In a great piece this week for Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi defines the whole Tea Party movement with a few deft keystrokes: "millions of pissed-off white people sent chasing after Mexicans on Medicaid by the handful of banks and investment firms who advertise on Fox and CNBC."
Taibbi spent months interviewing Tea Partiers, attending rallies, and researching the whole organization before he came to this conclusion. Among his findings: many of the most fervent Tea Party critics of government spending on stimulus and health care programs are themselves recipients of government largess--including retirees on Medicare; and Tea Party poster boy Rand Paul attacks Medicare and Medicaid spending but defends doctors like himself taking payments from these programs because they need them to "make a comfortable living."
It is impolitic to attack American voters' intelligence, of course--particularly for Democrats afraid of being labeled elitist and out of touch.
But the deception that the Tea Party's creators are pulling off really leaves you scratching your head.
The financing of the movement has been documented, not only by Taibbi, who cites Dick Armey's Liberty Works and its heavy lifting in creating the whole Tea Party organization, but also by Jane Mayer in her excellent New Yorker piece on the billionaire Koch brothers' rightwing empire.
You don't have to be an investigative reporter to see the obvious contradiction between the underwriters of Tea Party politics and the faux-populist message of the movement's candidates.
In states with close midterm races across the country, the Club For Growth--a collection of big business lobbyists--is buying ads that specifically tar Democrats as “out of touch with the financial plight of average Americans.”
Somehow Republicans, and especially Tea Partiers, are selling economically strapped Americans on the notion that big business-backed candidates are the ones who really understand their plight.
In the race for Russ Feingold's Senate seat in Wisconsin, millionaire plastics manufacturer Ron Johnson, unheard of in the state until this year, has been the beneficiary of some of these ads. Johnson is running a campaign against his "career politician" opponent that leans heavily on Johnson’s experience as a successful businessman. His pitch is, essentially, that being rich and running a successful business means he knows how to reform government to make his supporters rich, too.
Never mind that Johnson's plans include warmed-over trickle-down economics: He supports extending tax breaks for the richest 1 percent, attacks government stimulus and health care spending, and opposes extending unemployment insurance benefits in a recession because “when you continue to extend unemployment benefits, people really don't have the incentive to go take other jobs.”
On the U.S. Constitution--the Tea Party movement's battle flag--Johnson doesn't hold a candle to Feingold. Although he once gave a speech slamming government spying under the Patriot Act, Johnson has since "clarified" his position, explaining that giving up some freedoms is necessary to combat terrorism, and that he fully supports the Patriot Act. Feingold, of course, cast the lone vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act, and has stood by his principled opposition to government violations of civil liberties, habeas corpus, and abuse of executive power, throughout his career.
The fact that Ron Johnson and Rand Paul may win in a couple of weeks is due, everyone tells us, to the "enthusiasm gap"--Tea Partiers are more motivated than the voters who put Obama and the Democrats in office.
But Taibbi sheds some light on the shallows of the Tea Party enthusiasts' real passion.
Sure, economic anxiety, immigrant scapegoating, cultural antipathy to our young, hip, black President, and a hefty dose of good old-fashioned racism play a role.
But mostly, he concludes, the Tea Party consists of a bunch of people who are not all that committed to their own stated ideological positions. It doesn't bother them that much that the leader of a movement that purports to oppose wasteful "welfare handouts" in the form of Medicare payments takes those payments himself from half of his patients, and says he needs them to be "comfortable."
If grassroots enthusiasm isn't the real driver of the Tea Party phenomenon and the Republicans' predicted gains at the polls in November, it's not hard to see what is: lots and lots of money.
How helpful to have a "populist" movement that is entirely tolerant of glaring contradictions like being told by the Club For Growth that only millionaire politicians who oppose unemployment benefits truly understand "the financial plight of ordinary Americans."
If you have enough money to buy enough TV ads, you can sell almost anything to American voters.
Perhaps most importantly, if the campaigns go negative enough--which is the inevitable conclusion of the TV ad wars--voters get so turned off by all the ugly messages they don't come out at all.
Those young voters who responded to Obama's message of hope and change are a fickle lot, as well. The President is trying to persuade them to turn up at the polls again in November with his speaking tour of college campuses, backyard barbeques, and a town hall meeting on MTV. But he is fighting an uphill battle. The tepid, Wall Street-influenced policies he has wrought haven't changed lives enough to make a lot of passionate converts. He can't count on the enthusiasm that got him elected in the first place to keep his party going.
It's not so much an enthusiasm gap the Democrats are suffering from as an enthusiasm vacuum. Into the breach billions of dollars in special interest money are pouring. Shadowy groups, taking cover under the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision allowing direct political spending by corporations, have already spent five times as much on this round of midterm elections as they did last time, according to the Washington Post, with less than half the money given by donors whose names are disclosed.
"The bulk of the money is being spent by conservatives, who have swamped their Democratic-aligned competition by 7 to 1 in recent weeks," The Post reports. "The wave of spending is made possible in part by a series of Supreme Court rulings unleashing the ability of corporations and interest groups to spend money on politics. Conservative operatives also say they are riding the support of donors upset with Democratic policies they perceive as anti-business."
Make no mistake: business interests, not voter enthusiasm, are driving politics this season. Ever since the Supreme Court decided that money is speech, the voices on the right have gotten louder. The least political analysts and reporters could do is to acknowledge this: The "enthusiasm gap" is really a spending gap.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "School Food Wars."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter