The Futility of Protesting

Andrew Sullivan has been taking flak from movement conservatives (what else is new?) for calling the Tea Party protests nothing more than childish “temper tantrums.”  He has repeatedly pointed out the hypocrisy of these protests being launched only after a Democrat is in the White House, rather than at any time in the last 8 years’ orgy of spending.  He has further noted the complete lack of focus that these protests seem to have, noting that it’s tough to figure out what they’re protesting at all.

He is right, of course.  And at the same time, completely wrong.

As Stephen Gordon, fresh from the Bob Barr campaign, has been taking great pains to document, the people at the root – though for quite some time no longer the forefront – of the Tea Party protests have been as vocal as could be over the last 8 years’ orgy of spending, “preemptive” war, civil liberties abuses, etc., etc.  Gordon is – rightly -skeptical that the other groups joining in the demonstrations are only fair weather friends.  I suspect and expect that he will quickly find his skepticism validated as the protests increasingly become nothing more than a vehicle for movement conservatives to advance their whole agenda, including a whole host of things that were the reason people like Bob Barr and others turned their backs on Republicans in the first place. 

The trouble is that in order for a protest to have any success, it must become a movement.  And in order to become a movement, you have to attact people who may agree with the specific cause you are protesting, but have exactly zero interest in signing on to your other beliefs.  Worse, you cannot control the message they try to send in their own protest.  Sure, you can try to limit the people who actually get to hold a microphone at the protests, but good luck prohibiting someone from speaking who has agreed to donate substantial resources to the protest, and even more good luck preventing individual protesters from carrying signs that convey an irrelevant message that you or – more importantly – the average observer may find appalling.  Even if the average observer might not find that irrelevant message appalling, its existence makes it increasingly difficult for the average observer to figure out exactly what it is you’re protesting, and the result is that it just looks like you’re throwing a collective temper tantrum because your “side” lost an election, even if you never considered yourself part of that “side” in the first place.

And this is exactly what happened in the case of the Tea Parties.  The concept started out as a relatively small idea organized by a handful of libertarian activists.  Movement conservatives saw an opportunity to co-opt it – and they did. 

To them, the Tea Parties aren’t just an outlet for expressing frustration over the recent orgy of government spending, they are an opportunity to complain about gay marriage, affirmative action programs in government hiring policies, and just about everything else that movement conservatives oppose even more vehemently now that they’ve been beaten – badly – in consecutive national elections.  Never mind that the original point of the Tea Parties, so far as I can tell, was completely libertarian in nature and was to be as much a protest of the Republicans as it was of the Democrats.

Of course, if the Tea Parties had remained the sole province of a handful of libertarian activists, they never would have received the national attention they’re now able to receive, and thus would have had even less impact.  By accepting the involvement of the movement conservative multitudes, the originators have lost control of their message even as the message has access to an ever-larger platform.  The result?  An incoherent jumble of protests that is going to wind up resembling the same sort of incoherence that has characterized large-scale protests and demonstrations for decades.

Sadly, I’m going to guess that “Pardon Scooter!” signs are likely to be the Tea Party versions of “Free Mumia!”

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36 thoughts on “The Futility of Protesting

  1. During the Iraq War protests, the media seemed to go out of its way to find the guy in blackface burning a flag-wrapped effigy of the Queen who was shouting stuff about the Palestinians.

    It was pointed out to me more than once that protests needed to be organized and groups like ANSWER were the only game in town. Not everybody who showed up to a protest ought be swept in with the guys in bandanas holding a sign talking about how the government targetted Leonard Peltier because he is gay and we need to show our support for gay marriage with a “Free Leonard Peltier! Gay Marriage Now!” sign. Instead of looking at the nuts, look at all of the boring folks in the background who are *NOT* throwing up on the steps of the Capitol. *THAT* is the important part!

    Anyway, seeing Andrew not exactly remember the dynamic of these sorts of things is somewhat depressing. I’d just say that the majority of the American People signalled their distaste for Bushism in 2006 and said it loud and proud last year in November.

    The Tea Parties are a way to say “a rejection of Bushism should not be read as an endorsement of Obamism.”


  2. Jaybird – I agree that the way sizable demonstrations (left and right) are usually portrayed in the media misses the point and is wrong. The problem is that portrayal is in some ways inevitable when the demonstration includes groups who see the protest merely as a means of promoting their broader agenda. Basically, it would be great if the media would focus on the core message of a protest; but the nature of large-scale protests makes it difficult for the media to discern what that core message really is. Add to that the fact that the most, uhh, passionate and camera-conscious people are likely to be the people trying to most advance their broader agenda, and you get a recipe for problems.

    PurpleUSA – not nearly as much comedy gold as “2M4M.”


  3. Well, one can look at the Iraq War protests in a bunch of different ways.

    They led to Democratic defeat in 2004! They led to a heightening of contradictions that ended up with middle of the road Americans choosing the Republicans! Permanent Republican Majority! Game over! There is no need for further study because this point is where we stop analysis.

