Nov 22, 2009

Teabag America: When the Right Rises, What’s the Left to Do?

An Interview with Quentin Williams by Matthew Lyons

"Quentin Williams" is a community organizer who has been tracking the anti-tax, anti-Obama Tea Party protests for the past several months.

ML: Please give us a little background about your political work and how you got interested in understanding the Tea Party movement.

QW: I came up in the global justice movement that took shape during the mass mobilizations of Seattle and their after effects around the year 2000. Those movements had a strong critique of the state and capital as the engines behind the isms we face. It was a “we are the people” against “them” type fight. But when I moved to Cincinnati, the Klan (which wasn’t the government or big business) still had a public display on the town square every holiday season and still marched on rare occasion.

My early political foundation didn’t account for another set of “the people” that was further to the right than and also in opposition to the state and capital. Instead of viewing Klan activity or that like it as an active political element on the landscape, most of my northern and city-living friends discounted them as irrelevant stuck-in-the-pasts. But that didn’t sit right with me.

Reading books like Making Race and Nation I understood that a major task of the state is to establish a nation loyal to it so that it may be productive. Since the U.S. started as a settler colony, that project of nation-building took on the trend of appeasing intra-white conflict at the expense of people of color (and at the expense of creating a more just society.) European-American conflict was avoided by providing former indentured servants with land in exchange for expanding the frontier by murdering indigenous inhabitants or as compensation for manning slave patrols. After the rise of factory work, this took on the form of two-tier wage systems and an inflated domestic standard of living compared to the Third World where the resources (and underpaid labor) that supported that standard came from.

The book Settlers by Sakai criticizes the U.S. labor movement and examines how white workers are an active participant in this compact. Whether it’s the New York City Draft riots in response to conscription during the Civil War, or the rise of the Klan and Jim Crow in response to Reconstruction, or Samuel Gompers’s imperial unionism, U.S. white workers have been willing to accept the extra spoils of U.S. imperialism and white supremacy in exchange for violently excluding people of color from the kitty.

Having rooted myself in immigrant worker struggles for the last six years, I’ve experienced this first hand. Long before the housing crisis put economic instability on the map, we were witnessing a shift to a new economy that globally decentralizes the spoils of capital and the required enforcement to elites in nations across the globe. The change is capital breaking its former compact with U.S. white workers and thus abandoning the most favorite nation agreement it had with the U.S. settler nation.

We’ve seen the standard of living for people within the U.S. decline and corporate ransacking such as Enron, WorldCom, etc. rise. Meanwhile the production that remains in the U.S. is drawing on labor pools from the largest migration of humans in history while government has gutted most of its regulatory institutions that could enforce standards.

We’re at a crossroads in this country where we won’t be living fat off the post World War II dominance the U.S. enjoyed for the past fifty years. Instead as scarcity creeps into people’s consciousness, we’ll have a choice of joining with those who have faced those conditions far longer or to turn to the historic resolution of crisis in a settler nation, increased opportunity through policing and repression in communities of color and a rigid narrowing of the definition of who belongs to the nation.

In 2005, the Minutemen were an early sign of that. Blaming undocumented migrants for overcrowded schools and overcapacity hospitals, they volunteered to do the job they decided government had failed to do, adequately patrol the border. The volunteer squads quickly spread across the country with a 600% increase in grassroots anti-immigrant activity in 2006/2007 to the point where places like Chicago had three different Minutemen chapters.

It was there, doing work to promote labor law enforcement and police accountability among immigrant workers, that I started to take the threat they posed more seriously. Mainly because, well, they were sending my organization and me in particular serious threats.

The Tea Party movement is even more alarming to me.

ML: Where have you encountered Tea Party activism and what have you observed?

QW: Last Spring, we saw a blip on the radar when small Tea Party rallies were held across the country to protest the failures of the stimulus package and what they saw as the excess of government spending. Those groups built momentum over the summer disrupting town halls and sinking the prospects of health care reform that could provide for people’s needs. Driven by talk show personalities with significant air time, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, they held a 50,000 to 75,000, 99% white “National Taxpayer March” on September 12th, 2009 in Washington, DC. I went to take video.

Gathered around the Capitol were tens of thousands of people framing Obama as both a fascist and a socialist, praising Joe Wilson, the Congressman who yelled “you lie” during Obama’s address to Congress, and hailing capitalism and the free market as solutions.

The Right had found their umbrella issue, government spending, that could tap into a public sentiment and mobilize opposition without even mentioning race, gender, sexuality, immigration or any of the things that get them tangled up in accusations of bigotry. This was people wanting “liberty” plain and simple. There to defend their grandchildren against a government run amok and mortgaging their future. What could be more noble?

ML: How does this compare with other right-wing activity you've encountered?

QW: What’s most alarming to me is that this was not a hard right mobilization. People who get involved in Minuteman activity, for example, tend to already have solidified their position. Lines are clearly drawn. This however, was a recruiting opportunity for the far Right. Most people I encountered were participating in their first political activity. On the mall, they met groups like the American Patriot Committee that stood on a corner doing anti-government spiels, handing out cards, and signing people up forty at a time. The veil of government spending acted as a gateway where white conservatives could encounter bigger badder right-wing activity and actively march on in that direction.

