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Is Tea Party a PR Astroturf machine or a smattering of inactive Grassroots groups? The answer is Yes.

After a dogged and systematic effort to contact and characterize every Tea Party group in the nation, the Washington Post publishes an exposé this morning. Its findings:

  • The characterization of the Tea Party brand as a creation of political public relations professionals is accurate. If you look at the largest groups making the greatest impact, these are invariably and closely connected to Republican Party political handlers.

  • The characterization of the Tea Party movement as grassroots groups scattered around the country and initiated by citizen activists who care about the direction in which their country is headed is also accurate. However, these groups tend to have raised little money, to have coordinated very little with one another, and to be inactive in electoral politics.
  • Claims by the “astroturf” (fake grassroots) wing of the Tea Party regarding the breadth and depth of the Tea Party movement are inflated. Tea Party Patriots (one of the Republican-associated PR front groups) publicly proclaims the existence of 2,300 Tea Party groups across the country. But when the Washington Post worked with Tea Party Patriots leadership to identify and contact the supposed 2,300 Tea Party groups, it could verify the existence of only 647. At that point, operative Mark Meckler admitted that he had no idea how many Tea Party organizations there actually are and that he adds “groups” consisting of 1 person and groups that never convene.

The Washington Post’s research implies that the accusations of fakery against the visible media front of the “Tea Party” are largely true. But it also indicates that behind the slick, puffed up PR surface there is a very small but real Tea Party movement of people who aren’t doing much to influence the election but who are sincerely interested in the issues. The PR Astroturf front groups that you see on the TV cynically exploit this movement, tossing on the skin of populist fervor to disguise their Republican-connected professional machinery. The actual people you might encounter who identify as Tea Party participants may have ideas and goals that are rather different from those of the chameleons you see on TV.

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