The Tea Party Movement: Who's In Charge?

Here is the organizational landscape of the April 15 tea party movement, in a nutshell: three national-level conservative groups, all with slightly different agendas, are guiding it. All are quick to tell you that the movement is a bottom-up affair and that its grassroots cred is real.

They are: FreedomWorks, the conservative action group led by Dick Armey; dontGO, a tech savvy free-market action group that sprung out of last August's oil-drilling debate in the House of Representatives; and Americans for Prosperity, an issue advocacy/activist group based on free market principles. Conservative bloggers, talk show hosts, and other media figures have attached themselves to the movement in peripheral capacities. Armey will appear at a major rally in Atlanta, FreedomWorks said.

All three groups vehemently deny that the movement is a product of AstroTurfing--fake grassroots activism organized from the top down--as some on the left have claimed. They will tell you that citizens-turned-activists, upset with President Obama's economic agenda and the financial bailout, have been calling them, asking for help and how they can organize protests on Wednesday. The movement, they say, is entirely organic: they are mostly providing help and resources to this new class of outraged conservative free-market populists, some of whom are their own members and some of whom are outsiders to politics with whom they've never communicated before--not even on an e-mail list.

FreedomWorks and dontGO seem to have taken ownership of the bulk of this coordination. The homepage of FreedomWorks' website now offers visitors a Google map of protests taking place across the country. They say they know of 600 Tax Day protests for which they are providing resources. The group has used its e-mail list to augment the work of dontGO, which created the website in February. dontGO, which was formed as an online rapid response team during the House of Representatives oil drilling debate last year, says it is "tracking" 700 events under its aegis. Americans for Prosperity says it has 24 state chapters that are organizing events. Overlap between all those numbers is quite likely: FreedomWorks told me a lot of its activity has been clueing its members to other protests in the area, so protesters can cooperate and conglomerate their events.

The movement is not tied to the Republican Party, group spokesmen said, despite a report that at least 10 House Republicans will be speaking at events across the country. Eric Odom, founder of dontGO, has infamously turned down a request from Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele to speak at the group's Chicago event.

Spokesmen for all three groups said they are not aware of any contact (other than the Steele incident) between their groups and federal-level Republican politicians, at the national level at least; Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), however, will speak at an Americans for Prosperity-organized event in Wisconsin, a spokesman for that group said. His appearance was organized by the group's Wisconsin chapter, Policy Director Phil Kerpen told me.

The three groups each want something different out of the protests.

FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon sees them as an opportunity for the right to catch up to the left in terms of grassroots activity, incorporating the activist-network model used most effectively by

"Activists in general have learned a lot from the last election," Brandon told me. "You'd see 50 people standing outside a gas station. We feel just as strong about our issues."

Progressive groups have employed that strategy in support of the same economic agenda the tea party protests seek to overturn: groups like ACORN and Americans United for Change have utilized their e-mail lists of supporters to organize field events across the country in support of the stimulus.

And in copying the left's model, Brandon says, FreedomWorks is no more guilty of AstroTurfing than MoveOn is.

"If you look at MoveOn's model...if you consider that AstroTurfing, I'd probably have to say that we're AstroTurfing," Brandon told me. But if critics assume the organization is top-down, he said, "they're gonna underestimate us."

FreedomWorks will place volunteers at some of the events to collect e-mail addresses and try to grow the group's network of activists. In the same way the Iraq war helped liberals recruit new activists, Brandon hopes Obama's economic agenda will fill conservative e-mail lists and coffers with new support.

dontGO founder Odom, on the other hand, does not see a parallel between his group and liberal ones like MoveOn. His vision for the movement is much more libertarian and revolutionary

"Their agenda was to get these individuals elected. Our agenda is to declare war on incumbency and long term power," Odom told me.

Hence the rejection of Steele's request. The goal is "not to promote Republicans at all," Odom said. "I voted for Bob Barr."

"I think April 15th is going to provide an environment in which a completely new movement comes out of that [conservative response to Obama's economic agenda] networks, new groups...the birth of a completely new base," Odom said.

As far as Fox News's promotion of the tea parties, promising coverage on Tax Day (and Glenn Beck's encouragement of viewers to attend), Odom said: "I love it. I think it's a very wise business plan. It's about ratings, that's what's going on now. Many people are looking for coverage."

(Indeed, the tea party protests have generated an epistemological problem for observers: most of the coverage has happened on conservative blogs, and it's always hard to tell whether the accounts are accurate, given that the bloggers back the protests, and there's a seed of doubt, sometimes, as to the authenticity of photos. Of course, now the same is true of Fox News, but at least they will have video cameras spread out across the country.)

Americans for Prosperity says it mostly wants to call attention to Obama's economic policies; ostensibly, at least, it does not have broader designs for the conservative movement or the size of its own e-mail list.

"We just think it's a great opportunity for average Americans to show up and make our voices heard," spokesman Erik Telford told me.

All three groups acknowledge that the reported energy behind the tea party movement doesn't have a particularly narrow focus. They're protesting the stimulus, the budget, the financial bailout (signed by President Bush), and more, they say. They also acknowledge that some will show up not out of economic rage, but out of pure opposition to Obama.

When Fox News's cameras start rolling on Wednesday, we will finally find out what the movement consists of. The only problem is the Heisenberg effect of Fox's cameras.