by Matthew N. Lyons
The Tea Party movement erupted largely as a backlash against Barack Obama’s election as president. Starting in February 2009, a series of local and then national protests invoked the anti-tax Boston Tea Party that foreshadowed the American Revolution. They denounced Obama and other Democratic leaders for promoting irresponsible government spending, high taxes, and government intrusion into people’s lives. A loose-knit network of Tea Party organizations quickly came together, oriented toward the right wing of the Republican Party. The new movement was fueled by anger at big government but also, as many liberals and leftists pointed out, anger at the election of the first black president of the United States, who was vilified on some Tea Party signs as an African witch doctor, a Muslim foreigner, or a monkey. Despite Tea Partiers’ denials, their movement was very much about race.
The October 2010 exposé Tea Party Nationalism represents both the strengths and the weaknesses of liberal anti-racism. The report offers valuable information about widespread racist tendencies within the Tea Party and how these tendencies relate to the movement’s origins, structure, and factional differences. But in focusing on Tea Partiers’ ties with white nationalist and Patriot/militia politics, the report presents racism as an ideology associated mainly with the political fringe – not as a core structural feature of U.S. society.
Tea Party Nationalism: A Critical Examination of the Tea Party Movement and the Size, Scope, and Focus of Its National Factions was written by Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind of the Kansas City-based Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR). Both Burghart and Zeskind have been studying and writing about white nationalism and related right-wing movements for many years. Zeskind, a 1998 MacArthur fellow, is also the author of the 2009 book Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream.
The report Tea Party Nationalism was published by the NAACP, which three months earlier had publicly called on Tea Party leaders to repudiate racist elements within their movement’s ranks. In a Democracy Now! interview about the report, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous claimed that Tea Party groups had responded to NAACP pressure by throwing out one racist and one anti-gay bigot. “And we’re saying, ‘Good. Those are good first steps. Keep on going. You’ve got to clean house. If you do so, you won’t just make this country better, you’ll make your own Tea Party better."
“A bright white line of racism”
While I doubt that Burghart and Zeskind intend their report to help “make the Tea Party better,” they do focus on one area of Tea Party politics rather than offer a general critique. Debunking claims that Tea Party groups concentrate only on fiscal issues or big government, Tea Party Nationalism argues that “a bright white line of racism” runs through the movement’s political ideology (p. 11). For example, the “abiding obsession with Barack Obama’s birth certificate [among many Tea Partiers] is often a stand-in for the belief that the first black president of the United States is not a ‘real American’” (p. 7). Many Tea Party groups have rallied behind Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070 law or have argued that children of undocumented immigrants who are born in the United States (so-called “anchor babies”) should not be entitled to birthright citizenship, as stated in the U.S. Constitution. Islamophobia and antisemitism have also shown up repeatedly in the movement, as in calls to “take a stand against all Muslims” (p. 70) or claims that America is a Christian nation.
Burghart and Zeskind trace racist tendencies in the TP movement in several ways, from polling data to statements by TP leaders; from slogans on protest signs to organizational ties with white nationalist and Patriot/militia groups. They argue that while Tea Party groups number a few people of color among their members and spokespeople, and have sometimes repudiated specific racist statements by TP leaders, they have often responded to charges of racism with defensiveness and denial and have made no consistent efforts to address the problem.
Here are some of the examples of Tea Party racism that are cited in the report: The notorious March 2010 incident in which Tea Party protesters spat on and shouted racist and homophobic epithets at several congressmembers as they walked by on their way to the Capitol. “Vicious rants and explicit racism” by Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams, who “has referred to President Obama as a Nazi, a half-white racist, a half-black racist and an Indonesian Muslim turned welfare fraud” (p. 51) and who dubbed Islam “a dangerous and savage culture” (p. 56). (Williams resigned abruptly at TP Express chairman in June 2010.) A former Ku Klux Klan “official supporter” who leads the Wood County Tea Party in Texas (p. 45). Another Tea Party Patriots local chapter, Help Save Maryland, that was formed in 2005 as an anti-immigrant group and continues to protest regularly outside an immigrant rights group headquarters (p. 46).
