A Soldier Criticizes His Army Comrades' Tea Party Ideology

Does the movement's rank and file want to be misinformed by conservative media, or are they the unwitting victims of unscrupulous propagandists?
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Regular readers know I have a love/hate relationship with the Tea Party. What I love is all the good people participating in the civic process for the first time; the determination to challenge corruption in the GOP establishment; the effort to bring civil-liberties concerns and skepticism of foreign wars back under the Republican tent; the commitment to a republic where people are free to pursue happiness as they see fit; the healthy skepticism of central planning that subverts markets with cronyism and corporatism; and alarm at our national debt. 
 
What I hate about the Tea Party is the epistemic closure that plagues it; the unthinking embrace of obviously unqualified politicians like Herman Cain; the notion that "real American" culture is something other than pluralistic; the unseriousness about governing; its frustrating inability to distinguish between mutually beneficial compromise on one hand and betrayal of principle on the other; the veneration of hucksters like Glenn Beck and blowhards like Rush Limbaugh; the double-think that characterizes its attitude toward the safety-net; and the subset of its rank and file that expresses personal disdain for all non-conservatives even while casting themselves as disrespected victims. 
 
I've always been far more sympathetic to the Tea Party's rank and file than to its elites. In my experience, an American who shows up to a community protest rally tends to be earnest and well-intentioned, whereas the ideological entertainers they tune into on the way home tend to be cynical, opportunistic hucksters who constantly misinform while selling cheap anger and gold at obscene markups.  
 
I've argued in many posts that right-wing media regularly and egregiously misinforms its Tea Party audiences, whose trust in talk radio and Fox News is misplaced, and called on conservatives who know better to affirm as much. As I see it, Tea Partiers would be furious if they understood the degree to which they're misled, and would manage a better movement if better served by conservative media.
 
Today's correspondent, an Army veteran, argues that I am too easy on the rank and file:
I've been thinking a lot about your critiques of right-wing media, and feel I could add something. My grandfather was a war hero, and even though I'm educated, urban, and not particularly interested in giant nation building projects in Afghanistan and Iraq, I enlisted (that is, enlisted rather than becoming an officer) as a special operations soldier in the Army. Before, after, and in between deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, I was stationed in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where I lived with the same white male southerners who make up the majority of the GOP base. They seethe listening to Rush every morning on their commute to the base, they seethe during the day where Fox News often plays in the office from 9-5, and they come back fully believing everything Glenn Beck told them that evening (I left the army in February, and remember Beck having a demonstrable affect on the moods of some of Army leadership while he was still on Fox).  I lived with the Tea Party like Barbara Ehrenreich living with the poor, like that dude who changed his skin color and wrote Black Like Me. I know them, drink with them, and count them as my friends.
 
Before I get into what I think you're missing in your writing about the Tea Party, I want to elaborate where I stand on certain things. I'm a registered Democrat who strongly favors green tech and neoliberal redistribution, as well as drone strikes against Al Qaeda operatives. I'm not very troubled by CIA torture. In other words, my politics are almost completely opposite of yours.  Yet I read you regularly without becoming enraged or offended, because I appreciate your perspective and enjoy smart challenges to my beliefs. The way I engage in thinking about public policy is either out of an earnest attempt to improve my country or an intellectual curiosity that causes me to seek the truth.  
 
This is fundamentally different from the way that Tea Partiers are engaging politics. For them, it's a kind of therapy. A lot of the men I knew who were Tea Partiers were angry for a variety of non-political reasons.  The didn't like military service, but did not feel they could gain employment out of the army or complete a Bachelor's degree (even though their education would be fully funded by the post-911 GI Bill) . Their girlfriend or wife slept with their Facebook friends while they were deployed (sexual inadequacy is a huge part of this. I never met a Tea Partier that got laid a lot).  In short, they are angry folks with problems, and rather than address their own problems they vent through talk radio and Fox News.  It's not their lack of a college education that's holding them back. 
 
It's "nigbama".
 
