BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. And here’s Russ Murphy, founder of the Delaware 9-12 Patriots at Christine O’Donnell’s victory rally.
RUSS MURPHY: Hello, Patriots, how are we doing tonight?
[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE] I guess most of you all know who Karl Rove is.
[AFFIRMATIVE RESPONSE FROM AUDIENCE] About a year ago, Karl Rove came to Delaware for a Republican thing, and he asked for a private meetings with the Tea Party groups, the grass root groups, and he tried to convince us how we needed to get behind the candidate that was electable. And I said, sir, with all due respect, no one is going to tell us how to take care of business.
[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE] That is the people.
[CHEERS/APPLAUSE] And you have spoken. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's a word that’s overused every political season, and I'm going to use it again – “narrative.” What is the prevailing narrative? The answer is usually determined by pundits and politicians after testing the political wind, like Karl Rove speaking to FOX’s Sean Hannity about O’Donnell on election night.
KARL ROVE: It does conservatives little good to support candidates who, at the end of the day, while they may be conservative in their public statements do not advance the characteristics of rectitude and truthfulness and sincerity and character that the voters are looking for.
SEAN HANNITY: But I think -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rove knows how to count votes, and polls suggest that roughly 25 percent of Americans support the Tea Party movement, roughly half of the 46 percent of the people who voted for John McCain in 2008. But the Tea Party says it represents the majority. And after this primary night, the Tea Party wrested control of the narrative. That’s good enough for commentators like FOX’s Megyn Kelly and Lars Larson.
LARS LARSON: They put an honest-to-God conservative in, and then you see the Delaware party say we're not going to support our party’s nominee? Thank goodness John Cornyn at the national level has said that the national party will be supporting her. She’s not a nut, she’s not a liberal.
MEGYN KELLY: Well, after he got probably thousands of phone calls from angry Republicans who said, you better reverse your position.
LARS LARSON: That’s – absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The mainstream media, and let's concede that FOX is part of it, jawboned about the power of the people as evinced by the Tea Party wins on Tuesday. Rush Limbaugh summed up the plotline – his usual plotline, actually – but this time it really took off.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: It really is Washington versus the country. I can't tell you, my email started going nuts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did it take off? To be sure, Limbaugh provided a megaphone to amplify the message, and it reverberated on FOX, articulated here in a message from Sarah Palin to her political progeny.
SARAH PALIN: Get out there, speak to the American people, speak through FOX News.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the buzz over the Tea Party is not at its heart a FOX or talk radio creation. The midterm election is evidence of the exponentially growing power and influence of social media. As you'll hear in a world of Twitter and Facebook, tech-savvy ideologues can do what presidents have always dreamed of – ignore the filter of the so-called mainstream media.
BOB GARFIELD: The Tea Party, of course, is not a registered political party, and most of its members vote as Republicans. But even so, the movement takes priority, and its adherents proudly proclaim their freedom from top-down directives. It is no surprise, therefore, that Twitter has become the go-to method of communication for many Tea Partiers. Ken Vogel covers the Tea Party for Politico. Ken welcome to the show.
KEN VOGEL: Hey, great to be with you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in addition to Twitter, Tea Partiers use all kinds of online media to organize themselves. Give me a sense of the landscape.
KEN VOGEL: Well, they definitely use Facebook, Ning, which is a lesser-known social network but is really the home page for a lot of these local Tea Party groups. You have huge email lists. Then you have national groups, like Tea Party Patriots, which is really just a coalition of local groups, and FreedomWorks, run by Dick Armey, the former House Majority Leader, that have upwards of 500,000 emails on their address list. You have Internet-based free conference call services that are used to hold weekly conference calls that routinely attract sometimes hundreds of local Tea Party organizers.
BOB GARFIELD: These social media are very much lattice-like networks, non-hierarchical, grass roots, interconnected, etcetera. Is that a coincidence?
KEN VOGEL: It’s not at all, Bob. They really cling fiercely to this idea that they're leaderless. They've started embracing and recommending to each other this business book, called The Starfish and the Spider, and it has a really attractive thesis, which is that poorly funded groups loosely organized around basic shared ideas can change society, often by outmaneuvering more top-down structures, and the use of social media plays very strongly into that idea.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s a lot of mythology that courses through these various Tea Party social networks – let's say the subject of the President’s birth, for example. Does this kind of communication structure encourage people to constantly revalidate their own misinformation?
KEN VOGEL: There’s certainly an element of that. You see it with the death panels, an idea that Sarah Palin put forth. However, I don't think that you see that any more so in the Tea Party than you do in any other social media-based community. Where I do think you see a significant disadvantage in the Tea Party of having this decentralized social media-based structure is infighting. These groups just split off from one another.
BOB GARFIELD: Everybody fighting for their own version of ideological purity.
