What began as a laughable spectacle of Americans reenacting the Boston tea party across the country in early 2009 has congealed into a viable and tangible political force. Early midterm election results indicate as much as Tea Party Senatorial candidates Rand Paul and Marc Rubio ascended to victory in Kentucky and Florida. Governor Charlie Crist's defeat to newcomer Marco Rubio in Florida's Senate race is especially telling of the Tea Party's political strength.
Despite his reputation as a rising star in the Republican Party, Crist ran as an Independent because of his unlikely chances of defeating Rubio for the Republican nomination in the primaries. The reason for his eclipse in the GOP: he wasn't conservative enough. His defeat affirms Rubio's analysis that Florida's election will be seen as a referendum between the GOP's moderate and conservative wings, and as the ballot indicates, Republicans must be conservative or bust. As in the primaries before them, during these midterms, the Tea Party both challenged long-time Republican incumbents, and dominated the terms of reference thereby forcing the entire party to shift to the right.
The grassroots movement, whose base is 89 percent white and overwhelmingly Christian, was sparked by the federal bailout of banks and homeowners in late 2008. A cursory look at recent polls reveals that the movement is mostly concerned with excessive government spending, a weak economy, high unemployment, and most of all, the health care reform bill, which 87 percent of Tea Party supporters consider a "bad thing."
The concerns seem fairly mainstream but what the numbers do not show is that the Tea Party considers its economic grievances a function of a welfare state as opposed to an unregulated financial market that took precarious risks and placed responsibility for those risks on the taxpayer and not the lender. Tea Party adherents direct very little of their anger towards Wall Street and in fact, encourage the government to reduce taxes in order to let the free market flourish. This despite the fact that rising unemployment has been a feature of the American economy since President Reagan pioneered a shift from Keynesian policies to monetarist ones, thereby sacrificing full employment for reduced interest rates.
What then explains this contradiction between the Tea Party's anger at unemployment and its support of unfettered capitalism?
According to social theorist and geographer, David Harvey, the seeds of this contradiction were planted in the late 70s when big business aligned itself with the Republican Party. In an effort to secure its class dominance through electoral government, the party searched for a solid electoral base and found it in Jerry Falwell's moral majority in 1978. According to Harvey,
The Republican Party now had its Christian base. It also appealed to the cultural nationalism of the white working classes and their besieged sense of moral righteousness (besieged because this class lived under conditions of chronic economic insecurity and felt excluded from many of the benefits that were being distributed through affirmative action and other state programs). This political base could be mobilized through the positives of religion and cultural nationalism and the negatively through coded, if not blatant, racism, homophobia, and anti-feminism.
The problem as this nascent base saw it was the government that used excessive state power to provide for special groups like blacks, women, and the environment. In recent decades, this sensitivity to federal involvement in social relations has been stoked and financed by what columnist Frank Rich describes as "billionaire sugar daddies." Rich comments that despite what appears to be a leaderless populist movement, corporate tycoons including Rupert Murdoch and Charles and David Koch, are bankrolling the Tea Party movement. He explains that this is a continuation of a policy that began with the corporate led challenge against the New Deal under the cover of civil society:
All three tycoons are the latest incarnation of what the historian Kim Phillips-Fein labeled "Invisible Hands" in her prescient 2009 book of that title: those corporate players who have financed the far right ever since the du Pont brothers spawned the American Liberty League in 1934 to bring down F.D.R. You can draw a straight line from the Liberty League's crusade against the New Deal "socialism" of Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission and child labor laws to the John Birch Society-Barry Goldwater assault on J.F.K. and Medicare to the Koch-Murdoch-backed juggernaut against our "socialist" president.
In her incisive investigative report on the Koch brothers' well-funded campaign against President Obama, Covert Operations, Jane Meyers describes how the Koch brothers have funded think tanks, universities, non-profit organizations, and now the Tea Party in order to take down progressive ideas from the bottom up. Meyer quotes a former Koch adviser who comments, 'They're smart. This right-wing, redneck stuff works for them. They see this as a way to get things done without getting dirty themselves.'
Indeed, from a well-funded distance, the Koch brothers are seeing their own visions take hold among a grassroots mainstream. In his writings, Fred Koch warned that the "The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America," and that welfare was a secret plot to attract rural blacks to cities, where they would foment "a vicious race war." In a 1963 speech, Koch also predicted that Communists would "infiltrate the highest offices of government in the U.S. until the President is a Communist, unknown to the rest of us."
The deliberate and systematic effort by corporate interests to equate the free market with economic prosperity and the government as an enemy of both the free market as well as a white majority has already yielded tangible results. Consider the Tea Party's uniformly negative attitude towards President Obama whom they consider a socialist whose policies favor the poor and minorities. Despite reducing taxes for the majority of Americans during his Presidency, 64 percent of Tea Party supporters believe that the President increased taxes. Moreover, the Tea Party movement believes that the Obama Administration favors blacks over whites (25 percent) and that white people do not have more opportunities to get ahead than their black counterparts (84 percent).
In effect, the campaign for smaller government today not only favors unfettered neoliberalism but marries its concerns with a percolating white cultural nationalism that equates federal laws intended to treat structural discrimination as racism against white people. Unsurprisingly, the movement of predominantly middle class whites, takes a militant stance against immigration as evidenced by its support of State Bill 1070 and has fueled much of the anti-Islamic uproar sweeping through the U.S.
At a Tea Party rally held in DC at the end of the health care debate in late March, protesters collapsed this dual concern as they screamed racial epithets at three African-American Congressmen and spit on one of them. A few months later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) passed a resolution that called on the tea party and "all people of good will to repudiate the racist element and activities within the tea party." Tea Party super heroine, Sarah Palin decried the NAACP's accusation and shot back that "I am saddened by the NAACP's claim that patriotic Americans who stand up for the United States of America's Constitutional rights are somehow 'racists,'" Constitutional rights are quite elastic and not necessarily synonymous with anti-racist. Consider the ACLU's defense of the Ku Klux Klan's right to march in neighborhoods pursuant to their First Amendment rights. The KKK may have a constitutional right to express itself but that does not cancel out its racist purpose and message.
If unchecked, the Tea Party's vehement views that collapse racial righteousness and concerns for the economy has the potential to unfurl into a white nativist movement whose target will not only be federal policies that seek to treat structural discrimination against minorities but minorities themselves. The unabashed attack on Islam as a "death cult" and on Muslims as sleeper cells seeking to supplant the Constitution with shari'a is a harbinger of acceptable discourse on race in America as well as the unraveling of its tenuous multicultural fabric.
Challenging these trends is going to take a lot more than proclamations denouncing bigotry from esteemed civil rights groups. This political moment necessitates creating social solidarity strong enough to withstand the blow of corporate interests and appealing enough to draw the base of the Tea Party based on a vision for addressing the economic crisis. This counter-initiative should also aim to influence electoral politics because Democrats, who are dependent on corporate coffers, have only been able to win piecemeal social justice victories. If Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid's recent opposition to Park 51 is any indication, far from challenging the Tea Party's dangerous tendencies, the Democrats may become part of the problem as well.