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Sunday, June 5, 2016

How the Tea Party got thrown overboard. At us.


Every time I run into Jeff Nesbit, he makes another implausible claim about some accomplishment in his life: He helped FDA Commissioner David Kessler roll Big Tobacco on regulations. 

He was a Washington correspondent and a writer of 19 inspirational novels. He’s in the record books for a 24-foot long jump for Duke’s track team. He helped the National Science Foundation fend off a very un-sciencey George W. Bush Administration and Congress. And he was Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief spokesman.

Each time I resist the temptation to stage an impromptu intervention to get this poor man out of Walter Mittyville. The problem is he’s actually done all of these things. 

Now, along comes one more:

Poison Tea is his new investigative book, and let’s just say it’s less inspirational and more infuriating than his other books. Nesbit, who now runs the influential climate communications group Climate Nexus, was in a position to write this book because he was once a communications consultant for a wildly successful Koch Brothers front group.

Really.

In the 1990’s, fresh off his stint with FDA Commissioner David Kessler, Nesbit found himself consulting for Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE). 

In Poison Tea, he gives a rare firsthand account of sitting at the table as Big Tobacco joined hands with energy companies and big-time political operatives to create a one-size-fits-all template for opposing all manner of taxes and regulation, from tobacco to energy to pesticides. 

Arguably, it’s not too far a leap to say that the framing of tobacco addiction as a “smokers’ rights” issue a quarter century ago is the inspiration for framing today’s anti-LGBT frenzy as a religious freedom issue.

Through his experience, research, and the trove of documents uncovered in litigation against tobacco companies, Nesbit traces how the Tea Party grew from decades of careful cultivation by big money and front groups. 

Just as Merchants of Doubt, the epic 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, traces a long pattern of manipulation of science on health and environmental issues, Nesbit follows the political bloodlines of the Tea Party and finds corporate DNA.

American political journalists are wedded to the Tea Party’s chosen narrative that it sprang, genuine and fully formed, from the live TV rant of CNBC commentator Rick Santelli in 2009. 

Nesbit unearths a multitude of pipe dreams, blueprints, and other schemes to launch an anti-regulatory “Tea Party” at least 15 years before Santelli became the movement’s Abner Doubleday – the war hero whose mythical tale of inventing the game of baseball lives on more than a century after it was debunked. 

To emphasize the point, CSE established its “U.S. Tea Party” website in 2002.

Poison Tea does a thorough job of not only tracing the impacts and hidden movement architecture of groups like CSE and its descendants, but also how Big Tobacco found that its best interests were served by becoming an ardent opponent of regulations and taxes that had absolutely nothing to do with smoking or cancer. 

The book demonstrates how easy it is to portray government actions to protect the environment, economy, or human health as monstrous assaults on our wallets and our lives.

It would be fair to say that Nesbit has a score or two to settle with Big Tobacco, after his years-long, bruising clash with them over regulating tobacco smoke. 

It would also be fair to say that I do, too, with my dad and sister dying young from smoking, both at age 62. 

But the case Nesbit makes against Big Tobacco is as compelling as the one I’d like to make on behalf of my family.

One disappointment in the book: I would love to have heard from someone like Debbie Dooley, the Atlanta-based Tea Party firebrand whose strange-bedfellows, pro clean energy alliance with environmentalists has given electric utilities fits here in the Southeast.

Dooley has made great copy as a “Green Tea” advocate. If the Kochs et al. are stage-managing the Tea Party, they’ve still left room on the decks for a few loose cannons. 

The irrational furor that drives the Tea Party may have benefitted from years of feeding and watering in K Street conference rooms, but the continuing ascent of Donald Trump proves that it’s wrong to dismiss such a furor, and such a force. 

Dooley, by the way, is an ardent Trump supporter and is therefore supporting a candidate who’s vowed to dismantle all of her clean energy efforts.

Poison Tea joins several other books from recent years that could serve as a curriculum on how American politics has gone wildly astray: 
  • Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2005) explains how huge interest groups turn their backs on their grassroots constituencies; 
  • Frank’s The Wrecking Crew (2008) describes how elected officials’ ineptitude became a political virtue, while 
  • Charles Pierce’s Idiot America (2009) illustrates how fear, paranoia, and outright ignorance can be fabulously monetized in today’s media culture; 
  • the aforementioned Merchants of Doubt
  • The Influence Machine (2015) by Alyssa Katz shines light on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s sprawling anti-regulatory reach; and 
  • finally, two more books on the Koch Brothers’ empire, Daniel Schulman’s Sons of Wichita (2014) and Jane Mayer’s recent release Dark Money.
So there. 

I’ve just given you the world’s most distressing summer reading list. Saying these books will help “make sense” of all this political absurdity is a stretch, but reading them can’t possibly be any worse than following the presidential campaign. 

Jeff Nesbit’s book is an important contribution that deepens our knowledge of the current trend toward ignorance.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.