The Tea Party Goes to Washington: Mass Demonstrations as Performative and Interactional Processes
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A fragmented public sphere presents a challenge for political actors seeking public recognition of their legitimacy, authenticity and worthiness. As a movement that has received differential levels of recognition across audiences, the Tea Party’s experience offers insight into this phenomenon. This article builds on existing research on the Tea Party’s relationship with the media by exploring how movement participants interpret and respond to this kind of mixed audience response. An ethnographic account of one local Tea Party group’s experience during and in the wake of Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor Rally illuminates the performative and interactional dimensions of this experience. It shows that the rally was an opportunity for this group to enact a populist narrative of “the people” confronting out-of-touch elites, but when participants were confronted with fragmented recognition of their rally’s size and authenticity, they engaged in identity work that drew a moral boundary between affirming and disparaging audiences. Discussions about the rally were subsequently dominated by a second narrative—of embattled conservatives facing off against biased, uncivil and unpatriotic liberals. In this way, even though the rally failed to generate the recognition participants sought, it became an occasion for the group to replenish its solidarity and sense of purpose.
KeywordsMass demonstrations Media Recognition Social movements Social performance Tea Party movement
I would like to thank Courtney Bender, Claudio Benzecry, Andrew Deener, Jeff Goodwin, Neil Gross, Colin Jerolmack, Jane Jones, Jeff Manza, Tom Medvetz, Michael McQuarrie, Andrew J. Perrin, Owen Whooley, Daniel Winchester, and especially Craig Calhoun for their valuable feedback on previous drafts. I would also like to thank the Editor and anonymous reviewers of this article, and members of the NYLON workshop in politics, culture and social theory at New York University for their criticisms and suggestions.
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