The rise of the Tea Party has shocked the political establishment. Seemingly out of nowhere, the emergence of a grassroots far-right movement overwhelmed the Democratic landslide victory in 2008. The Tea Parties rejected the legitimacy of President Obama’s right to hold the office and called the entire Democratic agenda socialist and un-American.
In order to understand the Tea Party, we need to examine it in context with other reactionary trends in American history. The Tea Party has roots deep within the nation’s past. Its use of coded (and sometimes not coded) racial language and images go straight to the heart of the nation’s most divisive issue. Its anti-government message has roots extending back to the American Revolution and weaving throughout the past two centuries.
The Tea Party’s influences don’t only come from the right. Its language and in many cases its members come from the tumult of the 1960s. The Tea Party employs a great deal of rhetoric lifted from the New Left.
As a scholar of American social movements and labor radicalism, I want to claim a progressive American history. But this belies the reality that much American radicalism has had a hard right edge, tinged with racism, xenophobia, religious extremism, and a fetish for individualism that has blunted class consciousness and progressive organizing since the beginning of this country’s history.
Race and the Tea Party
I want to examine three themes within American history that the Tea Party embodies: race, fear of big government, and the demonizing of opponents as traitorous, barbaric, or otherwise illegitimate.
The Tea Party has tiptoed around race since its beginning. Tea Partiers will react sharply if you accuse them of racism. They will point to the single (or perhaps dual!) non-white in the crowd as examples of their race-blind beliefs. Most try to avoid overtly racist statements, even as they fret about America’s growing diversity. But some attendees of the Tea Parties have crossed the line into the use of openly racist symbols.
Tea Party rallies speak to both pre-civil rights and post-civil rights conservative discussions of race. Before 1970, American racists openly used racial stereotypes, language, and violence against people of color. Minstrelsy was one of the nation’s most popular mass entertainments for over a century. Whites used lynchings to enforce the racial order, and not just in the South.
Racism has plagued white dominated social movements from the nation’s founding. For example, Americans remember the abolitionists with pride as people who stood against the immorality of slavery. I agree with this. But what people forget entirely is that in 1854, when the Republican Party formed, it seemed entirely likely that the party rising from the Whig Party’s ashes would be the Know-Nothings, a party dedicated almost entirely to keeping the nation free of Irish immigrants.
Only the outrage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Southern pro-slavery extremism pushed the North’s attention
away from immigration and toward slavery. The Republicans managed to swallow the Know-Nothings, but disdain of immigrants remained deeply embedded within the party.
After the Civil War, racism intervened in any number of otherwise progressive social movements, from the Populists of the late 19th century to labor’s attempts to organize the South in the twentieth century to northern union members abandoning labor-supported candidates in the 1960s in favor of racist candidates who pledged to keep their neighborhoods all-white.
Of course, it has been Tea Party willingness to tolerate this older style of overt racism that has exposed it to criticism: Tea Party members shouting “nigger” at Civil Rights hero John Lewis as he entered the House to vote for health care reform, rally members holding signs using the ‘N’ word, and racist effigies of President Obama. Moreover, an April 2010 poll showed that only 35% of people who approve of the Tea Parties believe African-Americans to be hardworking, 45% believe they are intelligent, and 41% believe they are trustworthy. The poll showed similar beliefs about Latinos.
While most Tea Party leaders dismiss the extreme racist rhetoric and signs as a few whackos, they certainly embrace what I call the New Racism. By this I mean the subtle shift in language necessitated by the Civil Rights Movement that the Right employs today to defend white privilege without resorting to overt racism.
Historian Kevin Kruse, in his excellent book on white resistance to civil rights, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, demonstrates that as traditional racism increasingly became unacceptable in American political discourse, Atlanta whites began using code words to express racist sentiments in ways that would attract larger numbers
of voters made nervous by civil rights. Terms like “law and order,” “property values” and “individual rights” become synonymous with unofficial segregation and anti-black attitudes.
The New Racism profoundly changed American society. By campaigning on a platform of white rights veiled by the New Racism’s language, Ronald Reagan succeeded in pulling white voters from the industrial states of the North. These so-called Reagan Democrats wanted to keep their schools and neighborhoods white and to reject school desegregation.
Kruse points out that it’s hardly a coincidence that Newt Gingrich comes from the Atlanta suburbs. The Contract with America was an exercise in the New Racism, ensuring that the government did as little to break down white privilege as
By framing health care as a privilege rather than as a right, the Tea Party suggests the same language used by opponents of school busing and welfare: that those who deserve don’t need government help and those who do need government help don’t deserve it because they don’t work hard enough. That most of the “undeserving” just happen to be black and brown reinforces what they already think about nonwhites.
With a likely fight coming over immigration, watching the Tea Party negotiate race will be fascinating. At the movement’s heart is a desire to keep America white-dominated. The claim that President Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore ineligible for the presidency comes from this sentiment. Tea Partiers simply cannot accept the idea that a non-white could lead this nation.
Immigration strikes straight to the heart of the Tea Party’s cultural concerns. Can their leaders keep the rhetoric within
the boundaries of the New Racism, using “law and order” rhetoric to paint Latinos as gangsters who threaten our (white) neighborhoods or will anti-immigrant fervor lead to openly racist attacks?
This is part one of two parts from historian and Global Comment regular contributor Erik Loomis on the history behind the U.S.’s current “Tea Party” movement. Part two will hit next week and will deal with Big Government and Nixonland. Enjoy!