What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, on Tax Day 2010, we witnessed what was probably the apex of the Tea Party movement. At that time, the media swarmed right-wing tax protests and eagerly reported on the activities of the burgeoning grassroots movement.
As I wrote then, conservatives had not earned the attention that reporters lavished upon them by turning out huge numbers of people to their events. In fact, their demonstrations were significantly smaller than marches in favor of immigrant rights that were taking place the same month. (Remember those? Unless you attended one, you probably don't, since they didn't get a lot of airplay.)
Instead of numbers, the Tea Partiers got attention by virtue of having momentum. Since news reporters are accustomed to seeing protests by leftists, the idea that right-wingers were embracing grassroots, take-to-the-streets tactics had a counterintuitive feel, which is always compelling to the mainstream press. Furthermore, since the right had been so badly beaten just a year before by the Obama "hope" machine, the idea that conservatives had regrouped and organized a backlash was an attractive narrative.
Building on this foundation, the Tea Partiers deployed generous astroturf funding, and they used the platforms afforded by Fox News and conservative talk radio to generate hype about their events. They created a feeling among participants and reporters alike that they were onto something big. And this produced a positive feedback loop of greater attention and greater involvement.
In other words, the Tea Party successfully generated the sense of momentum that is all-important in doing this type of large-scale, media-driven organizing.
That was then. Whatever momentum it once had, it's lost it. Coverage of local Tea Party events has faded, Glenn Beck is now headed off of his flagship Fox News show, and Sarah Palin has had some of her most low-profile months since exploding onto the national scene in 2008.
Partly, the conservatives are suffering from their own success. As a result of the midterm elections, there are now prominent elected officials who claim the Tea Party mantle, both in statehouses and in Washington, D.C. Like Obama when he took office, they've had to make the transition from running an insurgent campaign to actually governing. They've had to defend their positions as public policy, not just theatrics.
In this context, some of the fringe characters who were useful as grassroots protest figures have proven to be embarrassments for Republicans who are now in positions of power. That's why, as Media Matters reported, a variety of conservatives breathed a sigh of relief when they heard that Beck was gone:
Jennifer Rubin, who writes the Washington Post's Right Turn column, told Media Matters, "It is good news for the conservative movement, especially at a time when serious and innovative individuals like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio are demonstrating leadership and far-sightedness while maintaining a tone of civility."
Jesse Walker, managing editor of Reason magazine, told Media Matters that "Beck was always someone who went off the reservation and he got criticism from other conservatives....He got a lot of his facts wrong."
The likes of Ryan and Rubio are even too much for some more institutionally entrenched Republicans, such as House Speaker John Boehner. These figures have been lukewarm about Ryan's budget plan, keeping some distance between themselves and freshman radicals in the House.
Whereas the Tea Partiers have lost momentum, progressives have gained it. Mass protests in Wisconsin in reaction to Republican Governor Scott Walker's attacks have galvanized the left. And if you search for information about Tax Day protests this year, you're likely to find notice of actions by US Uncut. This organization is targeting corporate tax cheats and working to get businesses like G.E. and Bank of America to pay their fair share to address public fiscal woes. The group takes inspiration from UK Uncut, which has made a big splash in Britain over the past six months, notably affecting public discussion about austerity policies in that country.
U.S. Uncut scored a media coup this week with a Yes Men-style hoax in which it issued a fake press release indicating that G.E. (which is paying no federal income taxes this year despite immense profits) would give more than $3 billion in tax benefits back to the government. After news organizations such as the AP fell for the stunt, corporate spokespeople were forced to announce that, no, they wouldn't be giving anything back at all.
U.S. Uncut spokesperson (and notorious prankster) Andrew Boyd discusses the action here:
Other groups are in the mix as well. MoveOn.org has more than 30,000 people "participating in a rolling fast to protest the immoral budget cuts Republicans are pushing in Washington." Their video about their campaign, featuring Moby, is here:
These efforts are encouraging. That said, the fact that momentum has swung toward progressives on Tax Day 2011 does not mean that left demands will be translated into policy anytime soon. (Currently, we're still very much fighting defensive battles.) Nor does it mean that any group has a good plan for how to further ramp up protests from here. Hoping for the best, I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for that.
[Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.]