Looking Forward to the History of the Tea Party

The Right’s dream of demolishing the modern welfare state is as old as the New Deal itself. [1] A “Conservative Manifesto,” drafted in 1937 by a coalition of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats in the Senate called for a balanced budget, tax reductions, the curtailing of union power, and an end to “unnecessary” government competition with private enterprise.   Although FDR bowed that year to budget-balance pressures from the right, conservative assaults on progressive taxation, public works, and unions in the name of austerity still lacked broad, popular support. Indeed, when a draft of the Manifesto was leaked to the press, Senate Minority Leader Charles McNary from Oregon declared that “anyone who signs that thing is going to have a Liberty League tag put on him,” referring to a far right organization discredited by even Republicans for its extreme positions, such as an adamant commitment to a minimal state and its charge that FDR was a socialist.  Indeed, because of the negative attention the Manifesto received, even conservative senators who had a hand in drafting the document denied any association with it.[2]

Today, of course, such discourse is conventional in both major parties, but it took many decades for this to come about. The challenge conservatives faced in achieving ideological hegemony was how to fashion a political identity through which they could equate unfettered private accumulation with a greater national good.  The Right was ultimately able to generate a populist conservatism by claiming to stand for honest, hardworking whites who were beset by an alliance of liberal establishment elites above and disruptive, parasitic blacks below. With the election of a black Democratic president, conservative populist anger has moved beyond the demonization of people of color to the demonization of the public realm as such.  To be sure, this is precisely the direction FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and other wealthy, corporate entities associated with the Tea Party movement have attempted to steer it.  Their vision is neither populist, national, nor racial, but rather directed toward seizing ever greater state resources while radically reducing what remains of democratic rule. Yet while these economic libertarians want to avoid cultural questions in their quest to dismantle the welfare state in its entirety, they still require a language of nation or community to advance their political aims.  As they seek to defend the very rich and demand austerity measures for an increasingly vulnerable populace, this becomes increasingly difficult to do.

The Tea Party and the Racial Legacy of Antistatist Populism

The alliance between southern segregationists and economic conservatives signaled by the Conservative Manifesto continued to develop over the 1940s and 1950s, given voice in the Dixiecrat Revolt 1948, in southern organizing drives of the Eisenhower campaigns, and in the pages of National Review Magazine, among other places.[3] With unified southern support, conservatives finally took control of the national GOP in 1964 and built the party afterward by framing conservative imperatives in the language of racial nationalism. Opposition to redistributive and egalitarian state imperatives gained popularity in the white electorate as it was linked to school desegregation and busing, welfare, crime, fair employment, open housing, affirmative action, and antidiscrimination law and policy.   This period from the 1960s through the 1980s (Goldwater to Atwater),which we might call Republican era of high racism, cemented conservatism’s centrality in American political culture.  Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign marked the first national attempt to wed racism to fiscal conservatism, when the Arizona senator’s opposition to civil rights gave him enough southern delegate votes for a conservative capture of the Republican nomination that year. Nationally though he won only his home state and five more in the Deep South.  Conservatives had thus extended their base by embracing racial politics, but were still associated with wealthy interests.

The emergent relationship between race and conservatism, however, opened opportunities for popular embrace, however. Alabama Governor George Wallace, running in the 1964 Democratic primaries, and then in an independent presidential run in 1968, forged a politics that framed both racism and antistatist conservatism within an older producerist rhetoric, defining his battle as one of productive members of society against parasitic elites and subversive protesters. He counterposed “pointy-headed intellectuals,” “bearded bureaucrats,” “rioters,” and “law-breakers” to “this man in the textile mill, this man in the steel mill, this barber, the beautician, the policeman on the beat.” Such themes proved popular not just in the white south, but among white working and middle-class voters in cities like Gary, Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.[4]

