Last weekend rallies were held in all 50 states in support of the teachers’ union in Wisconsin. And at the Wisconsin state capitol, at least 70,000 people came out on Saturday to protest Governor Walker’s attempt to break the union.
Sounds like a big deal, right? Hundreds of thousands of people turned out on behalf of teachers in one state who were holding out for collective bargaining rights, despite opposition from Republicans and from bigtime “liberal” columnists who also consider schoolteachers grossly overcompensated.
Yet rightbloggers dismissed these demos as paltry, insignificant, and a failure.
To understand why they think so, we need to review the history of the Tea Party, which has sometimes summoned big crowds itself.
We have followed the progress of the TP movement from tiny shoots to mighty oaks. Their greatest street-action achievements have probably been the April 15 “Tax Day” demos they’ve summoned in protest of the burden of Federal taxation.
The national 2009 Tax Day rallies were well-publicized before the fact by the constant coverage of rightbloggers and by an organization called FreedomWorks, which is connected via Citizens for a Sound Economy to the Koch Brothers, of whose well-funded efforts on behalf of conservatism you’ve probably heard a bit in recent months.
FreedomWorks promoted the 2009 Tax Day rallies on a local and national basis with press outreach and other PR tools that helped spread the word to likeminded people. Rightbloggers also did their part, as did Fox News, et alia.
On Tax Day 2009, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an editorial by Dick Armey, former GOP Congressman and, it so happened, FreedomWorks Chairman, asking, “‘TEA PARTIES’: THE NEXT GRASS-ROOTS MOVEMENT?” and answering in the affirmative: “Just as the original Boston Tea Party was a grass-roots rebellion against overbearing government, tea party participants are reacting to government that has grown too large… Big-spending politicians beware: Organized taxpayers are watching votes and are getting ready for Election Day.”
Armey also said that “the tea parties were organized online, through Facebook and Twitter,” but didn’t mention his organization’s involvement in promoting their work.
National attendance for those gatherings was good, but there was some debate as to how good. Reports were wildly divergent. The Atlantic estimated total attendance at “a bare minimum” of about 26,000, but clearly missed many gatherings outside large metropolitan areas. Demographer Nate Silver put the tally at 300,000+. Nervous reporters who’d been lambasted as fatally prejudiced by conservatives tried to be nice. “By some estimates,” the Christian Science Monitor carefully said, “over half a million Americans took to the streets last Wednesday to protest taxes and Washington spending.” Tea Party supporters leaned on the high end, with estimates reaching over 600,000.
With so many events to be tallied, attendance figures became a game of Who Do You Trust, with the hated Main Stream Media, despite their best efforts, generally accused of downgrading the events for their own nefarious purposes (“Besides leaving the impression that the Tea Parties were modest affairs, The [New York] Times chose the two silliest photos it could find to illustrate the article,” etc).
This problem persisted with the Tax Day protests the following year, which were abetted by the usual suspects. Attendance, stimulated by the upcoming elections, was clearly larger than the 2009 number — but how much larger, and than which number? Wikipedia’s roundup suggested a few hundred thousand attendees; Tea Party supporters claimed attendance of over a million.
You would of course expect any movement hoping to portray itself as America’s destiny to try and get the most flattering estimate of its numbers in front of the public. But as conservatives, Tea Partiers are hard-wired to accuse the Main Stream Media of misrepresenting them. So time and time and time again they told people — mostly each other — that the media’s portrayal of their strength was utterly untrustworthy, and that only the Elect could know how powerful the Party really was. If they said it was million, then it was a million. Why would they lie?
Now jump forward to last weekend’s rallies. Organizing was clearly done by labor unions, who are powerful and very good at that sort of thing. But as the Wisconsin crisis is only a few weeks old, their organizing had to be done on the fly.
How their organizing advantage compares to that of the Tea Party nexus of rightwing moneymen and (let us say) community organizers with many more months of preparation for their big events, we leave to readers to judge. But the weekend events were nonetheless impressive.
You wouldn’t know it, though, from the report of Professor William Jacobson at Legal Insurrection, who flatly declared, “50-State Union Protest Falls Far Short Of Predicted Turnout.”
