It is universally acknowledged that celebrities who are rabidly followed by the media are often lacking in value or substance. How do we know this? Because headlines about Tiger Woods and cocktail waitresses hold people’s attention for far longer than in-depth discussions about the long-term costs of health care. It’s an issue that has been brought to the forefront again and again in the mainstream media–just remember Mika Brzezinski’s public refusal to lead off a 2007 MSNBC newscast with a story about Paris Hilton’s release from jail.
The 2010 embodiment of this trend is Heidi Montag. Montag, if you’re not familiar, found fame in the pseudo-reality show “The Hills,” and she recently made headlines for getting ten plastic surgery procedures in one day. She is currently trying to transform her reality TV fame into a musical career. In the pursuit of this goal, she recently released an album (don’t worry about its name). It achieved the level of success you might expect.
In a recent TIME Magazine column, Joel Stein set out to find the few people who will admit to buying Heidi Montag’s new album. He interviewed three fans and concluded that the 658 people who bought Montag’s album were mostly young pop-music lovers who know Montag from MTV. Stein wrote that they “don’t realize being a star is different from being a celebrity.” The fans expected that because they enjoyed her character on “The Hills,” her music would be satisfying as well.
Stein’s words lingered in the back of my mind, where unresolved dilemmas tend to lie dormant. Then, as I was writing my last column, it came to me: What movement in politics today is famous purely for existing? The same one that hasn’t elected any candidates, decided on a leader, or even created a coherent platform of beliefs. That’s right: the Tea Party.
Since its birth roughly one year ago, the Tea Party movement has earned significant press coverage purely for its unusual protests featuring tea bags as a form of complaint about taxation. The movement has become famous because it is a lightning rod for right-wing anger, and in the year or so since it began, it has made no progress toward consistent or coherent policy proposals. David Barstow, an investigative journalist for the New York Times, wrote a 4,500-word article about the movement last Tuesday in which he characterized the Tea Party movement as a “platform for conservative populist discontent” that brings in libertarians, militia groups, anti-immigration advocates, and those in favor of abolishing the Federal Reserve. This is not a group of people that is going to come up with a coherent governing philosophy.
This begs the question: Has the Tea Party movement become a celebrity? Has its rhetoric, however scattered, resonated with the American people? In a Pew poll conducted from Feb. 3-9, the Tea Party movement garnered ratings of 33 percent favorable and 25 percent unfavorable, with 42 percent of respondents saying they had never heard of it. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted from Feb. 4-8 found that 40 percent of people expressed a negative opinion of the Tea Party movement, while 35 percent expressed positive opinions. An Economist/YouGov poll conducted from Feb. 13-16 found that 49 percent had a favorable opinion and 51 percent had an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party movement. (The question was only asked of respondents who were aware of the movement.) The Tea Party’s popularity appears to be split fairly evenly among those who have heard of it, and it is clearly a movement that has attracted a significant number of Americans.
It seems that in today’s media culture, anyone who is given a megaphone is automatically granted celebrity status. Fox News and the Internet have combined to give the Tea Party movement a very large megaphone. What they have done with this megaphone isn’t particularly coherent, but much of it has been heard at a high volume. While the Tea Party movement does deserve attention, thus far it has been merely a lightning rod for dissatisfaction with the government, which is being translated into a conservative resurgence that portends gains for the Republican Party. The movement claims to despise mainstream politics, including the Republican Party, and is furious with favorite Sarah Palin’s recent promise to campaign for John McCain. The movement described by Barstow as a “big-tent” and “sprawling rebellion” is being channeled into votes for a party it wants nothing to do with.
Let me be clear: My point isn’t that the Tea Party movement should not exist, or even that its leaders raise entirely bad ideas. It’s just that the attention it has been getting is entirely undeserved. Furthermore, the tenor of its contributions to political discourse is highly damaging to our nation at a crucial period. Unfortunately, it provides very colorful entertainment in the media vacuum resulting from dry Senate rule discussions and health care debate. But this entertainment is not substantive enough to deserve its significant role in the national news today.
According to Barstow, one of the Tea Party movement’s favorite lines from the Declaration of Independence is, “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Perhaps someday in the future they will decide what they are making this pledge for. But in the meantime, the Tea Party movement should be banished to the tabloids of political journalism until it does something worthy of the column inches and minutes of airtime it’s currently receiving. Heidi Montag belongs in magazines you can buy in the checkout line at the grocery store, and while she did well by inspiring a (somewhat short-lived) national dialogue about the standards of beauty in America, she has not done anything worth mentioning to the audiences of millions commanded by network television. And neither has the Tea Party.