In the 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon drew on Wallaceite populism and began using the terms “silent majority,” “forgotten Americans” and “middle America” to describe an aggrieved white majority squeezed by both the unruly poor below and government elites above. After the election Kevin Phillips, then a Nixon advisor, wrote a book called the Emerging Republican Majority, describing a budding political demographic that “spoke clearly…for a shift away from the sociological jurisprudence, moral permissiveness, experimental residential, welfare and educational programming and massive federal spending by which the Liberal establishment sought to propagate liberal institutions and ideology.”  Nixon worked to expand this identity over the course of his presidency, even forming a “Middle American Working Group” in the White House and asking the Budget Bureau to find ways to better serve “forgotten Americans,” (a group that the Bureau eventually claimed was more of a concept than an empirical demographic). This political identity was revived in Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign through his simultaneous demonization of government and “welfare queens.”[5]   State was increasingly split from nation in this politics, allowing Reagan himself to be iconographic of (white) America even as he continually disparaged the state.

The Tea Party movement is the latest reincarnation of antigovernment populist rage, triggered by Obama’s election and given shape and content by Seattle blogger Keli Carender’s “porkulus package” demonstration, NBC business news editor Rick Santelli’s rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and other protests against anti-recessionary spending, most of which were organized by FreedomWorks and given ample coverage on Fox News.   The nascent movement solidified over the summer of 2009 through the public spectacle of protests at town hall meetings across the country where elected officials at public fora discussed federal health care reform legislation. The movement soon took on the Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, an icon that at, like the Boston Tea Party itself, evokes both patriotism and antigovernment dissent.[6]   The contemporary Tea Party movement has evinced the thundering antistatist fury of its forebears in its attacks on the stimulus package, Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the auto industry bailout, healthcare reform, public sector workers, and deficit spending.

Part of the antistatism of the Tea Party reflects a growing libertarian movement that has had an important impact on it. This pro-market, individualist antipathy to government has grown since 2008, and has thus been well placed to have an influence. The libertarian Students For Liberty now has over 400 groups on college campuses.  The cable channel Fox Business News has two libertarian shows: Freedom Watch and the Stossel Show. Ron Paul was a visible presence in the 2008 GOP primaries and continues to be a more prominent public figure.  The fervent devotion of Ron Paul supporters gave the initial spark and organizational basis for Rand Paul’s successful run for the Kentucky senate as a Tea Party candidate.  Most important, perhaps, libertarian zeal for privatization and antipathy toward regulation dovetails with the political and economic desires of the Koch Brothers’ American s for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, and other ultra-wealthy individuals, corporations, and foundations.

Race and the Tea Party Movement

While Tea Party spokespeople claim that the movement is purely fiscal, it is inconceivable that such antistatist rage is unconnected to the racism that fueled it in prior decades.  Indeed, the unprecedented electoral division between racial conservatives and racial liberals in the 2008 presidential race were prologue to the Tea Party’s appearance.[7] Obama has been portrayed as both a figure of racial abjection and a symbol of totalitarian control on Tea Party placards and in supporters’ rhetoric.  Evidence of racial rage was on national display in March, 2010 when Representatives André Carson of Indiana, Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri and John Lewis of Georgia, all black, were subjected to racial epithets and spitting as they walked to the Capitol by Tea Partiers who were there to protest the passage of federal health care reform.[8]  Veteran hate group monitors Devon Burghart and Leonard Zeskin issued a report soon after that provided ample evidence of participation of racists in the Tea Party at both the national and local level. [9]

Yet although there is much to suggest that there are powerful racial motivations in the movement, race does not signify for modern conservatism as it did during its ascent in the 1960s and ‘70s. Indeed conservatives today claim not only colorblindness but often an emphatic embrace or appropriation of the civil rights movement.  More complicated still is the fact that conservatives today must disavow any racial intent.  This is a defining paradox of the political moment: even as the conservative movement has lurched rightward, racial appeal – indeed even racial coding – has become discredited as a form of political address.  While Tea Party leaders loudly denounced the NAACP after that organization called on Tea Party groups to expunge racists from their ranks, more openly bigoted figures such as Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams were promptly ousted from the movement, and racially-charged signs quickly disappeared from Tea Party rallies.[10]

