What “Populist Uprising?” Pt. 1
Facts and Reflections on Race, Class, and the Tea Party “Movement,” Part 1
The right wing Tea Party “movement” has recently and again grabbed attention in the dominant media. On Tax Day last April, it garnered headlines by rolling out its standard high-decibel complaints against “big government,” deficits, taxes, and the supposed “radical” agenda of “Obama, Pelosi, and Reid” and the rest of the Democratic Party. As usual, the Tea Partyers exempted the $1 trillion-a-year Pentagon system (which accounts for nearly half of the world’s military spending and maintains more than 1000 military bases spread across more than 130 nations), global capitalism, and plutocratic tax cuts (for the rich) from their sense of what is undermining the nation’s economic prospects and saddling future generations with unsustainable debt. Also par for the course, they absurdly charged the militantly state-capitalist and military imperialist Barack Obama administration and the corporate-captive Democratic Party with “socialism,” “Marxism,” environmentalist “tree hugging,” peacenik-ism, pro-immigrant sentiment and other alleged “radical leftist” apostasies denounced by such high priests of hard right anti-Obama backlash as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, and Sarah Palin. Their extreme disapproval of Barack Obama was evident in signs accusing the president of “destroying the economy,” squelching individual “liberty,” ordering the “government take over of health care” and “wrecking the American dream,” among other terrible crimes. They had little to say about the role of the arch-reactionary “big government” George W. Bush White House – an administration that fed the federal deficit by combining massive military spending with huge tax cuts for the wealthy Few (the group that Bush once half-jokingly referred to as “my base”) – in fueling the federal deficit and in failing to responsibly regulate the elite financial firms that crashed the economy in 2008 and 2009.
The reigning corporate media describe the Tea Partyers as “anti-government,” but they are no such thing. As the black Left commentator Glen Ford recently noted in a commentary titled “White Nationalism on the March,” “They oppose the government providing assistance – economic, legal, educational, real or imagined – to those that are ‘undeserving,’ which in their world consists mostly of folks that can be defined by race, language or religion (using code words, when required by polite society).” Those parts of government that punish the disproportionately nonwhite poor, subjugate nations and people abroad, and protect wealth and privilege at home do not come in for much protest from the Tea Party set. It’s what’s left of (what the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called) “the left hand of the state” that provokes the “tea baggers’” ire. The (repressive and regressive) “right hand of the state” does not seem to bother them all that much.
LOOKING FOR FRIENDS IN THE TEA PARTY
“To Have a Sane Conversation”
How should left progressives think about and respond to the “Tea Party” people? According to some prominent left thinkers and activists we ought to be trying to reach out to them and connecting with their potentially progressive populist outrage. In a recent Washington Post column titled “Could Progressives Find Allies in the Tea Party?,” Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of the leading liberal-left weekly The Nation, calls for liberals and lefties to “have a sane conversation” with the tea-baggers “about taxes, the proper role of government and how to rebuild our economy.” She wants “to redirect the shared grievances of progressives and the more sensible Tea Partyers into a productive politics” that confronts “a system that consistently favors the rich and powerful at the expense of ordinary individuals and families. If we could reckon with some of our similarities,” Vanden Heuvel argues, we might truly build a broad-based coalition for economic change.”
Chuck Collins, director of program on Inequality and the Common Good at the left-liberal Institute for Policy Studies argues in The Nation (in an editorial titled “How to Talk to a Tea Party Activist”) that “Like all social movements, the Tea Party wave is not monolithic.” There are many in this “movement,” Collins feels, with whom left progressives can “find common ground” in defending overtaxed working people against big corporations and Wall Street.
The liberal peace activist Medea Benjamin wants progressives “to begin a dialogue” whereby “Tea Partiers” could be encouraged to link “their anger at out-of-control government spending and soaring deficits” to “what is, by far, the biggest sinkhole of our tax dollars: Pentagon spending…”
The Nation’s John Nichols chimes in with his hope the “The Tea Party movement….stays true to a set of core principles that are rooted in distrust not just of big government but of big banks and big business -- and a healthy fear of those moments when all the bigs get together, as they did during the bank bailout fight.”