Burghart and Zeskind also list many examples of Tea Partiers endorsing or giving air time to racists from outside their ranks. 1776 Tea Party chairman Dale Robertson has promoted longtime antisemite Martin “Red” Beckman and Pastor John Weaver, a neo-Confederate who has spoken at Christian Identity gatherings (pp. 57-58). Several Tea Party events have given a platform to Richard Mack, a Patriot/militia movement activist who has declared, “The Reverend Jesse Jackson types and the NAACP have done more to enslave Afro-Americans than all the southern plantation owners put together” (p. 63). Tea Party Express lists as an official partner the group Free Republic, whose website has posted racist comments about Michelle Obama and her daughters (p. 53).
Mapping the movement
Alongside its treatment of racial politics, Tea Party Nationalism offers one of the most detailed portraits available of the movement’s organizational structure. Although the authors present this as central to their study, it has received much less media attention than the report’s discussion of racism. The first chapter traces the immediate factors, major players, and events that gave rise to the Tea Party in 2009. The following six chapters focus on each of the national Tea Party factions in turn, discussing each group’s membership, corporate structure, leadership, finances, political positions, and relationships with other groups.
These are the six national Tea Party factions (with approximate membership as of August 2010 given in parentheses):
- 1776 Tea Party (better known as TeaParty.org) (7,000)
- FreedomWorks Tea Party (15,000)
- Tea Party Nation (31,000)
- ResistNet (apparently changed its name to Patriot Action Network in 2011) (81,000)
- Tea Party Patriots (115,000)
- Tea Party Express (not a membership organization)
As Burghart and Zeskind note, membership is only one measure of a faction’s influence. For example, although FreedomWorks has one of the smallest memberships among the six factions, it has the largest budget and paid staff.
In the course of laying out this organizational portrait, Tea Party Nationalism shows us that the Tea Party is a genuine mass movement based among regular people, in which both elite and grassroots interests play important roles. Thus the report implicitly debunks two common liberal myths about the Tea Party: that it is either a lunatic fringe phenomenon or simply an “astroturf” (fake grassroots) creation of wealthy Republicans. The report says that the Tea Party exists at three levels: (a) an inner core of 250,000 members, (b) “a couple of million” activists who go to meetings and protests and buy the literature, and (c) about 16-18 percent of the adult population that identifies as sympathizers in national polls (p. 8).
Burghart and Zeskind also clarify some of the salient differences between the TP factions and how they relate to broader rightist currents. This is a major strength of their report. Based on the information the authors provide (plus a quick look at the major Tea Party websites), we can begin to map the Tea Party in relation to the following specific branches of the U.S. right:
- GOP/corporate establishment. FreedomWorks and Tea Party Express have the closest establishment ties among national TP factions. FreedomWorks is headed by corporate lobbyist and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and publisher/politician Steve Forbes also sits on their board. Tea Party Express was founded by the California-based Our Country Deserves Better PAC, whose chair (Howard Kaloogian) is a former Republican leader in the California Assembly, and whose chief strategist (Sal Russo) is a former Reagan aide who has served as a political consultant to conservative forces in Nicaragua, Ukraine, and elsewhere. (A third establishment group with close ties to the Tea Party movement is the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, which as an “ancillary” organization receives only passing mention in Burghart and Zeskind’s report.)
- Anti-immigrant movement. The 1776 Tea Party (TeaParty.org) has the strongest anti-immigrant ties, being largely run by two leaders of the vigilante Minuteman Project, Stephen Eichler and Tim Bueler. TeaParty.org’s list of “non-negotiable core beliefs” begins with “Illegal Aliens Are Here Illegally” – before anything about big government or taxes. Significant anti-immigrant sentiment is also spread across several other Tea Party organizations, especially Tea Party Nation and a number of local affiliates of both ResistNet and Tea Party Patriots.