It's not their lack of charisma and the fact that they live in a town with many more men than women that is preventing them from attracting a female. It's "feminists."   
 
These people really don't care if they are being lied to. Rush, Glenn and Roger Ailes are responding to a market demand for scapegoating. Presumably, they couldn't just bash unnamed liberals for ten years and keep making money, so they expand their targets: immigrants, women on birth control, and now apparently every senator but Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. It's like the old debate about sexuality in art and music. Mass media reflects human promiscuity, it doesn't drive it. Rush and company are reflecting the beliefs that Tea Partiers crave.
 
They are responding to the market need for bullshit.  
 
Before you say, perhaps the Tea Partiers I knew in Fayetteville are not representative, and perhaps they were just more gullible than your average fellow, consider this: My job in the army, and their job as well, was what's known as a 37F, or Psychological Operations Specialist (we are now known as Military Information Support Operations because PSYOP sounded sketchy). In other words, manipulating information to influence a target audience and producing propaganda WAS OUR PAID PROFESSION.  If anyone should be able to realize that Steve Doocy is full of shit, it would be the generators of information warfare. It would be like a UFC fighter not knowing that Professional Wrestling is fake. They all, on some level, know they are consuming bullshit from these media figures, but they not only accept it, they demand it.
 
I'll give you a perfect example.
 
Before the shutdown, one of my friends texts me and says "I bet you're really upset to see [extremely racist terms for Obamacare] about to go away," and we talked shit to each other for a while like army veterans deployed together often do. A few days into the shutdown, I saw Ted Cruz on Hannity seething about how the shutdown—Obama and Harry Reid's shutdown—was screwing military families (who had soldiers that didn't come home from Afghanistan) out of there death benefits. I know the Tea Partiers understood it was Ted Cruz who was responsible for the shutdown, because they were texting me about it before it even happened! I bet your median Fox viewer knows that Ted Cruz was behind the shutdown, because he planned it not in backrooms but openly on talk radio and Fox News. But I bet all of them watched that interview and seethed, "oh that Obama, screwing the troops!"  
 
Even though they know on some level it is bullshit.

What do I have to say in response? I take these to be an intelligent fellow's earnest observations, which isn't to say that he is correct in all his assertions. (It would be fascinating to hear a rebuttal from his Tea Party buddies.) But let's say, for the sake of argument, that he has given us a substantially accurate portrayal of the particular subculture where he lived, worked and socialized. It's totally possible. I've certainly interacted with Tea Partiers like the ones he describes, and he isn't the only reader to insistently tell me that this is the true face of the Tea Party.

But I don't think the Tea Party has any one true face.

I've just seen too many other Tea Party subcultures to agree that the one he describes is representative. By virtue of where I live and where I grew up, I am most familiar with Tea Partiers in Orange County and the Inland Empire, the two "red" enclaves in greater Los Angeles. The Tea Partiers I know are mostly happily married college graduates, no more or less familiar with the opposite sex than anyone else, and more likely to own a small business than to have served in the military. They aren't representative of the movement as a whole either, which exists in enough different regions that no Tea Party subculture is entirely representative. There is, however, one generalization about the Tea Party that's true across regions: They're older than the population as a whole, and I would argue that, like older people of every ideology, they're less media-savvy than younger cohorts and less likely to go beyond newspapers, TV, and radio for news.

There are lots of exceptions—lots of grandparents who use the Internet with ease, and a thriving Tea Party-affiliated blogosphere, as any Instapundit reader can attest. Still, there is a large cohort of non-Internet using, older Tea Partiers who are particularly vulnerable to the information bubble surrounding Fox News and talk radio. Consuming the Sean Hannity show or Rush Limbaugh's radio program, they aren't unwitting naifs, and they deserve some censure for tuning in and applauding even through the ugliest, least defensible segments. Some of why they listen is nothing more than signaling and venting.

There are also Tea Partiers who listen because they want to think about politics. They regard conservative media as a place to get facts that inform their civic participation, and many talk-radio hosts regularly take on the persona of educators. I maintain that lots of conservative media is misleading and brazenly mendacious in particular ways that non-news junkies, especially non-news junkies who don't use the Internet, can't be expected to figure out on their own.