Indeed Tea Party organizations and spokespeople have adamantly refuted claims of racism in a manner distinct from the era of the rise of the Right, when conservatives would code language but the issues themselves had transparent racial referents, such as crime, busing, welfare and affirmative action. Tea Party leader Michael Patrick Leahy, responding to a University of Washington survey demonstrating higher levels of racial resentment among Tea Partiers, wrote:  “The Tea Party movement has rejected the discussion of social issues as an unwanted distraction that will hurt the movement’s ability to accomplish its constitutional and fiscal objectives. I know this because I helped start the movement, and I have participated in hundreds of conferences calls where this position has been deliberated and confirmed – both publicly and privately – innumerable times.”  The quote is revealing for the emphasis Tea Party leaders have placed on avoiding racial issues, but also for the essential admission that racial identification run so deep that the effort required deliberation over “hundreds of conference calls.”[11]  In his campaign memoir, Tea Party-backed Kentucky senator Rand Paul spends pages defending himself from charges of racism. Referring to the Tea Party’s focus on issues of spending and debt, he writes, “The Tea Party doesn’t see politics in black and white, but black and red.” Such refutations of racial intent are common staples of “colorblind” rhetoric of contemporary conservatives, requiring a denial of the myriad forms of race-based inequality built into US political, economic, and social institutions.  And yet the repeated, vehement repudiation of racism speaks to the changed landscape of US politics, where race-baiting cannot be openly achieved. Tea Partiers are perhaps particularly sensitive to the charge of racism. FreedomWorks campaign director Brendan Steinhauser, who counts civil rights leader Bayard Rustin as one of his inspirations, starkly put the matter, “Being a racist is one of the worst things you can be in this society. No one wants to be labeled this.”[12]

To dismiss Tea Party disavowals of racism as merely colorblind window-dressing would be to underestimate complex changes afoot.   How does one account for the high-profile Tea Party-associated black, Latino and Asian-American politicians, such as Rep. Allen West and governor Marco Rubio from Florida; and Nikki Haley and Tim Scott from South Carolina – the latter who defeated one of Strom Thurmond’s (white) children for the Republican nomination?  They are not evidence of an embrace of Tea Party politics by significant numbers of voters of color, as the Republican base of each of these candidates is largely white. But their successful candidacies do perhaps speak to a strong desire for racial innocence, a notion that Lawrie Balfour, following James Baldwin, explains as an expressed affirmation of racial equality that nevertheless disavows the very historical conditions and contemporary practices that continue to reproduce racial stratification.[13]

More than just disavowal, Tea Partiers often affirm innocence through appropriation. “We want to put a young, edgier face on this movement,” said FreedomWorks’ Steinhauser about a decision to feature a rapper named Hi-Caliber at 9/12 events.  “This isn’t a bunch of boring people who just listen to one kind of music. Don’t get me wrong. I love country music, but we have an edge, too.” Steinhauser’s affection for country music is meant to affirm the Tea Party’s conservative cultural basis even as he explains his desire to breathe new life into this identity in a black idiom – which, as Toni Morrison has argued, has been used to signal what is modern, hip and urbane in the white American imagination.[14]  Glenn Beck, taking it a step further, described himself and his allies as “the inheritors and the protectors of the civil rights movement.”  He said he “wouldn’t be surprised if in our lifetime dogs and fire hoses are released or opened on us. I wouldn’t be surprised,” he went on, “if a few of us get a billy club to the head. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us go to jail — just like Martin Luther King did — on trumped-up charges. Tough times are coming.”[15] Where colorblind conservatives de-racialize King to make him into one of them, here Beck almost racializes conservatives to make them more like King.