Jacobson cited an assertion by a correspondent from The Nation that the pro-union events would draw a million people — an optimistic target, to say the least. Jacobson compared this fanciful target to his own tally of pro-union turnout in 19 cities, which he admitted was not a “complete count,” but by which he nonetheless determined the protests “(excluding Madison) likely totaled under 100,000 combined,” and declared the correspondent’s goal, which he conflated with that of the movement, pathetically unrealized.
But excluding the Wisconsin capital is one hell of an exclusion, as it drew at least 70,000 protesters. (Rightblogger Donald Douglas went off-script and reported it at 100,000.) Also consider the other rallies Jacobson excluded: San Francisco, for example, reported
50,000 2,000 attendees.
Neither did the Professor include tallies from, for example, Trenton, NJ (“thousands”), Albany (“hundreds”), Boise (“close to 400”), Portsmouth, MA (800), Raleigh, NC (“hundreds”), Tallahassee (250), Philadelphia (1000), St. Paul (1000), Tucson (“hundreds”), Columbia, SC (125), Olympia, WA (2000), Pittsburgh (“several hundred”), Salem, OR (1000), Milwaukee (“hundreds”), Charleston, WV (“250”), Topeka, KS (“hundreds”), Springfield, IL (“several hundred”), Lincoln, NE (250), Albuquerque, NM (“hundreds”), Medford, OR (“several hundred”), et alia.
That’s just a fast skim of what’s been reported so far, and with Madison’s contingent it more than doubles the Professor’s tally. At the rate other counts are trickling in, we can safely say
a quarter million over 200,000 showed up (*Maybe not; see Update). Not what the Nation guy claimed to expect, but not bad at all for rush work — and in a cause that conservatives constantly claim is highly unpopular.
Can’t we all agree, in this age of Tea, that people taking to the streets to express displeasure with their government is a good thing? Can’t a brother (excuse, a fellow citizen) get even a golf clap up in here?
Not a chance. Rightbloggers spread the story that the liberals had crapped out. “National Day of Rage Fails to Turn Out Big Crowds,” said The Lonely Conservative. “Dems Left Red-Faced; Protesters Fail to Materialize,” said the ever-exciting Jim Hoft. “MoveOn, Union Sponsored Rallies Flop, Big Time,” claimed HazZzMat. Etc.
Others who observed the rallies played them off as commie- and thug-infested, so it didn’t matter that they existed. “It just so happened that Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin and Barack Obama’s former green jobs czar and self-admitted communist Van Jones stopped by to show their support,” said the D.C. correspondents from Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government. They also saw a sign that said “Keep your laws off my body, and I’ll keep my hands off your throat” and pretended to be mortally offended.
Meanwhile back in Madison, a Fox news correspondent claimed to see “hate” in the eyes of protesters, which diagnosis was widely reported by the brethren. And Ann Althouse, who had previously and public-spiritedly tracked and taped two municipal street-salters who honked their horns in support of the protesters (“Obviously, we taxpayers pay for the salt trucks and the employees who drive them and we expect those trucks to be used to make the streets all over town safe, not to circle the Capitol Square for other purposes”), complained that the capitol crowd “disrespectfully have taped signs on and piled junk against the Veterans Memorial,” which also became a national outrage. For her efforts Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit nominated Althouse for “the blog equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize,” which we suppose would be a pog strung on a chain of paper clips.
In more exalted precincts, National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson compared what he considered to be the easy lot of Wisconsin schoolteachers to this one time he was working part-time as a farmhand and had no paid leave. Hanson became a college professor, and found “teaching was the antithesis of everything brutal in the private sector.” His conclusion, naturally, was not that farmers should have it better, but that teachers should have it worse, or at least worse than National Review columnists.
Now the weekend is over and the Wisconsin drama is entering its late stage. With union trouble also brewing in Ohio and Indiana, we may expect more agitation in the days to come. The part rightbloggers will play in it is predicable — in fact, we may say, preordained. What we can’t know is how they’ll take it if working people persist in pushing back against the conservative drive to make things worse for them. Badly, we expect.
Update: Numbers for the San Francisco rally corrected.
*Update, March 1: Professor Jacobson has complained about this estimate. Having since then combed through news reports, and in the absence of an authoritative count, we figure total attendance may well be closer to his figure than to ours — still “not bad at all for rush work,” as we wrote (which was the point of that section), but probably not as high as we thought.