At first glance, this may not seem obvious. After all, the most serious estimate of the events’ size – by Nate Silver – suggests that as many as 250,000 people around the country may have participated. That doesn’t sound like a failure.
But, put into context, it is.
The context I’m talking about is what the conservative backers of the events hoped –and in fact desperately needed – to happen.
The objective of the campaign was to demonstrate that there really was a significant grass-roots surge of opposition growing to the Obama administrations’ economic and political agenda – a surge of opposition that was not reflected in the opinion polls. To be a success in these terms, the events had to convincingly show a genuine and spontaneous groundswell of “ordinary folks” coming out in cities, towns across America. If the protests turned out to be just a spring break reunion of the same, pissed-off gang who showed up for the Sarah Palin rallies last fall, it would be a huge failure.
Here’s how the FreedomWorks website put it:
“These events are not simply showcasing conservative ire, but recruiting volunteers to join the ranks of FreedomWorks as we march on to our membership goal of a million activists committed to liberty; a force capable of not only doing battle with the Left, but winning.”
And here is Debbie Ellis Dooby, grassroots coordinator for FreedomWorks in Georgia:
“I think of what General Yamamoto said after he had been told of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He said, ‘They have just succeeded in awakening a sleeping giant’. I think that’s what’s happening now, the awakening of a Silent Majority”
The organizers did not necessarily think they would reach their goals immediately, but the urgent political and public relations objective they urgently needed to achieve was to exceed the size of the major peace, anti-Bush and pro-immigration demonstrations of the preceding years. They needed to be able to say that “the real America” had now come out, dwarfing the puny demonstrations of the “Loony Left” and their followers.
They didn’t succeed.
As Chris Bowers details, the February 15th 2003 anti-Iraq invasion protests produced substantially larger crowds in major US cities — in New York – 100,000, in Los Angeles – 50-60,000, in San Francisco – 150,000, in Seattle – 50,000, in Chicago – 10,000.
And then there were the 2006 “national day of action for immigration justice” demonstrations – several hundred thousand people participated in Washington, DC, more than 100,000 in Los Angeles and the same in Phoenix, Arizona. 30,000-40,000 turned out in Atlanta and lesser numbers in scores of cities.
By contrast, according to Nate Silver’s estimates the biggest Tea Party – in Atlanta, where Sean Hannity spoke, attracted around 7,000 people. Then came Denver, Phoenix, Madison, San Antonio, Olympia, Lansing, Jacksonville, Oklahoma City and Dallas with around 4,500-5,000 participants in each. At the next level were cities like Sacramento, Tulsa, Hartford, Sioux Falls, Cincinnati, and Nashville -with 3,000-4,000 each. Smaller cities across the country had correspondingly smaller turnouts.
All together, Silver estimated about 250,000 participated across the county – significantly less than either the anti-war or pro-immigration protests.
And don’t think for a moment the conservative movement wasn’t absolutely desperate to beat those comparisons. The best proof is the complete absence of headlines trumpeting the “historic” turnout numbers on the Fox website today. Somewhere in the graphics department over at Fox HQ graphic designers have been deleting useless files with all sorts of lurid background visuals they had prepared for today – – visuals covered with flags, eagles and headlines saying “A Million Patriots stand up for America”, “The Silent Majority Shows Obama Its Muscle”, “Biggest Grass-Roots Protests in US history Shake Obama Administration To Its Core”, “Million-Plus Tea Bag Protesters Send Obama unmistakable Message” and so on.
In fact, the ultimate effect of the Tea Bag Party protests was, in political terms, actually counterproductive. Rather than impressing and intimidating the Obama administration and impressing non-base voters, the relatively modest size of the protests has reassured the administration and had no effect on most Americans. A protest movement needs tens of thousands of people to show up in a range of major cities to make a significant political impression, it needs thousands of people in mid-sized and smaller cities and hundreds in small towns. The Tea Bag protests were, in general, an order of magnitude smaller in each category. In fact, they looked like just what they were – gatherings of the rock-ribbed conservative base that everyone already knew was out there.
Bottom line: in political terms, the demonstrations didn’t move the dial at all. Result: the big, really big winner of the day was Barack Obama.
The day was also an unmitigated – and I mean really unmitigated — disaster for Fox news. They went way, way out on a limb to promote the Tea Party protests, making them a critical test of Fox News’ ability to actually mobilize conservative voters and get them on the streets as opposed to just selling them barbeque grills and preparation H. Fox head Roger Ailes, who is usually quite savvy, let himself get caught in the trap of allowing the size of the events to become a decisive “show of strength” of the network’s political clout. Instead it turned into a disastrous “show of weakness” that clearly demonstrated that Obama does not have to fear them in the future.
Rupert Murdoch, despite his recent protestations, may very well be just as conservative as Ailes. But this was just stupid, and Murdoch doesn’t like stupid. It’s a damn good bet that he won’t ever let Ailes pull this kind of stunt again.
Obama must be smiling.
P.S. Unlike Fox News, FreedomWorks and the related coordinating groups actually did pretty well. They ended up with the lists of local organizers and the recognized “clearing house” websites for the protests.
They may very well find, however, that hearty “salt of the earth”, grass-roots types don’t take orders like the nice little CPAC interns with neat suits and ties that they are used to. They are going to have a bit of a culture shock when they try to tell a pot-bellied guy with a “Don’t Tread On Me” teashirt, a grey pony tail , a Mossberg 12- gauge pump, and a vintage Harley to follow their orders because they know better than he does what’s best for America.
That, however, is a discussion for another day.