The current US right is not being built directly in opposition to a developing black freedom movement as it was in the era from the late 1950s through the 1970s. In the post-civil rights era however, such appeals have far less affective power, and people of color have become celebrated national figures not just in sports and entertainment, but in politics.   Yet the same period has seen the further isolation and targeting of the black poor through the simultaneous processes of neoliberal deindustrialization, dismantling of the welfare state, and the massive expansion of the prison system.  The combination of symbolic victories and political defeats of the civil rights movement has produced a context that constrains the right from deploying racial affect, robs it of the political resistance against which it was constructed, and yet offers new possibilities for racial appropriation.

Socialist Obama and the Demonized State

It remains to be seen whether the Tea Party movement will endure, but for now racial affect has made the movement successful even in the absence of an active civil rights movement to stoke it.  This returns us to Obama, whose office-taking coincided with the emergence of the Tea Party movement.  Obama was inaugurated in the midst of the mortgage crisis and subsequent great recession, sharply increased nativist anxieties about immigration from Mexico, and within the long shadow of 9/11. For his racial opponents he represents a notion of blackness linked to irresponsible welfare spending; foreignness linked to nativist anxieties; and Islam, depicted as violent fanaticism. Racism has remained still a key element in the populist affect of the Tea Party movement that has pushed national politics rightward through its incessant pressure on the Republican party.

While Obama represents a violation of white national identity for those who could not bear the election of a black president, for libertarian conservatives he represents a violation of an unencumbered marketplace.  These two representations, though sometimes in tension, come together and indeed magnify each other in the Tea Party imaginary.  As animus toward Obama built in the battle over health care reform, the president increasingly became labeled by Tea Partiers not as a liberal, but as a socialist. This extraordinary claim, which would in no way have been credible even for conservatives prior to Obama’s election, has far greater purchase now.  TARP, the Stimulus Package, and Health Care Reform, all of which were restrained state responses to a historic economic crisis, (TARP being actually the product of the Bush administration), were rendered dangerous, threatening expressions of socialism when associated with a black president. For an antistatist populism that contrasts a virtuous white middle against black dependents below and controlling elites above, Obama represents both poles.

The most widely circulated symbol associating Obama with socialism among Tea Partiers was a poster that began circulating in early 2009 depicting Obama as the Joker from the film Batman: The Dark Knight above the caption: “Socialism.”  By summer, tens of thousands of reproductions of the image with the caption Socialism were wheat-pasted across the Los Angeles area.  As the Tea Party opposition to health care reform developed over the summer of 2009, the Obama/Joker poster was omnipresent.  Defenders of the image claimed that there was nothing identifiably racial in the otherwise demonic image, and that the message, Socialism is a clear political statement unconnected to race.

Those who assert that the image is racist, however, have rightly pointed to the minstrelsy connotations of his painted face and the symbolism of the Joker as a figure of uncontrolled urban violence and nihilism.  But it is not merely that a racially demonized image of Obama got juxtaposed to the political charge of socialism in the text below it. Indeed, the Socialism caption points not away from race, as its defenders would have it, but towards it. The modern conservative movement in the United States from the late 1940s onward linked the advance of black civil rights with the threat of a totalitarian state, and of socialism specifically.   The modern Right, as argued earlier, continually depicted an unholy alliance of invasive state elites above and criminal, parasitic blacks below against a virtuous middle of hardworking white Americans.  As a form of political address, there is nothing muddled about the Socialism poster. Image and text refer to each other along an already well-developed chain of associations.

But the Obama/Joker image also demonstrates how the symbolic relationship between race and the state has changed in the current political context. The last significant instance of the right’s deployment of a menacing black face for political purposes was Lee Atwater’s use of convicted rapist William Horton (“Willie” was Atwater’s invented nickname) in the 1988 Bush campaign.[16] There as here, blackness was linked to criminality to discredit a Democratic opponent. The difference is that in the 1988 Bush campaign “liberalism” was meant to evoke fears of a white president, unleashing black criminals on a vulnerable nation. For contemporary Tea Partiers, “socialism” is meant to evoke fears of a black president unleashing a criminal state on a vulnerable nation. In the former, the state enabled unchecked black aggression, whereas in the latter blackness enables unchecked state aggression. Without black social unrest as a political issue (or even recent memory), assaults on the modern right’s virtuous middle come from above, not below.

