Tea From Grass (Roots)?

CNN created something of a buzz earlier this week when it reported that about 11% of those it surveyed claimed to have actively supported the tea party movement, while another 24% favors the movement but hasn't actively participated. The poll also showed that "Tea Party activists would vote overwhelmingly Republican in a two-party race for Congress," which, as JasonMBryant, posting on Political Wire observed, is:

... not a new group of people who are changing things. These are just the hard core conservative Republicans voters.

It's like looking at a pile of apples. If you separate the apples into two piles, one labeled "apples" and the other labeled "Granny Smith apples," you haven't really changed anything. It still just a bunch of fruits.

Five percent of the 2/17 respondents told CNN they had attended a tea party rally, prompting skeptical observers to suggest that that would mean 11 million people nationwide. As noted in The Huffington Post and elsewhere, tea party rally organizers have regularly exaggerated attendance and participation figures, including touting a photograph purporting to be of the September 12, 2009 march on Washington that had to have been at least five years old. Statistician Nate Silver estimated the Washington rally attendance at 70,000; organizers predicted and claimed millions. Silver's compilation from police and non-aligned reporters of attendance figures at the April 15, 2009 protests in a number of US cities totaled 111,899. Adjusting for unreported gatherings Silver estimated 250,000 may have attended. Organizers claimed attendance in excess of 600,000.

The distinction between the tea partiers and the Republican party has grown increasingly blurred, starting with the embrace from congressional Republicans and governors in April 2009, and continuing through Sara Palin's declaration in January 2010 that the Republican party and the tea party "need to merge."

Along with support of congressional and state Republicans, the April 2009 tea party demonstrations received the support of:

Fox News also played a key role in promoting the tea parties by offering their own coverage as an incentive for viewers to participate. "If you have a tea party anywhere that--we're not covering one of those, e-mail me at glennbeck@foxnews.com. We may cover your tea party live on April 15," Fox personality Glenn Beck told his viewers on April 8, 2009 according to a Media Matters transcript.

Guidance Counselors

Protests from tea party organizers that the group represents an authentic grass-roots political movement notwithstanding, it is guided by three well-funded national conservative groups:

  • Freedom Works
  • American Liberty Alliance (formerly DontGo)
  • Americans for Prosperity

Freedom Works

Freedom Works is a conservative action group headed by former House Majority Leader, Dick Armey. Until August 2009 Armey also worked for lobbying firm, DLA Piper. Some of the firm's drug company clients had negotiated with the Obama administration to limit their share of costs in the pending health care legislation, were funding advertising in support of the bill, and were dismayed at Armey's opposition as chairman of Freedom Works. At the same time other DLA Piper drug company clients, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, oppose parts of the bill such as comparative effectiveness research, because it could reduce revenue for branded drugs. Ironically, DLA Piper also represents insurance giant AIG, and helped AIG negotiate the bailout that was a key component of what the tea partiers are protesting.

Freedom Works was created in 2004 from a merger of Citizens for a Sound Econonmy (CSE) and Empower America. CSE was set up by oil tycoon David Koch, known for funding right-wing causes. Oil giant Exxon Mobil was a contributor, as well. Freedom Works also receives funding from Richard Scaife, who bankrolled the Clinton witchhunt. And according the the Guardian (UK) Freedom Works has received funding from tobacco giant Philip Morris.

Like the current attempts to sell the tea party as a grass roots movement, CSE referred to itself as a "consumer group." According to documents leaked to the Washington Post in 1998, however, 85 percent of its funding came from corporations like Amoco, Bell Atlantic, Citibank, General Electric, and General Motors. Funders in 2002 included Archer Daniels Midland, Daimler-Chrysler, Enron, Philip Morris, Exxon-Mbil, Hertz, Microsoft, and US Sugar Corp.

In 2004 CSE supported Ralph Nader's candidacy in Oregon. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that the Bush campaign was coordinating CSE's support of Nader in an efforts to split liberal support for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. CSE funded phone banks that made calls on Nader's behalf, something that would have been illegal for the Oregon Republican party to do. At the time CSE announced its intent to used the same strategy in Michigan and Wisconsin.

One dubious tactic Freedom Works used as recently as 2001 was to sell insurance policies that, unbeknownst to policy buyers, included membership in Freedom Works. The scheme was developed by J. Patrick Rooney of Medical Savings Insurance Co. in Florida. Company brokers sold high-deductible insurance policies and tax-free savings plans at a group discount to buyers who joined CSE. The policies never mentioned Freedom Works or CSE, despite a requirement that policy buyers join and pay money to the group as a condition for obtaining insurance. The scheme netted 16,000 members and $638,000. "I don't know what Citizens for a Sound Economy is," policy holder Jennifer B. Chace told a court during a 2004 class-action lawsuit.

American Liberty Alliance

American Liberty Alliance (ALA) began life as the DontGo movement in August 2008 during debate on an energy bill in the House of Representatives. DontGo supporters advocated offshore drilling, urging that members of congress "don't go" on their schedule recess, but rather stay and vote on the bill. DontGo was founded by conservative blogger Patrick Ruffini and internet marketer Eric Odom, a libertarian. The AmericanLibertyAlliance.com domain was registered in March 2009, and by September 2009 DontGo had mutated into ALA.

