suprise-- large gatherings of strident opponents of the Bam's schtick should seem a mite pale under the lights? Similarly, Social Conservatives tend to be --Tada!!-- Conservative. Kinda makes sense to find a lot of them there. Doesn't mean that the core of the TP agenda relies on anything but the tenets of "small government: big citizen" thinking.

The thing is still evolving, and there doesn't seem to be much equilibrium in store between punctuations. As such, it is still shifting, and morphing, and mutating and sampling a variety of internal variations as it shapes and adapts to its surroundings. It's such a broad ecosystem, I'd see the sense in not diving too deep --and standing in a noisy crowd, at the mercy of the weather-- by putting boots on the ground. The Sim's-Eye view gives such a nice, panoramic aspect to the thing.

Noocyte said...

"Fucktons." Oh, my. I know you mean it as a measure of weight, but it sounds like some kind of salacious subatomic particle. Maybe something you'd be exposed to at Quarks...you know, if you're into the strong force.

Mike said...

Bummer! There goes another avenue of research.

However, you have at least disabused me of the idea that there were lots of semi-impromptu grass roots meetings in the movement. Not really sure where I got that idea to begin with...

Noocyte said...

I have to confess, I'm having trouble understanding what you're on about here, Mike.

Soliciting anecdotal accounts about a smattering of gatherings could hardly have been considered "research" in the first place, when the subject is such a broad and evolving political movement.

And the Tea Parties are primarily local affairs, with people meeting for conferences with panels and break-out groups, town hall meetings, and other assorted gatherings of all sizes, from luncheons to immense rallies, from "semi-impromptu" meetup.com-type klatches to massively coordinated marches and the like. They attend city council meetings, arrange fund-raisers, and even get together to launch candidates in a host of local races (kinda makes sense for Federalists to do such things).

In short, even a cursory Google-skim should have revealed the TPs to be precisely what you puzzlingly seem to interpret my response as somehow suggesting that they're not. What gives?

Mike said...

Ooooh.... My bad. My comment above was the result of the following line of reasoning:

1. These guys are both very sanguine about the potential in the Tea Party movement. Therefore:

2. If there were informal, grass roots, no media involved meetings, these guys would attend at least a few.

So, when I read that neither of you had been to such an event, I concluded that my previous impression had been based on apocryphal info (which, as mentioned, I've come to expect).

That said, I have to ask: why does 2 not follow from 1 in this case? You provide very sound reasons above for not attending any public rallies, but they really don't hold for small, informal gatherings.

Have I read more enthusiasm for the movement (BTW, not sure that sounds any better than the TP movement :D ) from you guys than is warranted, or is there something else I'm missing?

Mr.Hengist said...


I think it's fair enough to characterize our outlook on the Tea Party as "sanguine", but, notwithstanding brief stints at PIRGs, neither Noocyte nor I have been politically involved in meatspace. Attending political gatherings is not our bag, man. For my part, I am wary of involvement with groups, particularly when it might compromise my anonymity. The ineffectiveness of the anti-war protests during the W years soured me on political activism, and I found it disturbing how fringe groups glommed on to movements to advance their unrelated agendas.

As for your methodology, your sample size is neither large enough to be statistically significant nor randomized; perhaps you should rethink it.

Noocyte said...

Yah, what he said. My degree of sanguinity/support for the Tea Parties is wholly unrelated to the geographical location of my bone-bag, except in the voting booth, that is.

Besides, just what I need: find myself standing next to a bunch of LaRouche-bags...and have to be bailed out by Mme 'Cyte!