What does it mean politically that the Tea Party expresses a conservative politics directed less at people of color than at the redistributive state more generally? The successes of the modern Right were achieved through the refashioning of political identities of working and middle-class whites away from the Democratic liberalism and toward conservative Republicanism. This meant splitting off and racializing the poor as welfare dependents and criminals. But welfare has been largely dismantled, and the prison industrial complex fully realized.  Indeed, as noted above, the issue of crime is mostly absent for Tea Partiers even as the disproportionally black and latino poor continue to be subject to violence, coercion and incarceration.

Racial affect for the Tea Party circulates most powerfully in attacks on Obama, but as such these lack substantive policy targets around which to rally. The birther issue, for instance, has fired the countersubversive imagination, but does not translate directly into more punitive crime legislation, or further attacks on affirmative action. Thus hatred of Obama is translated into assaults on taxation, social programs, public sector unions, and deficit spending. Unspoken racial rage against Obama as signifier for the state may continue to sustain this trend for those who would continue to transfer wealth ever upward.

What now?

The challenges we now face in reversing contemporary political tides are formidable.  Looking back, the widely discredited Liberty League of the New Deal era looks nearly identical to the very influential Tea Party today.[17] And the Tea Party is merely the most visible manifestation of the assault on equality, freedom, and democratic rule. The Democratic Party has also shifted dramatically rightward in the last 30 years, echoing the turn away from commitments to democracy and economic equality.  The Supreme Court’s 2010 elimination of campaign finance reform in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission exacerbates this trend, as both parties now will require even more staggering amounts of money to run campaigns. Indeed, Obama campaign suggests that the 2012 reelection effort will exceed a billion dollars. Such sums, of course, are most easily attainable on Wall Street, which is one indicator of the direction in which the Obama administration is likely to continue to lean.

As devastating in some ways as the historic dismantling of the New Deal is, it is a mistake to seek merely to defend the welfare state.   Such rearguard actions cannot alter the contemporary terms of debate, challenge the extraordinary power asymmetries we now face, nor, most importantly inspire broad-based political action.  Record unemployment, crumbling schools, bankrupt municipalities and counties, collapsing infrastructure, widespread poverty and homelessness—in this context, assaults on redistributive aspects of the state (slashed social programs and entitlements, weakened wage and benefit security for large sectors of the workforce, and preserved tax breaks for the very rich) strain populist credulity.   How long can a such a movement sustain itself without an idea of res publica that it seeks to defend? If we are all Black Americans now, as Melissa Lacewell-Perry recently suggested, than populist political cleavages can be reconfigured.[18]   For all of its funding by wealthy patrons and exposure on Fox News, the social movement success of the Tea Party movement nevertheless has been made possible in part because participants saw themselves as civic actors advancing autonomous political ends – much as the New Left once did.  Those who wish to reverse this political tide must come to inhabit political identities that are oppositional, and framed within in our own populist language of liberty.

