Steeped in Rhetoric: Digital Populism and the Tea Party Movement
Branson, Tyler S.
University of Kansas
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Though politically disparate and hard to quantify, one of the binding elements of the Tea Party Movement is Internet Communication Technology, or new media. Social media, online discussion boards, blogs, and other forms of new media constitute a veritable component of the discourse among its members. From the whispering confederation of conservative bloggers in its beginning stages, to the relatively quick transition into a social media powerhouse, the Tea Party fits into the category of dissident social movements in a new way than movements past, in that web-based communication is a staple of the movement. Also, the Tea Party's "Web 2.0" identity intersects with a tradition of populism, combining new media communication with rhetoric depicting the Tea Party as "common" people pitted against "elitist" enemies of the country. The populist sentiments within the Tea Party reflect a wider understanding about the role of technology in fostering democracy, and "restoring" the republic back to its "core values." Tea Partiers, then, could be described as "Digital Populists," historically situated among the histories of other American populist moments, but understanding new media technology as a new way to shape political discourse. Throughout this project, then, my aim is to link populist rhetoric with technological determinism, using the Tea Party's new media ecology as a case study. The first chapter provides historical examples of populist rhetorical frameworks informing the relationship between technology and society; Chapter 2 is a case study of three Tea Party websites; and Chapter 3 is a theoretical reflection on the data that analyzes how the Tea Party's engagement with new media fits into broader conversations about technology and democracy. At the core of this project is an inquiry into how technology works in our everyday lives. My analysis questions the presumption that new media communication technology fosters a more democratic society. Specifically, I argue that, while steeped in rhetoric of technological liberation, revolution, and democracy, the Tea Party's approach to new media contributes less to a vibrant culture of democratic engagement, and more to a peculiar and unstable technological mythology in American culture.
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