    Or… once the left side of the mainstream learned to disassociate itself from the “we support our troops when they shoot their officers” types, they figured out how to get their message to the people that Bushism was, in fact, not a good in and of itself and this particular group of bums needed to be thrown out.

    I wonder if the Tea Party protests aren’t indicative of a similar sort of phenomenon. Those yelling that books need to be burned are mirror images of the guys dangling from highway overpasses creating traffic jams for peace. To say that this group of people are just a bunch of hippies who can be ignored was, in fact, something that many said… until 2006. When the House *AND* Senate changed hands, that was a rejection of the Republican Agenda and the protests were prelude to that.

    Now that the parties have changed hands, there are, once again, protests.

    Are you sure that they’re just a bunch of hippies who ought to get jobs and they aren’t representative of anything?

    Because I’m getting the feeling that this is a lot like last time.


  4. Jaybird – I think there’s two problems here, though.

    First, I’m not sure that changing public opinion re: the Iraq War was a result of anti-war movement’s ability to dissociate itself from its fringe elements, though that’s certainly debatable. I’d probably say that the ability to dissociate from the fringes was more likely a result of changing public opinion re: the Iraq War – but that is, as I said, very debatable.

    But second, and more to the point in this specific instance, is that the “mainstream” of the movement has become the Malkinites rather than the libertarians who originated it. I don’t see how the libertarian segment of the protests (with which I certainly have some strong sympathy) is going to be able to control the message when the “mainstream” part of the protests has been so complicit in the problems of the last 8 years. (Let’s be honest, we libertarians are further from the political ‘mainstream’ in the public’s mind than the Malkinites). Since those folks have been so complicit in the last eight years, the message isn’t going to be “a rejection of Bushism is not an endorsement of Obamaism,” which it could have been if it remained the province of people who really did reject Bushism.


  5. “…the people at the root – though for quite some time no longer the forefront – of the Tea Party protests have been as vocal as could be over the last 8 years’ orgy of spending, “preemptive” war, civil liberties abuses, etc., etc.”

    Whether or not this is true, there is no denying that by aggressively promoting and hosting the Tea Parties, Fox News has overwhelmed whatever grass-roots libertarian character earlier protests might have had. This year we will no doubt see partisan, pseudo-libertarian conservative populism instead. As the Fox crowd tends to view causes like opposition to torture and violations of civil liberties as liberal/Democrat causes, I doubt you will see a friendly reception to such protestors at these events.

    Given all that, I think Andrew Sullivan is right to attack such top-down populism as the opportunistic, Johnny-Come-Lately phenomenon that it is.


  6. JohnC – I have no problem with attacking the top-down elements of these protests. I’m just trying to point out how difficult it is for a core group of protesters to maintain control of their message if they are to reach a substantial audience. That’s why I say Sullivan is both absolutely right and absolutely wrong – his criticism is completely valid to the extent it’s directed at what the protests have become; and completely invalid to the extent it’s directed at what the protests were originally intended to do.


  7. “As Stephen Gordon, fresh from the Bob Barr campaign, has been taking great pains to document, the people at the root – though for quite some time no longer the forefront – of the Tea Party protests have been as vocal as could be over the last 8 years’ orgy of spending, “preemptive” war, civil liberties abuses, etc., etc.”

    I’m sorry, but he didn’t provide any links to ‘tea parties’ done back in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, or 2007. From his post it seems to have started in December 2008, which, I believe, is *after* Obama won the election.


  8. And even if one accepts the LP backing and origination of these ‘tea parties’, they remained a teeeeeeny little bit of nothingness until the GOP bandwagon ran it over.

    There’s a valid point that a small movement has to grow to become a large movement, but OTOH, when 99% of the joiners joined *only after* it became politically convenient to oppose things that they didn’t oppose beforehand, it’s safe to say that 99% of the enlarged movement is full of __it.


  9. As one of the guys who voted for Boston Tea in November (16th place, baby!), I’m more irritated by the whole “you Bushiites don’t really care about the size of government!” reaction to these (completely unrelated) tea parties than I am the answers to the “so where were you in 2005?” questions.

    It reminds me of the invective directed against the folks who supported the war in 2003 (and made fun of the protests! Look! Giant puppets!) and who, in 2007, said “man, I shouldn’t have supported the war.”

    Instead of “Hey, dude. Welcome aboard.”, there’s much “WHERE WERE YOU WHEN YOU COULD HAVE HELPED????” language.

    Well, here we are. We’re here looking at a protest.

    Are you looking at the folks with the giant puppets and the fact that ANSWER is providing the steam for the protest or are you looking at the underlying issue?

    Those giant puppets *ARE* pretty distracting…


  10. True libertarians have become increasingly disaffected by any attempt at collective action, because it is always — always — co-opted by the Establishment and diverted into inanity. I saw this happen with Ron Paul Meet-Ups a couple years ago when Republican Party hacks invaded and set us to work waving hand-made signs on overpasses instead of letting us get our message out about how screwed up the banking system is in this country.