“These are the People Who Ought to Be Organized by the Left”
Some of the most interesting and dire Tea Party commentary has come from the legendary Left intellectual Noam Chomsky. According to Chomsky two months ago, the “tea-baggers” represent a popular uprising that could be moving in a more positive peace and justice direction if (to start with) “the left” would start listening with more empathy to their legitimate, working class anger. Chomsky thinks the stakes are high and the mistakes of “the left” are quite grave. “The Tea Party thing,” he told an interviewer, “is a real sign of the failure of the left. These people, they’re a mixed group, but many of them – I would probably say most of them – are the people who ought to be organized by the left. These are people with real grievances….[reflecting the fact that] wages have stagnated [and]…benefits, which were never very great, have declined….If you look at the unemployment figures, which are always understated, in manufacturing industry its back to the Great Depression. And people are not going to get those jobs back. So they have the right to be mad, but the left is not offering them anything.” (Jon Hochschartner, “I Don’t See Much Difference: An Interview With Noam Chomsky,” Z Magazine, April 2010).
Chomsky advanced more elaborate and grave reflections to a leftist interviewer last fall:
"right now …there is a right-wing populist uprising. It's very common, even on the left, to just ridicule them, but that's not the right reaction. If you look at those people and listen to them on talk radio, these are people with real grievances…And in fact they are getting shafted. For 30 years their wages have stagnated or declined, the social conditions have worsened,…,so somebody must be doing something to them, and they want to know who it is. Well Rush Limbaugh has answered - it's the rich liberals who own the banks and run the government, and of course run the media, and they don't care about you.’ Either they just want to give everything away to illegal immigrants and gays and communists and so on.”
”… the reaction we should be having to them is not ridicule, but rather self-criticism. Why aren't we organizing them? I mean, we are the ones that ought to be organizing them, not Rush Limbaugh. There are historical analogs, which are not exact, of course, but are close enough to be worrisome. This is a whiff of early Nazi Germany. Hitler was appealing to groups with similar grievances, and giving them crazy answers, but at least they were answers; these groups weren't getting them anywhere else…”
“…the liberal Democrats aren't going to tell the average American, ‘Yeah, you're being shafted because of the policies that we've established over the years that we're maintaining now.’ That's not going to be an answer. And they're not getting answers from the left. So, there's an internal coherence and logic to what they get from Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the rest of these guys. And they sound very convincing, they're very self-confident, and they have an answer to everything. It’s a crazy answer, but it's an answer. And it's our fault if that goes on. So one thing to be done is don't ridicule these people, join them, and talk about their real grievances and give them a sensible answer, like, ‘Take over your factories.’”
Chomsky’s sentiments were echoed in a recent CounterPunch essay by the left singer and songwriter David Rovics. Referring to the Tea Party and talk radio crowd, Rovics argued that “These are people who are often working two shit jobs to make ends meet whereas a generation ago one would have done just fine. They very legitimately feel disenfranchised. These are people with very legitimate complaints, and dismissing them as racists or whatever other label people on the left want to put on them is simplistic.” Raising the specter of “a real fascist movement in this country,” Rovics warns that the future will be bleak, and ugly, and filled with ‘patriots’….if the so-called progressives of this country can't snap out of their Obama-induced slumber, take to the streets and vocally break ranks with both corrupt parties that are driving this country into the ground…”
The “Tom Frank Kansas Thesis Raises its Ugly Head
Chomsky and Rovics are treading some common ground with the liberal historian and Wall Street Journal columnist Thomas Frank. Like Frank’s widely read but very empirically problematic book What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan, 2004), they raise the specter of an angry white working class abandoned by elitist corporate Democrats and picked off by a manipulative, fake-populist right-wing serving the plutocratic agenda of the Republicans and the wealthy Few. Resentment abhors a vacuum: if reasonably angry social-democratic progressives (a “Left”) do not exist to give forthright and actionable answers to justifiably irate and legitimately oppressed people, it is left to some very dangerous and reactionary forces to capture and channel their popular wrath and turn it all in authoritarian, plutocratic ways. But whereas Frank saw nefarious Republicans moving working class Americans away from the Democratic Party with “cultural issues” like guns, religion, gay rights, and abortion (Frank had remarkably little to say about race and militarism), Chomsky emphasizes the right’s use of economic issues (jobs, taxes, trade deficits and more) to seduce ordinary working people in the midst of a Great Recession that Obama inherited from the Bush administration.