[1] I would like to thank Kevin Bruyneel and Jacob Slichter for their insights and suggestions on this essay.
[2] See John Robert Moore, “Senator Josiah W. Bailey and the ‘Conservative Manifesto’ of 1937,” Journal of Southern His- tory, 31, no. 1 (February 1965), pp. 21–39; 75th Congress, 2nd sess., Congressional Record (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 20, 1937), 1934–40. The Liberty League was a proto-fascist conspiratorial organization set up to overthrow Roosevelt in the early 1930s.
[3] Lowndes, Joseph. From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2008.
[4] Mary C. Brennan, Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), p. 12; Robert Alan Goldberg, Barry Goldwater (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) Lowndes, pp 45-76; Perlstein, Rick. Before the Storm: Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. New York, Hill and Wang, 2001.
[5] Lowndes, pp 106-139; Kevin Phillips in The Emerging Republican Majority New Rochelle, N.Y.: Ar-lington House, 1968)
[6] Zerneke, Kate. Boiling Mad: Inside the Tea Party Movement, New York Times Books, Henry Holt. 2010.
[7] Tesler, Michael and David O. Sears. Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010.
[8] Pear, Robert. “Spitting and Slurs Directed at Lawmakers.” March 20, 2010. New York Times. https://prescriptions.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/20/spitting-and-slurs-directed-at-lawmakers/ (Last accessed May 24, 2011).
[9] Burghart and Zeskind, Tea Party Nationalism.
[10] Delong, Matt. “Tea Party Leader Expelled Over Slavery Letter.” Washington Post, July 18, 2010. https://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2010/07/mcconnell-on-tea-party-racism.html (Last accessed May 24, 2011)

[11] Leahy, Michael Patrick. “Bruce Bartlett’s Intellectually Dishonest Smear of the Tea Party Movement.” American Thinker, May 23, 2011 https://www.americanthinker.com/2010/06/bruce_bartletts_intellectually.html (last accessed may 24, 2011)

[12] Gardner, Amy and Thompson, Issah. “Tea Party Groups Battle Perception of Racism.” Washington Post, May 5, 2010. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/04/AR2010050405168.html (Last accessed May 24, 2011)
[13] Balfour, Lawrie. The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy. Ithica. Cornell University Press, 2001.
[14] Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the American Literary Imagination. New York. Vintage. 1993.
[15] Herbert, Bob. “America is Better Than This.” New York Times, August 27, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/28/opinion/28herbert.html (last accessed May 24, 2011)
[16] Mendelberg, Tali. The Race Card: Campaign Messages, Implicit Strategies, and the Norm of Equality.  Princeton, Prienceton University Press, 2001.
[17] See David Woolner, “The Tea Party Movement: Successor to the Liberty League?” https://www.newdeal20.org/2010/07/01/the-tea-party-movement-successor-to-the-american-liberty-league-13880/ (Last accessed August 4, 2011)
[18] Lacewell-Perry, Melissa.  “Are We All Black Americans Now?” The Nation, April 18, 2011.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Kurt Jacobsen: A Rambling Introduction

By Paul Hoover: The British Small Arms Company: A Motorcycle Memoir

By Andrey Gritsman: Stranger at Home: Poetic Sensibility across Cultures and Languages

By John Nichols: Epistles from the Roadside

By Leonard Quart: Revisiting in the Heat of the Night

By John Long: Got My Kicks on Route 66

By Max Vanzi: Traipsing after Sawada: An American Foreign Correspondent’s Memoir

By Phaedra Greenwood: Two for the Road

By Warren Leming: Looking for Woody

By John Sinclair: Still on the Road

By Anne Waldman: Interview with Anne Waldman: On All Kinds of Roads

By Thomas de Zengotita: Modernism Revisited: Artistic Works, Academic Disciplines, Divided Minds

By Vincent Czyz: Plato’s Gospel

By Joseph Lowndes: Looking Forward to the History of the Tea Party

By Stephen Eric Bronner: On Judging American Foreign Policy: Human Rights, Political Realism, and the Arrogance of Power

By John Clark: Bad I.O.U.: Badiou’s Fidelity to the Event

By Carmen Francesca Banciu: Pollen and Diamonds

By Aaron Leonard: Twilight Saga of the American Empire?

By Lawrence Davidson: Review of Basem Ra’ad, Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean.

By John Ehrenberg: Tristram Hunt, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

By Denise Poche Jetter: Steven Shapin, Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if it were Produced by People

By Jason Scott: Megan Boler, Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times