Tea partying for fun and profit

The gathering on the Common featured a call to battle – and to shop

Even a grass-roots movement of The People needs leaders, and the recent Tea Party festival on the Boston Common reveals the group’s vanguard: commercial hucksters, both small-time and big-name, in the grandest American tradition.

The small-time label clearly doesn’t apply to the event’s headliner, former vice-presidential candidate, former Alaska governor, and present celebrity Sarah Palin. According to the Herald’s Jessica Heslam, Palin has made millions by commanding “a reported $100,000 speaking fee, $7 million advance for her first book, a multi-year contract with Fox News and the $250,000 an episode she’s expected to fetch for a reality show about Alaska for the Learning Channel.” Palin appeared on the Common for free – reports indicate she even paid her own way – a sound investment in the brand. Copies of her book Going Rogue: An American Life (Amazon price: $13.50) were being clutched by several admirers near where I stood.

WRKO (owned by Entercom Communications Corp.) was represented on stage by morning host Todd Feinburg. The station’s website posted video of his appearance online, highlighted by the playing of a song written by Feinburg and his producer called “We Are the Patriots” (to the tune of Queen’s “We Are the Champions”). It features as a chorus the lyrics “We are the Patriots, they are the Soviets. . .” Pretty funny, and a good deal of the crowd sang along. Former Boston radio host and current Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams announced himself several times as a proud alum of WRKO, while exhorting the crowd to visit the Tea Party express online store – “apparel, mugs, and more.” 

On the web page of WTKK, ‘RKO’s main talk show competitor, you will be entertained by pictures, video and Twitter posts from talk show host and Herald columnist Michael Graham, on stage with Sarah Palin. Good news for Mr. Graham – a number of Tea Partiers were holding copies of his book, as well – That’s No Angry Mob, That’s My Mom: Team Obama’s Assault on Tea-Party, Talk-Radio Americans (Amazon, $18.45). Stumped for vacation ideas? Visit the WTKK web site and sign up for the Alaska Cruise and Canadian Rockies Tour with Michael (from $2469.00, plus taxes and fees).

Also appearing from WTKK was Joe Ligotti of Saturday’s “Joe and Huggy” show. Ligotti has become a mini-industry based on his on-line rants. He missed a prime marketing opportunity on Tea Party day though: the “Store” page on his website remains unpopulated.

The rank and file Tea Partiers did not seem excessively angry – indeed, they were having a good time. There was music by The Rivoli Review and amusing rhetoric from the leadership. The scene was like a free rock concert sponsored by a local radio station.

The leaders were careful to praise the crowd and assure them that they represent the best The People have to offer. The Constitution is their sacred text.

But therein lies a difficulty with the message of the modern day patriotic leadership. The Founders’ conception of democracy incorporated a skeptical view of the virtue of the people. And the Founders were acutely concerned with the danger of demagogic leaders. In Federalist 1 Alexander Hamilton wrote that “the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty.” He continued: “a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government . . .  of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
But I don’t think Hamilton would be at all concerned about the authors, radio talkers, and cable programming celebs exalted by the Tea Party movement. As the father of our commercial republic, the nation’s first treasury secretary would surely recognize the difference between overturning a government and just trying to turn an honest buck.

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.