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For Tea Party, Being Loud the Next Best Thing to Being Right

October 4, 2010

By some estimates, the progressive One Nation Working Together march in Washington drew twice the audience of the Tea Party conclave on August 28th. But when it comes to media coverage, there's no comparison. While the massive gathering of 400 union, church and other progressive groups barely registered a blip on the mainstream media's radar screen, Glenn Beck's lilywhite herd of ardent Republicans dominated the networks, cable TV, online outlets and print publications for days before and after. Because while the Tea Party's message is neither new nor right, it is loud. And when politics is just another form of entertainment, the loudest voice often wins.
To be sure, the spotlight hasn't been shining on the arch conservative Republicans who make up the ranks of the Tea Baggers because they speak the truth. If anything, it's quite the opposite.
Never has a modern political movement been so utterly wrong on simple matters of fact. After all, majorities of the Tea Party faithful doubt Barack Obama was born in the United States and up to a third wrongly believe he's a secret Muslim. The Tea Baggers' refrain of "keep your government hands off my Medicare" only makes sense if you believe, as 59% of self-identified conservatives and 62% of McCain voters do, that the program that provides health care for 46 million American seniors is not in fact run by the federal government. It's no wonder three in 10 of the elderly still believe what PolitiFact deemed the 2009 Lie of the Year, government "death panels."
Then there are the Tea Party's cognitive problems when it comes to basic math. In the telling of the Tea Party faithful and their media echo chamber, the 70,000 marchers at their 2009 "9/12" event in Washington became an army of 2,000,000. As political statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver diagnosed this case of wishful thinking in a piece aptly titled "Size Matters; So Do Lies":

The way this false estimate came into being is relatively simple: Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, lied, claiming that ABC News had reported numbers of between 1.0 and 1.5 million when they never did anything of the sort. A few tweets later, the numbers had been exaggerated still further to 2 million. Kibbe wasn't "in error", as Malkin gently puts it. He lied. He did the equivalent of telling people that his penis is 53 inches long.

(As the Washington Post noted in its report on the One Nation march, Glenn Beck put the tally for his August "Restoring Honor" rally at 500,000 people, over five times the low-end estimate of 87,000.)
But the Tea Party's war on numbers isn't merely self-delusional; it threatens financial ruin for the country. Conveniently ignoring that Ronald Reagan doubled the national debt and George W. Bush doubled it again, the Tea Party Contract from America demands both that the Bush tax cuts be made permanent and a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These posing deficit hawks like Rand Paul ("I'm not seeing it as a cost to government") play dumb about the Bush tax cut windfall for the wealthy accounting for half the debt added during Dubya's tenure and, if made permanent, contributing more to the U.S. budget deficit than the Obama stimulus, the TARP program, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and revenue lost to the recession combined. And while they are only too happy to back another $700 billion, 10-year payday for the richest 2% of Americans, the same frothing at the mouth Tea Partiers furious about "no taxation without representation" don't know that President Obama cut their taxes. As CBS noted:

Of people who support the grassroots, "Tea Party" movement, only 2 percent think taxes have been decreased, 46 percent say taxes are the same, and a whopping 44 percent say they believe taxes have gone up.

As former Reagan Treasury official Bruce Bartlett lamented, "For an antitax group, they don't know much about taxes."
Or virtually anything else.
Yet that stunning ignorance has proven no barrier to the raging Republicans repackaged as the Tea Party producing perhaps the most influential political movement in years. And in large measure, that's because seething anger (the other trademark of the Tea Partiers) makes for a great show. And that fury, as explained in "Why Right-Wing Hissy Fits Work," is the conservative movement's domain:

Politics must now compete with an oversupply of entertainment and information sources, from television, radio, books, newspapers and magazines to web sites, blogs, online video, Podcasts and more. The result is a 21st century "infotainment complex" where politics, news, opinion and entertainment merge. Politics itself is now entertainment, part drama and part competition in a passion play where confrontation, conflict and good versus evil rule the day. The journalistic search for objective truth is replaced by the presentation of ideological clashes with two - and only two - sides.

Sadly, the result is the legitimization and persistence of demonstrably false claims in American political discourse. In the new infotainment media environment which prizes the entertainment value of political warfare over the search for objective truth, rage, conflict and confrontation make for the best show. Or as comic Demetri Martin put it:

"Raising your voice - the next best thing to being right."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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