As an example, consider Sean Hannity's much maligned interview segment on Obamacare. Take it away, Eric Stern:

I happened to turn on the Hannity show on Fox News last Friday evening. “Average Americans are feeling the pain of Obamacare and the healthcare overhaul train wreck,” Hannity announced, “and six of them are here tonight to tell us their stories.”  Three married couples were neatly arranged in his studio, the wives seated and the men standing behind them, like game show contestants.

As Hannity called on each of them, the guests recounted their “Obamacare” horror stories: canceled policies, premium hikes, restrictions on the freedom to see a doctor of their choice, financial burdens upon their small businesses and so on.

“These are the stories that the media refuses to cover,” Hannity interjected.

But none of it smelled right to me. Nothing these folks were saying jibed with the basic facts of the Affordable Care Act as I understand them. I understand them fairly well; I have worked as a senior adviser to a governor and helped him deal with the new federal rules.

I decided to hit the pavement. I tracked down Hannity’s guests, one by one, and did my own telephone interviews with them.

First I spoke with Paul Cox of Leicester, N.C. He and his wife Michelle had lamented to Hannity that because of Obamacare, they can’t grow their construction business and they have kept their employees below a certain number of hours, so that they are part-timers.

Obamacare has no effect on businesses with 49 employees or less. But in our brief conversation on the phone, Paul revealed that he has only four employees. Why the cutback on his workforce? “Well,” he said, “I haven’t been forced to do so, it’s just that I’ve chosen to do so. I have to deal with increased costs.” What costs? And how, I asked him, is any of it due to Obamacare? There was a long pause, after which he said he’d call me back. He never did.

There is only one Obamacare requirement that applies to a company of this size: workers must be notified of the existence of the “healthcare.gov” website, the insurance exchange.

That’s all.

Did Sean Hannity's viewers realize what was going on? Did they tune in wanting to be misinformed in that way? (The rest of the article goes on in that same vein.) 

Occasionally I'll engage in political debate with a particular Tea Partier. He'll assert what he thinks is a fact, based on something that he saw on Fox News or heard on talk radio. When I tell him, "You're wrong," I am not saying, "I am smarter than you are," or "my ideology is more sound than yours" or "I am more wise or discerning than you." I'm saying, "I spend hours on the Internet every day for my job. As a result of doing so, I have certain knowledge of this specific, narrow question of fact that I wouldn't expect a non-news junkie to have, because while I was digging into this question you were busy doing your day job." 

But it's hard to get that across, because the Tea Partier is predisposed to think everyone in the mainstream media is lying to him, and that Hannity, whose day job is theoretically the same as mine, isn't just straight-up misleading him.

I get it. If you watch Hannity, he doesn't seems like an incompetent or a mendacious huckster. I don't know myself what explains the atrocious quality of his program, just that it frequently broadcasts egregiously misleading content. Fox News higher-ups exploit the fact that there really is some bias and misinformation in the mainstream media; it uses the most sophisticated methods available to identify the personas that the rank and file finds trustworthy; and it misinforms more brazenly than people of good will would think.  

You'd have to suspect that Roger Ailes is a bad person to think he put Glenn Beck on the air for months on end knowing that he was broadcasting wild conspiracy theories with no basis in fact. I don't know if Ailes is a bad man. But does anyone doubt that he knowingly broadcast wild conspiracy theories for profit?

For that, I blame the propagandists, not the propagandized. And I don't think it means that the propagandized are dumb, any more than I think rank-and-file Democrats are dumb when I point how mainstream-media organs or think tanks misinform them about drone-strike casualties or the politics of intervening in Syria. I am not suggesting perfect symmetry; I'm just pointing out that the vast majority of Americans assume the media they consume isn't regularly filled with obvious untruths. While there is media bias across the ideological spectrum, talk radio and Fox News engage in a special kind of misinformation.

The Tea Party rank and file deserves better.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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