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The Tea Party Goes to Washington: Mass Demonstrations as Performative and Interactional Processes

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Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. With the exception of references to public figures, the names of groups and individuals are pseudonyms.

  2. Although the MKN began as an email, Linda later began posting it on a blog, enabling her to embed more videos and images. She continued sending an email, however, to alert her subscribers whenever new issues were posted.

  3. Most respondents signaled opposition to government and elected officials in general, and one specifically said they were concerned about both political parties (“Even though I was in tune with politics the ‘08 election scared me because both parties showed me that ‘we the people’ did not matter. It’s all for power.”). Four people noted concerns about President Obama or the “administration,” but because it is difficult to disentangle concerns about the sitting government from concerns about government in general, I do not count these as explicit instances of positioning against the left.

  4. Based on the New York Times / CBS News national survey of Tea Party supporters (Zernike and Thee-Brenan 2010).

  5. Her presence may also have been a response to the controversy sparked by Beck’s decision to hold the rally on the anniversary of King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Although Beck claimed it was a coincidence, he later aligned his rally with this historical event: “We are on the right side of history. We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties, and damn it we will reclaim the civil rights moment” (Beck 2010a). Reverend Al Sharpton accused Beck of “highjack[ing] a movement that changed America,” and staged a counter-rally to “Reclaim the Dream” (Montopoli 2010a).

  6. A video of Beck’s remarks are available on C-SPAN (http://www.c-span.org/video/?295231-1/restoring-honor-rally). This remark can be found at the 7:20 mark.

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Acknowledgments

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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Correspondence to Ruth Braunstein.

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Braunstein, R. The Tea Party Goes to Washington: Mass Demonstrations as Performative and Interactional Processes. Qual Sociol 38, 353–374 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-015-9314-3

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