Last week, I wrote a piece about the tea party movement and the obvious through-line of race, race-baiting, racism and the use of the Southern Strategy within the movement. The responses were mostly positive and supportive, while the responses from the far-right and tea party people were predictably obnoxious, contradictory and fact-free.
The dominant theme throughout the most outraged responses was, essentially: We're not racists, but here's why we're pissed about blacks and immigrants. For example, here's a particularly illustrative e-mail, reprinted as it was received:
The Tea Party is NOT about race, it is about me paying taxes to support every non contributing individual that has the ability to pro create. It is not my/our fault that the majority of NON contributors are minority. It is not my/our fault some refuse to learn English, thereby limiting their employment opportunities. Hell, the whole race thing is nothing but bullshit for losers such as Garafolo and yourself to capitalize on. Rest assured Booby Boy we no longer give a damn about what you think do or say The main reason the Tea Party exists is Obama's Marxist/Socialistic COMMUNISTIC leanings that will ultimately cost me, part of the 50% that pays taxes, as opposed to the 50% that DON'T PAY!! An ideology that will transform this Country into a third world nation. Try having some honest debate Booby and you might gain cred. Until then you're shining Garafolo's shoes. Sounds to me like you may be an immigrant yourself with an axe to grind. Is that the case Booby? If so you can always go home! Careful moron that light you're looking at is a train not the end of the tunnel......
Smart. I have dozens more just like it. Several of them tell me I'm an idiot for suggesting there's a racial component, followed closely with a line about how I should "go back to Cuba or Africa." Nope. No racism there. Nevertheless, no matter how unhinged the above message might be, it proves an important point -- my point.
Each topic abstractly hinges on race.
The insistence that the tea party movement is more about taxes, big government and personal freedoms is partly true. And many tea party people honestly believe it. But if you dig below the surface into the details underlying these banner themes, it's not difficult to find that, yes, it's about taxes -- taxes on the rich to finance the extravagant lives of layabout welfare queens, or big government "ramming health care down our throats" as a means of slavery reparations to African Americans, and personal freedoms being stripped away by a liberal fascist Nazi who wants to give money and handouts to minorities in the form of health care subsidies and mortgage relief. You know, typical Nazi behavior. If I had a dollar for every Nazi who wanted to funnel government cash to immigrants and minorities...
It's the subtext that gurgles just below the surface of these three topics that composes the tea party version of the Southern Strategy.
Developed by Republican strategists like Harry Dent and Pat Buchanan during the rebuilding of the GOP in the post Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act era, the Southern Strategy's goal was to win over southern whites by demonizing blacks using subterfuge, dog whistles and coded language. As I mentioned last week, the late Republican mastermind Lee Atwater described the use of the Southern Strategy as being all about the use of "abstract" issues that imply race without explicitly using direct racial epithets or even the words "black" or "white."
Atwater described some of the abstract issues of his era as "forced bussing" or taxes, and framing these issues in a way that subconsciously fuels white resentment towards blacks, and serves to coalesce white votes around Republican candidates. After all, Republicans will readily admit that trying to win over black voters has been a lost cause since LBJ, so why not exploit that loss by playing to white racial bias and thus locking down larger chunks of the white vote?
When Atwater was discussing this issue with political science professor Alexander P. Lamis (reported by Bob Herbert in the New York Times), the topic was Reagan and his cuts in food stamps and legal services in urban communities. Even though the Republicans had already won over the South, Atwater explained, these Reagan-era moves tended to reinforce white turnout and Wallace types. Again, it's not about direct racism, but it's borne out of a racial component.
That's the Southern Strategy. It's as old as the Civil War and the Southern white "fire-breathers," but only in the last 40 years has it become a significant subheading in the fear chapter of the Republican Party playbook.
In other words, this isn't a figment of my imagination or a wacky far-left conspiracy theory. The Southern Strategy was and still is very real. Look no further than the Willie Horton ad. The White Hands ad. The 2006 "Harold! Call me!" ad which set off white dog whistles in Tennessee about a black candidate having sex with a clearly naked blond white woman. Not ancient history by any stretch, nor have been the various attempts to fuel racial animosity against President Obama during and following the campaign.