ALA is a for-profit corporation; according to its web site it is a content provider and sells advertising. As reported by the Huffington Post, in none of the 33 fundraising emails between August 10 and December 11, 2009 did ALA mention that it was a for-profit enterprise. ALA is allied with Republic Modern, a communications company that builds web sites for Republican activists. Through Odom, it's also associated with the Sam Adams Alliance (SAA), a free-market advocacy organization whose president is former executive director of the Illinois Republican party. Prior to founding ALA, Odom was SAA's new media director. In founding ALA Odom brought together SAA's blogivists.com — a conservative blog-hosting hub — with the DontGo movement and its web site. SAA's chairman, Eric O'Keefe, worked previously for Citizens for Congressional Reform, a project of CSE.

Five hours after Rick Santelli's rant against financial industry bailouts on CNBC, February 19, 2009, Odom launched OfficialChicagoTeaParty.com — a professionally designed web site that let Santelli fans organize tea parties. Whether Odom had foreknowledge of Santelli's rant or merely acted quickly is a subject of debate.

In April 2009, Odom rejected a request from Republican party chairman Michael Steele to speak at a Chicago tea party gathering. In July he wrote an "open letter" to the Republican party, listing conditions under which he would rejoin the party. It's unclear how authentic this "rift" with the Republicans was; Odom's conditions included that the GOP stop asking for ideas and money, and promote the tea party on its web site. Despite the conditions not having been met, with much fanfare Odom rejoined the Republican party in November 2009.

Americans for Prosperity

Americans for Prosperity (AFP) was created as a successor to CSE. Historically one of its key functions has been to advocate tobacco-industry positions on issues like smokefree workplace laws and cigarette taxes. Arguing that smoking is a property right, a strategy traceable to tobacco giant Phillip Morris, AFP helped defeat a proposed Texas smoking ban in 2005. It opposed a Washington, DC clean indoor air law in 2006 and an Illinois cigarette excise tax in 2008. In the latter case it argued that the tax would eliminate jobs. AFP is the third largest recipient of funds from the Koch Family Foundations, after the Cato Institue and George Mason University. In November 2008, David H. Koch was chairman of AFP. Between 1998 and 2001, AFP's predecessor, CSE received $380,350 from Exxon Mobil, according to watchdog organization Exxon Secrets.

New Meaning of Know Nothing Party?

In contrast to the level of public support suggested by the February 17 poll, a CNN poll from February 5 found that 4 in 10 of those survyeyed never heard of the tea party movement, or didn't know enough to form an opinion. Tea partiers also figured in a CBS/New York Times poll last week that found that, despite nearly $300 billion tax cuts contained in the stimulus bill signed into law on February 17, 2009, only 2% of the party people thought taxes had decreased, while 46% said they stayed the same and 44% believe they've gone up. We've noted elsewhere David Leonhardt's chronicling the Republican article of faith that the stimulus bill is a failure, despite agreement among respected economic research firms on its positive effects. George Lakoff and others have shown that most people only accept facts that fit their preconceptions, but the tea partiers appear to have elevated this foible to a membership requirement.

CNN Poll: Who are the Tea Party activists CNN.com. 17 Feb. 2010
New CNN Poll shows contry's view of Tea Party CNN.com. 5 Feb. 2010
9/12 March 'Tea Party' Photo: False Image Spread By Anti-Reform Activists HuffingtonPost.com. 14 Sep. 2009
Silver, Nate How Many Attended The Tea Parties? FiveThirtyEight.com. 15 Apr. 2009
Hendin, Robert Poll Reveals Most Americans Don't Know They Got a Tax Cut CBS News. 12 Feb. 2010
WATCH: Palin Urges GOP-Tea Party Merger, Re-Commits To Convention HuffingtonPost.com. 29 Jan. 2010
Republican Members Of Congress Embrace Radical Anti-Obama Tea Party Protests ThinkProgress.org. 8 Apr. 2009.
Good, Chris The Tea Party Movement: Who's In Charge The Atlantic Politics. 13 Apr. 2009
Pilkington, Ed Republicans steal Barack Obama's internet campaigning tricks Guardian (UK) 18 Sep. 2009
Weisman, Jonathan With Insurance Policy Comes Membership Washington Post 23 Jul. 2006
Stewart, Martina Conservative online activists launch '#dont Go' Web site CNN.com. 5 Aug. 2008
Weigel, David Chicago 'Tea Party' Rejects Michael Steele WashingtonIndependent.com. 8 Apr. 2009
Teo, Dawn Tempest in a Teabag: Tea Party Founder Announces He's (Re)Joining GOP HuffingtonPost.com. 11 Nov. 2009
Wood, Chris More Tea Party Symbiotics The Atlantic Politics. 10 Apr. 2009
Sachdev, Ameet DLA Piper feeling sick over Armey's work with group against health reform Chicago Tribune 17 Aug. 2009
Kirkpatrick, David D. Former Congressional Leader Departs Lobbying Firm NY Times 14 Aug. 2009
Levine, Carrie Armey Leaves DLA Piper Amid Furor Over Health Care Reform National Law Journal 17 Aug. 2009

See also HuffingtonPost.com's in-depth report on The Anatomy of the Tea Party movement.

For in-depth information on the interlocking network of conservative organizations and funders see:



For an excellent background piece on how the Republican party, and national politics in general, got the way they are, read Michael Lind's 1995 The Southern Coup, reprinted in The New Republic on the eve of the Conservative Political Action Conference.