KEN VOGEL: There’s certainly some element of that. But you also see it over strategy, whether they should endorse candidates or not endorse candidates, at what level they should get involved. And you do see a fair amount of petty personality-based fighting, as well. Many of these folks are brand new to politics, and having this autonomy gives them encouragement to be their own leader.
BOB GARFIELD: Once upon a time, Obama supporters were insurgents coalescing around various social media. Do you see, based on the kind of online networks that Tea Partiers have assembled, the possibility that they could repeat the Obama magic?
KEN VOGEL: Certainly the Obama campaign had a huge presence on social media. However, it was still less by the candidate, by the Democratic National Committee, and there was a very well funded infrastructure there that was able to channel this online activism into real solid boots-on-the-ground traditional political activities. We don't see that with the Tea Party. However, it’s worth pointing out that that network that Obama built has lost a lot of its energy. So there’s a lesson there for Tea Partiers.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the things you've noticed as an advantage of this kind of latticework communications is the ability for Tea Partiers to police themselves. Tell me about that.
KEN VOGEL: The activists and the big thinkers who are charting strategy for the Tea Party movements are confident that the social network will sort of rise to the challenge of rooting out elements that they deem to be casting a pall over the entire movement. For instance, you saw an element to “cast out the birthers.” There was a real effort to brand them as persona non grata within the Tea Party movement.
BOB GARFIELD: And then after Christine O’Donnell won the Republican nomination in Delaware, there was a huge pile-on, on none other than Karl Rove.
KEN VOGEL: One of the things that really jumps out at me when I look at these various feeds is the extent to which Tea Partiers are motivated by this us against the world mentality. They thrive on being counted out. And the groundswell of energy lashing out at Karl Rove and some other Republican leaders who had suggested that they might not be inclined to support Christine O’Donnell probably did have a role in compelling some of these Republican leaders to come out and express their support, even though literally hours beforehand they were expressing some misgivings about her candidacy.
BOB GARFIELD: Ken, thank you very much.
KEN VOGEL: Hey, my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Ken Vogel is a reporter for Politico. Earlier things week, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman described the Tea Party movement as “hashtag politics.” The hashtag, as Twitter users know, is a short series of characters preceded by a pound sign. Use of a tag allows likeminded users to connect their tweets to an ongoing searchable discussion. One of the most well known Tea Party hashtags is #TCOT, which stands for Top Conservatives on Twitter. Cofounder of this Twitter-specific community is Michael Patrick Leahy. Mike, welcome to On the Media.
MICHAEL PATRICK LEAHY: Thank you very much, Bob, for having me on here.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me the origin of TCOT.
MICHAEL PATRICK LEAHY: Well, after the election of November 2008, the general perception was that the left owned the Internet. Now, there was one new social media tool that had come out, Twitter, so I simply put up a little website and I made a list of the 25 top conservatives on Twitter. And I ranked the top conservatives based upon the number of followers they had. What I discovered is that conservatives on Twitter were, a) lonesome and b)competitive. They all wanted to be on the list. Over the course of about 24 hours I had about a thousand requests.
BOB GARFIELD: So literally overnight [LAUGHS] you became a powerbroker.
MICHAEL PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I wouldn't say that. I think people misunderstand the movement and, you know, there’s been much discussion about is there a leader, is there not. I think it’s fair to say that I helped organize an online community in November of 2008 that launched the Tea Party movement in February of 2009. The core values of the Tea Party movement really were developed collaboratively with thousands of everyday average folks who were on Twitter – #1 Constitutionally limited government, #2 free markets, and #3 fiscal responsibility. And so, we opposed any policies that were counter to those three core values. And the policies really started under the George Bush administration. So it’s the policies that we oppose, not the person.
BOB GARFIELD: One thing I noticed after the O’Donnell primary win on Tuesday, and Karl Rove’s analysis of it, was just this huge piling on of Tea Party sentiment against Karl Rove, the GOP establishment, and hierarchy in particular. And it makes me wonder if the Tea Party movement is not going to tear apart the Republicans before it gets to defeat the Democrats.
MICHAEL PATRICK LEAHY: I think you saw the truth in terms of the way the Tea Party movement perceives the old big government Republicans. We were not happy with the TARP bailout or the auto bailout. I think the Tea Party movement clearly represents the majority of Americans, and the majority of those in both political parties. There will always be, I think, in my opinion, two political parties, but the way they are organized, who leads them and how the agenda is set, you’re witnessing history as that changes this very moment.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Mike. Thanks so much.
MICHAEL PATRICK LEAHY: Well, thank you very much, Bob. I appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Patrick Leahy is cofounder of Top Conservatives on Twitter. His new book, The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party movement is scheduled for publication by HarperCollins in 2011.
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