Likewise, no one in charge of the tea party movement, save for obvious racist Dale Robertson (he of the pirate form of "niggaaarrrr"), is out there gathering members while sporting white headgear and spouting off obvious white supremacy slogans. This would backfire, as Atwater said during his Southern Strategy remarks. The subconscious racial element would suddenly become obvious and scare away supporters who aren't necessarily racist, or who are in denial about their racism. Instead, they rally supporters around issues like taxes, big government and personal freedoms. But with a not-so-hidden Southern Strategy wink.
The flimsy and contradictory policy arguments only make the winking racial subtext more obvious.
For instance, the president cut taxes for the middle class. According to the CBO, a full third of the projected national debt -- $3 trillion over the next 10 years -- is due to the president retaining middle class tax cuts and rolling back the alternative minimum tax so it doesn't absorb middle class earners. Tax cuts. So how, then, can the tea party reasonably claim that President Obama is all about taxing the middle class "to death," as some e-mailers argued?
For the tea party leadership, it's all politics, and politics is power. It's about saying "join us" so we can oppose "them" and their taxes to pay for the poor (wink, we mean blacks) and their health care handouts (for reparations to blacks, wink). Consequently, tea party organizers and their PR wing at Fox News and on talk radio are able to consolidate political and financial power.
Glenn Beck, this week, was at it again, suggesting that the U.S. Census was scheming to give lopsided representation to minorities. This on top of his ongoing line that President Obama hates white people and that health care reform is all about reimbursing black people because of slavery. Yeah. He's not so "abstract," as Lee Atwater once said.
In Beck's case, sure, he spends a considerable amount of time talking about freedom and something about red phones and assembling acronyms that spell out non-words like "OLGIARHY." But the race argument is ever present. As obvious as it is, he doesn't say outright that his viewers should hate black people or immigrants. But he's clearly stoking white resentment for ratings and financial gain. Beck, like it or not, is a major player in the tea party movement, as is Fox News Channel. Together, they've spent countless sums of cash promoting tea party rallies and endorsing tea party causes. They are inextricably linked. And the Southern Strategy is right out there in plain view.
To date, for all of their protests and e-mails, I have yet to hear or read about any tea party participant who has denounced Beck. Or denounced Limbaugh for his daily race-based grabassery (yesterday is was a pun about Eric Massa, Governor Patterson and the racial epithet "massa"). Or denounced the scores of people who turn up with witch doctor signs and other racially-insensitive agitprop.
And finally, no. I'm not implying that everyone who disagrees with President Obama is a racist. Hell, I disagree with him on a number of issues. And no, not every member of the tea party movement is an outright racist. There are surely some earnest, decent (though politically misguided) people who are unaware of the race-baiting that's happening around them, and it's reasonable to suggest that there are more than a few people who simply don't recognize racism when they see it. But it's clear that a major component of the tea party movement -- the movement -- is the use of race, anti-immigrant sentiment and abstract racism as a strategy. Naturally, it wouldn't be used if there wasn't anything to gain. Sadly, however, the target demographic for the tea party movement is low-information white middle class voters who have a tendency, no matter how subconscious, to respond to political dog whistles.
No matter how loud and obnoxious they might become, the urgency is to make sure the tea party isn't taken any more seriously than its backwards and contradictory positions on the issues, its phony Astroturfing, and its Southern Strategy politics. This is essentially a corporate-driven assembly of angry white people gathered around abstractly racial issues for the purposes of venting rage while financially benefiting the far-right power elites who are pulling the strings. The broader conservative movement, say nothing of anyone who takes seriously the issues confronting the nation, would do well to stay away from the tea party, leaving it to flail in the margins where it belongs.
Correction: Atwater's discussion took place with Alexander P. Lamis, and was first reported by Bob Herbert.