    I am coming more and more to believe that collective action against the Establishment is impossible and that the only way we can make change is by staying under the radar, to individually blog and relate to people one on one. Otherwise, wherever two or three are gathered, the Powers That Be will slip in a ‘jammer’ who ensures the message is drowned out in the noise.


  11. The remarkable thing is the extent to which the Tea Parties have NOT been hijacked – by the Republican Party. Also, the extent to which they’ve tapped into some real energy flowing from broad-based angst regarding the aggravated attack of fiscal extremism now being committed in Washington, coming on top of eight years of chronic fiscal abuse.

    Both parties are implicated in that indictment, and the Tea Party protestors sense thaa their proper target is an inbred, self-serving, self-perpetuating and bipartisan political class that has supplanted true representative government in this country.

    See “How to Spoil a Tea Party” and “Will the Tea Party movement fizzle after April 15?” at


  12. Joe S.

    “The Powers That Be” are analogous to the Redcoats of yore…and you remember what happened to them.

    It’s time, once again. In fact, it’s about 20 years past time…


  13. I’m not sure that using Bob Barr as a frontman for a third party is a good idea.

    Most of us remember Barr was part lead of the fight against Clinton blowjobs. This was party politics at its worst, and any adult American who’s been paying attention for more than a few years puts Bob in the same cateogry as Newt, Rove and DeLay.

    It’s not that us on the left aren’t surprised and happy about Barr’s quite recent foray into the fold of sanity. But his past isn’t distant past enough, even though we’d like to just forgive and let live. I guess that will happen as soon as the “slick willy” references and Lewinksi jokes dissappear.

    The real issue is of Beckian associations. The vast majority of us lefties have only heard of any sort of Tea-Bagging once Glenn Beck started yammering and crying about “saving our country from socialism/marxism/communism/fascism/whatever-ism” did we ever even know of this “movement”.

    I think this movement jumped the shark before it even began, to be honest.


  14. ^^ After reading my above comment, I’d like to clarify, since I’m new to this blog and commenters/bloggers alike here seem to be very rational and kind.

    Yes, it does suck that the Tea-Bag events have been co-opted by movement conservatives, Beckian liars, and fringe Bircher/Birther/Truthers. But the public cattle-call seems to have originated with Fox News, and the rabid-right, shock-jock radio clowns ala Limbaugh, Hannity etc. who very recently were awash in the fake-hysterics around Obama being a Muslim, or an “arab”, or planted by the Black Panthers, or “palls around with terrorists”, and there are too many things to list from this nonsense.

    Also, not to go all Greenpeace here, but isn’t dumping loads of paper and trash into rivers called “polluting”? Like, what the hell is going on here? I’ve seen video footage of people throwing plastic bins full of bleached paper bags of tea, directly into the water!

    Jesus guys, please do protest. Maybe something will happen. But lay off the destroying the water-ways stuff.


  15. Why is it that the Libertarian Party is jumping all over itself to now claim that the nationwide Tea Parties were originated by them, and are essentially sponsored by them?

    They’re right on both counts, of course, which flies in the face of this article stating that the Parties have now been “taking over” by conservatives.

    Eric Odom is the National Coordinator of the Tea Parties. He’s a diehard Libertarian, and will shout at anyone who asks him that HE’S NOT A CONSERVTIVE.

    The groups behind the Parties are mainly libertarian: LP, Sam Adams Alliance, Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity.

    Only one group – Dick Armey’s Freedom Network – could be described as more conservative than libertarian.

    But of course, the Left Media doesn’t want to attack libertarians directly, so now they’re spinning that the events have been taken over by those “evil conservatives.”

    We Libertarians know the truth thank you.

    Eric Dondero, Publisher
    Libertarian Republican blog


  16. “I’m sorry, but he didn’t provide any links to ‘tea parties’ done back in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, or 2007. From his post it seems to have started in December 2008, which, I believe, is *after* Obama won the election.”

    I participated in a very major state Tea Party on August 9, 2003. Thousands attended and the rally marked the end of Republican Governor Bob Riley’s planned tax increase.


  17. If there were a protest about the expansion of the newly revised Patriot act to wiretap US citizens in the US I’d be there too. I’m going to a tea party because I feel betrayed about not being told where my money has gone and not being told where it is going.


  18. This protest can remain a broad-based “big tent” if it focuses on a few simple things:
    The COMPLAINT is chronic fiscal irresonsibility, now become acute fiscal extremism.
    The TARGET is an inbred, self-serving, self-perpetuating and BIPARTISAN political class that no longer represents the will of the people.
    The GOAL is the restoration of representative government – with whatever policy implications follow from that. (A balanced budget amendment and honest government accounting would be probably be among them.)

    “What do we want?”
    “Representative government!”
    “When do we want it?”

    May have to work on the style a bit, but the substance of that is just right.



  19. Our tax rate is the smallest it has been in 60 years.

    The tea-baggers of this country seem to either be completely uneducated, willfully ignorant, or using misinformation to rile up the uneducated.

    Any way you slice it, this astroturf movement is full of shit.


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