- Christian right. Tea Party Nation appears to be particularly close to the Christian right, as indicated by the tenor of events it has sponsored, especially a major February 2010 conference in Nashville. ResistNet’s new incarnation, the Patriot Action Network, also shows a pronounced Christian right orientation.
- Patriot/militia movement. Several Tea Party Patriots local chapters either call themselves militia groups or are closely aligned with Patriot/militia ideology.
- Libertarianism. Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty “has played a noteworthy role in the growth of the Tea Party movement, even if few CFL members have enrolled in any of the national Tea Party groups” (p. 15). The Libertarian Party of Illinois also helped to formulate the idea of the Tea Party in the winter of 2008-2009.
These political subdivisions are somewhat fluid, as all of the Tea Party factions are influenced by more than one rightist current. (The two largest factions, ResistNet/PAN and Tea Party Patriots, are also the most decentralized, forming diverse ideological patchworks of local chapters.) But even an approximate political map can help us to understand some of the tensions that have developed within the Tea Party movement, which may eventually harden into clear strategic conflicts. For example, while FreedomWorks has provided pivotal training and technical support to most of the other national TP groups, it has also clashed with other factions over its establishment ties and relatively moderate position on immigration issues. FreedomWorks has also criticized Tea Party Nation, among others, for focusing too much on cultural issues associated with the Christian right (such as attacking homosexuality) -- a criticism that has been denounced by Christian rightists such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.
Burghart and Zeskind’s report does not address – but provides useful context for understanding – TP movement differences over U.S. foreign policy. As Medea Benjamin has noted, Tea Partiers are divided between an interventionist majority and an anti-interventionist minority, although so far this has not erupted into significant public conflict. Here the fault lines run differently than they do on cultural/religious issues. Groups influenced by major Christian right organizations are likely to share an interventionist (and pro-Zionist) orientation with the more secular FreedomWorks and Tea Party Express. By contrast, TP groups that identify with Ron Paul-type libertarianism or Patriot movement hostility to “globalist elites” will tend toward anti-interventionism.
Limitations of the report’s approach
While Tea Party Nationalism provides valuable information about racist tendencies in the Tea Party movement, the report’s approach to this issue has some serious limitations. For one thing, using racial politics as the main yardstick for comparing different TP factions could lead some readers to conclude that FreedomWorks is “less bad” than other factions, because it has focused more consistently on fiscal issues and big government and has taken a relatively moderate position on immigration. This leaves out other parts of the picture. The report doesn’t mention, for example, that FreedomWorks’ Dick Armey goes much farther than the majority of Tea Partiers in attacking Social Security and Medicare. (More on this below.)
Aside from the Freedomworks example, Burghart and Zeskind also say little or nothing about how other right-wing ideologies may work at cross purposes to white nationalism within the Tea Party movement. As an example, while many Tea Partiers have supported Arizona’s SB 1070, supporters of libertarian Ron Paul leafleted against the law at a recent Tea Party Patriots conference in Phoenix, on the grounds that the law would impose regulatory burdens and lead to Department of Homeland Security intrusion into people’s lives. Similarly, as Sara Diamond noted a few years before the Tea Party movement arose, many leading Christian right groups have been reluctant to support anti-immigrant measures, because they see Latino immigrants as a major pool of potential support.
A bigger problem is that Tea Party Nationalism presents racism mainly as a problem of harmful attitudes and ideas, which are latent in the white population but are being fomented by extremist political organizations. There is no discussion of racial oppression as a core structural feature of U.S. society, including liberal political institutions and the Democratic Party. We should remember, for example, that while right-wing coded racism had vilified “welfare queens” for decades, it was Bill Clinton -- not any Republican president -- who abolished Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a cornerstone of the New Deal safety net. Similarly, while Barack Obama has opposed Arizona’s SB 1070, he has also increased deportations of undocumented immigrants to record levels -- beyond the worst of the George W. Bush years.
