Friday, February 19, 2010

Reporting on the Tea Party movement

David Barstow has attracted considerable attention for his report this week on the Tea Party movement, Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right by David Barstow New York Times 02/15/2010.

Gary Marx interviewed him for the Columbia Journalism Review: Q & A: David Barstow 02/18/10.

His article is very informative, and stands out from the superficial nonsense we usually get reported. Although after reading it, I wonder if he's not being somewhat naive about rightwing groups. Like when he writes:

That is often the point when Tea Party supporters say they began listening to Glenn Beck. With his guidance, they explored the Federalist Papers, exposés on the Federal Reserve, the work of Ayn Rand and George Orwell. Some went to constitutional seminars. Online, they discovered radical critiques of Washington on Web sites like (“Home of the Patriotic Resistance”) and (“Because there is a war on for your mind.”).
With Glenn Becks' guidance presumably means they listened to Glenn Beck's rants with a few references to the Federalist Papers and other items they mentioned.

Many describe emerging from their research as if reborn to a new reality. Some have gone so far as to stock up on ammunition, gold and survival food in anticipation of the worst. For others, though, transformation seems to amount to trying on a new ideological outfit — embracing the rhetoric and buying the books.

Tea Party leaders say they know their complaints about shredded constitutional principles and excessive spending ring hollow to some, given their relative passivity through the Bush years. In some ways, though, their main answer — strict adherence to the Constitution — would comfort every card-carrying A.C.L.U. member.
This is boilerplate conversion narrative. You don't become a Bircher and a Patriot gun nut from even a traumatic experience like losing your job in middle age. It takes some considerable amount of receptivity to be open to the kind of crackpot radicalism that Glenn Beck preaches. This is the value of more in-depth case studies like those Max Blumenthal, Chris Hedges and Michele Goldberg have done of people involved in radical-right movements. It sounds to me like Barstow was a little to willing to swallow "I used to be a Democrat, but..." kind of talk.

The Ayn Rand reference is a tell. As Digby has said, anyone over the age of 19 who can take Ayn Rand seriously has real problems. (Or something to that effect!) Normal adults just don't have the skies open and the Truth of Objectivism open up to them unless they were pretty much hardcore authoritarians to start with.

Also, actually knowing something about far-right groups helps a lot with stories like this. The John Birch Society from its start in 1959 consciously modeled itself on what it took to be the Communist Party's method of organization through secret cells. More specifically, it encouraged members and supporters to hide their affiliation with the JBS, which was rightly viewed as a racist, anti-Semitic and anti-democratic group. The Christian Right, many of whose leaders were either Birchers or heavily influenced by Bircher-style conspiricism, also encourage candidates for local offices like city councils and school boards to be "stealth" candidates and soft-pedal or hide their theocratic sympathies.

A good reporter can't just dismiss what people actually say about their motivations. But if you're dealing with Radical Rightists, you're asking to be conned if you take those claims at face value.

In the interview, he observes:

It’s certainly much easier once you’re in a particular place to figure out who the characters are and who’s doing what. On the other hand, while it’s completely true to say that this is a very difficult movement to report on because of its factionalized nature, you can make too much of that. If you spend enough time talking to people in the movement, eventually you hear enough of the same kinds of ideas, the same kinds of concerns, and you begin to recognize what the ideology is, what the paradigm is that they’re operating in.

There are exceptions, as I noted in the story, but generally it becomes very familiar: you begin to understand why it is that they’re so concerned about ACORN, why it is that they’re so concerned about global warming, why it is that they’re worried about the potential for things like FEMA camps. You understand why they’re so angry not just at Obama and the Democrats, but also at people like John McCain. You understand where they’re coming from on stimulus and bailouts and the Federal Reserve. If you scrape deep enough with people and spend enough time really listening to what they’re concerned about, it does tend to gel. There’s a fear that both parties have been complicit in this giant charade that has done enormous damage to ordinary Americans. It’s very complex, and yet at the same time there is something coherent about it. [my emphasis]
And he elaborates on that by adding:

The militia movement is on the rise in lots of different places, not just in the inland Northwest. I saw the people who were active in militia movements showing up all across the country. That is not to say that everybody in the Tea Party movement is part of a militia group; that’s absolutely not the case. But you will be hard-pressed to find people in the Tea Party movement who think there’s anything wrong with going out on a weekend with a bunch of other people and doing paramilitary training. There’s a much broader acceptance of that idea. [my emphasis]
That's a considerably more informative picture than the one we get from Tea Party apologist John Avlon, who wants us to believer that the Tea Party movement "is at heart, a fiscal conservative protest movement." Even though he also characterizes it as "the birth of white minority politics," which is a good characterization of how many in the movement undoubtedly understand themselves.

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