Momentum–Not Numbers: Why the Tea Party Has Become a News Obsession

Momentum–Not Numbers: Why the Tea Party Has Become a News Obsession

Mark Engler: Why the Tea Party Became a National News Obsession

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about how the Tea Partiers have been receiving attention in the mainstream media far disproportionate to the actual number of people who are showing up for their rallies. In summary: even when their turnout stinks news organizations have been giving them an awful lot of air time.

Since then I’ve been trying to keep tabs on this trend, and last week offered an interesting opportunity to take stock. It was an important moment for the Tea Party. Tax Day protests in 2009 had been pivotal in launching the movement into the national limelight. Once again this year on April 15 (“A15″in activist parlance), mention of the anti-tax demonstrations was a part of the day’s news cycle at basically all the major media institutions, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the big networks, not to mention more partisan outlets like Fox News.

It’s safe to say the protests were treated as a national news story. But how were the crowds?

Overall, I’d say that the right-wingers had a respectable day, if not an overwhelmingly impressive one. While none of the individual events was particularly large by itself, rallies took place in a lot of different cities, including some towns not known as protest hotbeds. The New York Times reported 5,000 attendees in Atlanta, 3,000 protesters in Sacramento, and between 5,000 and 10,000 people at an evening rally on the Mall in Washington, DC (probably the best-attended event in the country). The Wall Street Journal noted that Newt Gingrich addressed a crowd of 500 in Austin and that “several thousand” demonstrators gathered in Chicago.

Fox News estimated more than 5,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area (although their broadcasters were careful to note that their tallies were not definitive, perhaps still smarting from a brilliant Jon Stewart exposé about their past attempts to inflate the apparent size of Tea Party crowds). Among those less impressed by the Tea Party turnout last week were observers who counted just a few hundred folks in Minnesota and 1,100 in Oceanside, California–down from about 5,000 people a year before.

The protest organizers would like you to believe that the crowds enumerated above, plus rallies of a hundred or two hundred people in dozens of other cities, together add up to massive numbers. My personal estimate, after undertaking a decently thorough survey of the day’s news reports and trying to be reasonably generous, would be that the right-wingers turned out maybe 50,000 to 60,000 people. That’s not so bad. And I think they deserve some points for the geographical breadth of their actions. Still, this year’s turnout was no doubt a huge drop-off from the April 15, 2009 numbers. And for a national news story, we’re not talking about a ton of people.

Remember, as many as a million people flooded the Mall in Washington for the pro-choice March for Women’s Lives in 2004, something I’m sure the Tea Partiers would rather forget. The more recent and comparable counter example, which I cited in my previous post, was a March 28 rally in Los Angeles that drew between 10,000 and 50,000 immigrant rights advocates. You probably never heard about that one, because it received very little mainstream attention. Yet it was a follow-up event to a march of as many as 200,000 in Washington, DC the week before. These numbers would suggest that there is as large a constituency for progressive immigration reform as there is for anti-tax zealotry. But you would never know it from the news judgment of story editors in our media.

Want to try gauging this for yourself? Coming up on May 1, there will be another set of big rallies around immigration reform in Los Angeles and other cities. My guess is that they will again outdraw the Tea Party actions. But if you hear about them in the news, I suspect it will be because you are watching a Spanish-language telecast or (in a good-case-scenario for mainstream coverage) reading a couple of column inches tucked in on page A-16 of the New York Times.

THERE IS something to be learned here that’s more than just sour grapes. The story that gets told about any social movement relies on that movement’s ability to generate hype around its actions and to create a sense of momentum. This is true on the left as well as the right. In the long run, a movement has to be able to back up its hype with actual accomplishments (mobilizing large numbers of people, producing activists willing to make high levels of commitment and sacrifice, swaying elections, or scoring victories by changing public policy or private behavior). But the practice of influencing media coverage and public perception in the times between a movement’s peak achievements is a fine art that was carefully honed by the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

An interesting case study comes from almost exactly ten years ago, when progressive activists in the movement around corporate globalization were the ones who had momentum. In the wake of the landmark 1999 Seattle protests news reporters swarmed “anti-globalization” meetings eager to take the pulse of the new rebellion and to get an advance scoop on what would be the “next big protest.” The most prominent demonstration that followed after Seattle was known as A16. It was an April 16, 2000 gathering outside the IMF and World Bank’s spring meetings in Washington, DC. Thousands of activists promised to use civil disobedience to surround the institutions’ headquarters and shut down the meetings.

In the end, police were able to puncture protest lines, and activists did not in fact stop the meetings from happening. But this had always been a silly standard by which to judge a demonstration’s success. The movement had enough momentum at that point that the mere threat of “another Seattle” was enough to produce a mountain of publicity and to draw far more public scrutiny to the IMF and World Bank’s nefarious neoliberal policymaking than they had ever been subjected to before.

At the time, some progressives lamented that too much energy was being focused on national and international summits and not enough on local organizing. However, these people largely misunderstood the importance of maintaining momentum and skillfully managing what was being treated (albeit not as comprehensively or sympathetically as we might have liked) as a national news story. Ask anyone who is slogging away on global justice issues these days (combating the international financial institutions, promoting debt relief, doing anti-sweatshop work), and they will pine for the days when the big summit actions channeled a massively increased level of volunteers, resources, and public interest into their work.

It’s worth noting the turnout for A16: That protest drew between 10,000 to 30,000 people, with perhaps a thousand or two willing to do civil disobedience. Although the level of militancy was quite noteworthy, that’s not very many people by “March on Washington” standards. The reason the protest attracted as much attention as it did was not the numbers; it was momentum. The movement was able to portray itself as politically relevant and gaining steam.

On a closing note, I saw a fair number of 10th-year-anniversary essays on the Seattle protests pop up late last November. But I haven’t yet spotted any similar reflections on A16. Too bad, because in some respects it was arguably the more fascinating of the two.