Probing the Tea Party's Conspiracy Theorist Fringe

Why does it persist?

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The Tea Party movement proudly boasts an anti-establishment, anti-incumbent, small-government worldview. But, as a movement, it continues to struggle with its conspiracy-minded roots. Andrew Breitbart and other conservatives recently rejected a high-profile birther speech at the first Tea Party convention in Nashville. There, the tension between the Tea Party's mainstream political ambitions and its vocal, conspiracy-theorist fringe was on full display. Clearly, the conspiracy theorists do not make up the whole of the Tea Party, but they are just as clearly a force within the movement. Why is this strain so strong?

  • Populism In Search of Its Villain  Newsweek's Jonathan Kay is worried. "I consider myself a conservative and arrived at this [Tea Party] conference as a paid-up, rank-and-file attendee." However, "it has become clear to me that the movement is dominated by people whose vision of the government is conspiratorial and dangerously detached from reality," he writes. "Like all populists, tea partiers are suspicious of power and influence, and anyone who wields them. Their villain list includes the big banks; bailed-out corporations," and many more. Kay laments as false that "we all simply have come to expect that radicalized conservatives will behave like unhinged paranoiacs when they collect in the same room."
  • Glenn Beck-ism Going Mainstream  Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias writes, "it’s been fascinating to me to watch the extent to which the conservative mainstream has embraced a program that’s an only very slightly prettied up version of this kind of conspiracy-mongering. [...] it's odd and disturbing that conservative elites have actually taken to pushing this stuff."
  • Media Fears Antagonizing Tea Party  Liberal blogger Steve M. thinks that reporters "wouldn't dare write about bad things at the tea party convention -- that would be effete latte-fueled heartland-bashing. Reporting on that crazy talk would conflict with the current narrative, so far better not to hear the talk at all." He argues that reporters and broadcasters don't want to challenge the conservative cause by drawing attention to its potentially embarrassing fringes.
  • Pro-Business Interests Fund Anti-Gov Rhetoric  Liberal blogger Larisa Alexandrovna notes that the Tea Partiers are backed by conservative groups, themselves backed by corporate lobbies. "[T]he current Tea Party is a movement funded by corporations, which then use their members as protest weapons against their own interests." She says these groups at the Tea Party helm are pushing anti-establishment ideas because they threaten the current political leadership, which just happens to be Democratic and thus in favor of regulating businesses.
  • Media Making Fringe Seem Like a Movement   Liberal blogger Jesse Taylor suggests that the media is making the everpresent conspiracy-theory fringe look like a viable political movement. "When a gaggle of people show up to protest pimps and czars ... it’s hard to tease anything coherent or rational or mainstream out of that. But when the press is willing to show up and look at this group of crazies with the inherent presumption that whatever person this group of chaotic lemmings deigns to cheer for is a leader, it then creates the presumption that the leader is also leading something definable and real."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.