ML: The dynamic you’re describing reminds me of the Patriot movement of the mid-1990s – the folks who organized “citizen militias” to defend themselves against a supposed globalist plot to seize control of the United States. At the time, some leftists warned that the Patriot/militia movement was essentially a front for neo-nazi propaganda and organizing, while other leftists said, no, these aren’t nazis or racists, they’re just anti-government activists who are a little too caught up in conspiracy theories. That debate often missed the key point, which was that the Patriot movement was an ideological hodge-podge, a meeting ground for neo-nazis and other folks. It was in fact the first truly mass movement in the U.S. since World War II that brought fascists and non-fascists together in coalition. And that was its most important and most dangerous feature.

The Tea Party movement certainly isn’t a carbon copy of the Patriot movement, but it has some of the same qualities, including (a) the driving force behind it seems to be coming largely from outside of established political elites, and (b) it is a political mish-mash that brings together conservatives, far rightists, and a lot of people whose politics is not clearly defined. As with the Patriot movement fifteen years ago, a lot of leftists and liberals have this impulse to oversimplify what is going on, to reduce it to one political current. In particular, the idea that the Tea Party movement is essentially an “Astroturf” phenomenon – fake grassroots activity orchestrated by the GOP leadership – seems to me to be a drastic and dangerous oversimplification. Same for the claim that this is essentially a reincarnation of the Christian Right. Christian Rightists are one element in the mix, but just one of many.

By contrast, one of the best commentaries I’ve seen on the Tea Party movement is Glenn Greenwald’s piece “Glenn Beck and left-right confusion”: “These ‘tea party’ and ‘9/12’ protests are composed of factions with wildly divergent views about most everything. From paleoconservatives to Ron-Paul-libertarians to LaRouchians to Confederacy-loving, race-driven Southerners to Christianist social conservatives to single-issue fanatics (abortion, guns, gays) to standard Limbaugh-following, Bush-loving Republicans, these protests are an incoherent mishmash without any cohesive view other than ‘Barack Obama is bad.’ ... Many of these people despised the Bush-led GOP and many of them loved it.” Greenwald emphasizes that many of the themes that Glenn Beck and his comrades are promoting cut across standard left-right lines – like hostility to Wall Street and the national security state – but it’s the Republicans who are exploiting this energy and anger. I would add, just because the Republicans are exploiting it doesn’t mean they control it, and it wouldn’t take much to tip a large part of that dynamic into far-right radical opposition mode.

One last question: How do you think leftists should respond to the Tea Party movement?

QW: So we know we’re in trouble when people are more drawn to a movement that publicly describes itself as “teabaggers” than to any left formation, but look.

U.S. history is partly defined by a minority violent white street-force threatening to destabilize the Union during eras of social reorganization. The Left, specifically Northern and urban, ignores or dismisses right populism as the crazies. Doing so assumes a certain civilized or evolved character of the U.S. state. It doesn't account for the heart of the country being up for grabs. Doesn't recognize a force to the right of government and corporation and that the institutions of power are in play answering to those forces.

We buy into our own illusions of American exceptionalism and assume that far-right activity is outside the realm of possibilities. As a result, our organizations don’t take internal security as seriously as we should. ACORN’s recent sting ought to correct that for all of us. And we don’t establish a pole of opposition to pull government to the left.

Hegemony is in favor of the right. It’s no wonder that the right populist groups are drawing on legacies of the Revolutionary War like minutemen and patriot committees and teabaggers. Because our communities were in chains, servitude, or at war with U.S. colonialism, we can’t draw upon the dominant mythologies to mobilize.

At the same time, we keep attempting to argue our positions rationally within the framework of the right, which is a losing battle. Karl Rove told a New York Times reporter that liberals study reality while he creates it. Rationality and sound argument had no place at the Teabagger mobilization. It was about emotion and imagery and straight-out lies (like Obama is a Muslim Marxist in the service of Al-Qaeda).

That’s not a position you attempt to present your arguments to. the Right is not concerned with presenting the scientific argument of anti-gay, anti-immigrant, or anti-socialist policies. They hit you with the hardest exaggerated punch possible so that you’re scrambling to get back to Center and the best you’ll do is retreat a few steps from the pole they stake.

When it comes to public sentiment its not about the right answer, it’s about the answer that resonates. Since there have always been two histories of the U.S., of dominance and resistance, there are also two sets of mythologies to draw from. Attempting to make policy gains by not challenging the assumptions of power, we lose the opportunity to draw upon the (counter) hegemony that exists within communities of color where there’s no debate about whether Glen Beck is racist, for example. As a result, we are ineffective within the white political sphere and uninspiring within the communities we attempt to mobilize.

When the Right so publicly rears its head, there’s a temptation to place major energies into explicit counter-right organizing. Doing so, however, continues to focus the debate on their terms and our energies in their direction. We lack more than clear ways of framing the issues. Rather than overemphasizing the place of such mobilizations, their stepping up should be a call to escalate our own work. Instead of focusing on that mobilized minority, how do allies imagine organizing the potential base of the right in a left direction? For those doing direct organizing, when the Right is talking revolution or secession on the steps of the Capitol, how do we raise the stakes of our own organizing beyond the technocratic policy-based campaigns to something as big and bad and threatening? That, to me, is the question to address today.