How does this relate to the Tea Party? Political scientist Lisa Disch argues that some liberals use the charge of racism to obscure the fact that they and the Tea Partiers share a stake in a limited welfare-state system based on white privilege. Disch cites polls showing that while nearly all Tea Partiers advocate small government, large majorities of them consider Social Security and Medicare to be “worth the expense” to taxpayers. This reflects the fact that these programs have been “framed as a just return for work and investment, characteristics that are stereotypically attached to white racial identity, and juxtaposed against social ‘welfare,’ which is characterized by qualities of dependency, wastefulness, and laziness that are attributed to the black poor.” (These qualities are also attributed to undocumented immigrants, we could add.) As Disch notes, Social Security rules initially made farm workers and domestic workers ineligible, effectively excluding most blacks from the program.
Disch agrees with Burghart and Zeskind that racial politics are central to the Tea Party agenda, but while they identify this agenda with “inchoate” white nationalism (p. 11), she highlights its underlying ties with mainstream institutions and the legacy of liberal reform. “At the core of [Tea Partiers’] belief system is not free-market capitalism but, rather, a sense that hard-working whites ought not to be made to finance rescue programs for underachieving blacks.” This outlook is reflected in Tea Party signs, such as “You are not entitled to what I have earned,” and “Redistribute my work ethic.” “It is not that Tea Party supporters are being seduced into embracing a social agenda that works against their economic interests,” Disch argues. “They are mobilizing to defend economic interests that liberal public policy in the US has fused with whiteness.”
None of this negates the useful information Burghart and Zeskind have compiled about racist tendencies in the Tea Party movement. But there is nothing in their report that challenges liberal assumptions about what racism is or where it comes from. By contrast, Disch’s approach pushes the discussion toward a more radical analysis.
Toward a broader analysis
While race politics is an essential part of the Tea Party movement, it’s not the whole story. The best general analysis of the Tea Party I have seen so far comes from the League for the Revolutionary Party, a Third Camp Trotskyist group. Without endorsing the LRP’s overall political line, I think they are on target with the following points:
- The Tea Party is a mass movement of middle- and working-class whites whose political anger has been fueled not only by the erosion of traditional white privileges and social power, but also by long-term economic decline and capitalist attacks against all subordinate groups.
- Although the Tea Party is decentralized and ideologically diverse, representatives of capital helped to create the movement and form the strongest power center within it. Neither independent citizens nor far right groups hold major countervailing influence. Largely for these reasons, the movement furthers the agendas of right-wing capitalists who want to intensify attacks on the working class and oppressed groups.
- While racist attitudes pervade the Tea Party and are one of its driving forces, many movement leaders and members have worked to exclude blatant expressions of racism to avoid scaring away potential supporters (and Republican voters).
- The failure of organized labor and other progressive forces to energetically protest the federal bailout of the financial industry in 2008-9 helped right-wing leaders to channel anti-elite resentment against Obama and the Democrats, and thus fueled the Tea Party upsurge. Many liberals’ contempt for Tea Partiers as uneducated “rednecks” does the same.
- The Tea Party has some features of fascism (for example, scapegoating oppressed groups while also promoting a vague anti-elitism) but also differs from it in critical ways. (In my view a key difference is one that the LRP doesn’t mention: Fascist movements advocate a radical break with the established political order; the Tea Party, despite its insurgent veneer, does not.)
These points from the LRP, like Lisa Disch’s essay discussed above, offer the kind of framework that’s vital for understanding the Tea Party – and for building a radical alternative that combats the Tea Party’s ugly politics yet speaks to its followers’ legitimate grievances. I encourage people to read Burghart and Zeskind’s Tea Party Nationalism for valuable details about the movement’s racial politics and organizational structure, but don’t be satisfied with their analysis.
[Note: All page numbers given in this review are from Burghart and Zeskind, Tea Party Nationalism.]