What Tea Party Did Tom Friedman Go To?


Sign at Tea Party protest. Obviously a message about Republican deficit spending.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has a piece today (7/1/13) about the revolts we’re seeing a number of countries–Turkey, Egypt (once again), Brazil. He gives his usual rap about globalization, the changing job market and the need to be a dynamic self-starter in order to make in today’s world.

But his reference to U.S. politics stuck out. He explains that “too many big political parties today are just vehicles for different coalitions to defend themselves against change,” and this is true here as well as around the world:  

So people take to the streets, forming their own opposition.

In America, the Tea Party began as a protest against Republicans for being soft on deficits, and Occupy Wall Street as a protest against Democrats for being soft on bankers.

That is an odd characterization of  Occupy, which most of the time tried to stress that the problem with banking interests controlling the political process was bipartisan. It’s not that he’s wrong, but the emphasis seems a little off.

But his characterization of the Tea Party is wrong about the target of their anger, as well as the political motivations behind that anger. How many people watched the Tea Party protests and thought, “Boy, are they mad at the  Republicans!”? Clearly the bulk of the energy behind that movement was directed at Democrats and the Obama White House.

CNBC's Rick Santelli

CNBC’s Rick Santelli

And was the political goal really to say something about deficits? Hardly. The main “spark” for the movement came via a rant by a February 2009 CNBC analyst Rick Santelli. He was mad about a mortgage bailout proposal that he thought would “subsidize the loser’s mortgages.” (CJR‘s Ryan Chittum wrote a great account of the rant and the politics of the Tea Party–2/19/09.) Santelli was clear that he was representing the interests of bankers and financial analysts: “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m going to start organizing it.”

And a short while later, the actual Tea Party protests began. That energy was soon transferred to the debate over healthcare, and opposition to the Obama administration’s plan as a Big Government plot. 

And it was rather difficult not to notice that the protests were largely about Obama himself–raising all sorts of obvious questions about opposition to the first black president, who was depicted as radically left-wing, possibly Muslim and maybe not born in the United States. That’s not to say that this was what defined the Tea Party; but the intense animosity expressed towards Obama, some of it clearly racist, was not a coincidence.

Of course, some in the Tea Party movement were mindful enough to mention now and again that they were really upset about all that government spending–it’s just that somehow their protests never got off the ground during the Bush years, oddly enough. And somehow the main spokespeople for the movement were people like a far-right Republican politician (Michele Bachmann) and a far-right media personality (Glenn Beck). 

Friedman’s not the first person to offer a baffling take on the Tea Party–Times columnist David Brooks (6/14/11; FAIR Blog, 6/15/11) wrote that it was about critiquing the “unholy alliance between business and government that is polluting the country.”

But Friedman’s garbled recollection of a major U.S. political movement is a reminder that someone who doesn’t understand the politics of his own country is probably not going to give you a lot of help understanding the politics of other people’s countries.


About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.