The Emphatic Pointlessness of the Tea Party

"Look, we'll have aerial photography here shortly," Beck told Wallace. "But I can tell you it's in the hundreds of thousands, let's be on the low end -- 300,000 -- and it may be as high as 650,000."
-"Beck rejects running with Palin," Politico

An estimated 87,000 people attended a rally organized by talk-radio host and Fox News commentator Glenn Beck Saturday in Washington, according to a crowd estimate commissioned by CBS News.
-"Glenn Beck Rally Attracts Estimated 87,000," CBS News

Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial this weekend was billed as the most important thing to happen in your lifetime. It was going to be the moon landing, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the Wright brothers' first flight in three rings at once. Beck himself would be Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, and Thomas Edison all rolled up into one. I'm not kidding. Here's a promo from from Beck's website, courtesy of Media Matters.

How has this most important thing ever been received by its intended audience? According to a first-hand account, with yawns:

[Right Wing Watch:]

The Glenn Beck fans on my subway car after today's rally were a subdued bunch. They didn't seem energized by having spent time with their idol and many thousands of fellow fans. Why not?

"It was kind of boring," said one. "It wasn't what I expected," said another. "It was good," one said with an unenthusiastic shrug. "He had some good speakers." One recalled someone sitting near them grumbling, "I didn't come all this way for an awards ceremony."

Not the reaction you're going for when you've declared your intention of fundamentally transforming the country and sparking a Great Awakening that will turn the country back to God.

Beck's speech was rambling and unfocused, bland and tactically inoffensive. America is awesome, we've got to turn back to God, etc. It wasn't actually about anything, other than his ability to cry on cue. It brings to mind another experience I had recently.

This weekend, I attended a street fair. We were watching a band on stage and someone who'd already had just a little bit too much malty Wisconsin fun insisted, quite passionately, that one act was going to completely embarrass another one. The problem: he had his bands mixed up and was insisting that the band on stage sucked and would later be shamed by The Rousers -- who were the band on stage. After he was done with this rant, I turned to another friend and said, "It's fun to be emphatic."

And that sums up Beck and his crowd of teabaggers; emphatic, but that's it. They are against things and imagine that the Founders were against those same things and that's pretty much the entirety of their argument. As Steve Benen wrote in a must-read piece, movements are about something real.

Movements -- real movements that make a difference and stand the test of time -- are about more than buzz words, television personalities, and self-aggrandizement. Change -- transformational change that sets nations on new courses -- is more than vague, shallow promises about "freedom."

Labor unions created a movement. Women's suffrage was a movement. The fight for civil rights is a movement. The ongoing struggle for equality for gays and lesbians is a movement. In each case, the grievance was as clear as the solution. There was no mystery as to what these patriots were fighting for. Their struggles and successes made the nation stronger, better, and more perfect.

The folks who gathered in D.C. today were awfully excited about something. The fact that it's not altogether obvious what that might be probably isn't a good sign.

It's fun to be emphatic. But if you're wrong or -- as is the case here -- don't really have any point, it's not as much fun for everyone else. Ross Perot's Independent Party's only real argument for its existence was that there ought to be a third party. And that whole movement, which was pretty big, eventually collapsed. Without any central reason for being, the "movement" wasn't so much a movement, but a fad. The Tea Party is moving in that same direction. They're reactionary and all they really stand for is being against the things President Obama and the Democratic Party are for. Benen is right -- there is no there there.

But Beck's choice of date, as much as he claims its coincidental, was deliberate. You don't accidentally organize a rally at the place Martin Luther King jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech -- on the anniversary of that speech. Further, you don't get to say that the rally is to "reclaim" the civil rights movement and claim the date and the location are coincidental.

Beck is trying to start a new civil rights movement for the poor, oppressed white Christians. And he's doing it by waving King's corpse around like a flag. Both white and Christian populations are on the decline as America becomes more diverse. Why do you think the "We're against things!" crowd is against immigration and the building of mosques? Rendered tunnel-visioned about history by their own conservatism, teabaggers look at the civil rights movement and see only a movement of racial grievance, not a fight in defense of constitutional principles. Well, white Christians have grievances too -- they just aren't very clear about what those grievances are. Look at the crowd, it was white, white, white, and white. Is it any coincidence that these white Christians talk about themselves as the "real" Americans who want to "take their country back?"

About as much of a coincidence as the date. For them, "real" Americans are white and Christian. And they want to "take their country back" from the non-white and heathen hordes. They seem to believe that having white Christian concerns front and center in American politics is their birthright.

So, will Beck's big Whitesock rally change our nation forever? I don't think it'll even change much this week. Without some sort of point, the Tea Party is basically just a tantrum over the 2008 elections by sore losers. Why do you think Sarah Palin -- whose last big headline-grabbing move was defending blatant racism -- was hired as Beck's warmup act? She wouldn't be the first choice to help praise and "reclaim" the work of Dr. King. Not if they were serious, anyway. The 2008 Republican presidential campaign never actually ended, it just became hopeless and pointless and more than a little sad. They march around in circles, following Sarah and Glenn to nowhere, under the banner of anger.

But hey, it's fun to be emphatic.


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