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Who’s Afraid of a Little Tea Party?

October 24, 2010

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Much has been written about the Tea Party… their lack of diversity, the batshit crazy views found, not just among their rank and file, but among their leading lights as well, and of course the fact that our anti-establishment tea partiers have some pretty well-established friends who help pay the bills. And yet… and yet… somehow for all truth of all of this, the fact remains that this is an incredibly successful mass movement. It has mobilised large numbers of people over a sustained period of time, and not only that, it has succeeded it getting them not just to complain, or even march, but to act, which has led for example to the nomination of Tea Party candidates on Republican tickets in the face of substantial opposition.

The Tea Partiers of course like to present themselves as the airs to the mantle of the civil rights movement. But the civil rights movement mobilised such large numbers of people because those people shared a common, and very profound, experience – the day-to-day reality of discrimination against people of colour, the segregation of layer upon layer of American life. It was in short something not only substantial, but, well, real. Now contrast that to the Tea Party: the ills they identify, the ideas they present, the things they argue for, are either simply incoherent, or just plain, objectively, wrong. How do, for example, a large collection of people come to the belief that they as white people are somehow victims of ‘inverse’ racial discrimination, that their government is beholden to socialism, or that there is a creeping campaign to impose Sharia law on their country which they need to fear? And how does erroneous belief reach the point where it can sustain a movement that has risen to become an important political force?

Well I think I have an answer. It’s pop-culture’s fault, or more specifically the forms popular culture takes.

First the development of widespread cable television in the US allowed a proliferation of channels into their homes, and in time with it came the emergence of Fox News. For a broadcaster with a few competitors for a national audience, the model is very different to a cable channel that instead finds itself competing against a large number of other channels for a relatively smaller audience share. It pays then to target a highly specific audience, and therefore it can narrow the number of opinions it gives a platform to.

Then there is the effect of internet sub-cultures which allow individuals to increase their interactions with people who agree with them, and therefore in relative terms minimising their overall interactions with people they disagree with. Through them frequently people share information that confirms rather than challenges their views. Both of these phenomena therefore reduce the number of transformative interactions people have, where we interact with some information or person or group that does not confirm our world view, and therefore has the potential to alter it in some way.

My point here is to go beyond simply blaming Fox News (which is both all too easy, and all too common), but to ask if it isn’t the very structures and forms of popular culture that characterise the present moment that are the fertile ground which allows the Tea Parties of this world to spring up. If the direction of change in this information age, when we have never had access to so much information, is perversely to support a large scale political movement that isn’t grounded in something actual (like say the common experience of racial discrimination), but instinctual (like say the perception among white people of ‘inverse’ racial discrimination, where the ‘ordinary American’ no longer has a fair deal) in the largest democratic country in the world,  then isn’t that a worrying thing?
Perhaps Marshall McLuhan’s really was right all along. Perhaps the medium actually is the message.
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