WHO ARE THE TEA PARTYERS?
There is much to appreciate in Chomsky and Rovics’ reflections. Reflecting shared subordination to the same “unelected dictatorship of money” that controls the Republicans and much else in U.S. political culture, the corporate-neoliberal Democrats (whose current standard bearer Barack Obama was rightly anointed as “the Kingpin of Corporate Subsidies” by the liberal political scientist Thomas B. Edsall last year) are deeply complicit in the state-capitalist “shafting” of the American working class. Reflexively blaming the nation’s economic problems and related social disparities on the “failed policies of the Republicans,” top Democrats refuse to tell the truth about the richly bipartisan nature of the policies and practices – corporate globalization, “free trade,” financial de-regulation, overwork, de-pensioning and other forms of benefits roll back, the attack on public family cash assistance, and a relentless employer assault on unions and more – through which the economic elite has waged top-down class warfare on American workers in recent decades. The Democratic Party most certainly is, as Rovics writes, “a hopelessly corrupt institution led by people who constantly say one thing and do another.”
There is a chilling and dangerous anger and activism gap on what passes for a Left in the
“The Left” should naturally try to influence and organize everyone it can. Converts from the right and from all classes are welcome (we could certainly use some of the super-rich’s surplus capital to help build our currently weak movements). There’s always a few (or more) potential allies stuck on the wrong side of the political divide.
The CBS-New York Times Findings: Privileged White Hypocrites
Still, what about the “Tea Party” people? Do they really come from particularly aggrieved and working class backgrounds? Are we really seeing legitimately angry working class Americans being steered into the right by clever right manipulators in accord with at least one key aspect of the famous “Tom Frank Kansas thesis”? Is the “Tea Party thing” really rooted in “the people who ought to” – or even could – “be organized by the Left”? Are these “Tea Party” people really motivated primarily by economic issues and problems and just slightly by concerns and sentiments of race, gender, and religion? Are their grievances really all that legitimate and potentially progressive? Last but not least, are they really coalesced into anything that deserves to be considered a “movement,” much less a “populist uprising” (of any sort)?
Based on recently released national data generated by CBS and The New York Times and our own regionally specific (Midwestern) research and observation of the “Tea Party” people, our answers to each of these questions is a resounding NO. In saying this we wish to add that Chomsky (by far and away the leading thinker among all the authorities quoted above) was speaking informally and hedged his argument observations with two important qualifications: (i) “they [the tea-party people] are a mixed crowd” and (ii): “I haven’t seen a study” of the social composition and world view(s) of the Tea Party people. We note also that Chomsky suggested a far better perspective on the Tea Party crowd and its political implications in his reflections on the right-wing Republican Scott Brown”s victory over the establishment Democrat Marcia Coakley in the open seat election for the critical U.S. Senate post formerly held by Teddy Kennedy in “liberal” Massachusetts. As Chomsky observed, citing the findings of Boston Globe reporter Brian Mooney, Brown won mainly in the more affluent
That insight goes much closer to what we consider the real heart of the problem. The angry Tea Party right is actually quite affluent, suburban, white, male, older, and religious. Despite vociferous denials from its members, racism remains endemic within the group. It is not particularly working class and does not generally represent people who have been seduced over from The Democrats’ corporatism. “The Left’s” slumber and quiescence is not so much causing an angry working class exodus to FOX News, the Republican Party, and the Tea Party “movement” as it is simply depressing, discouraging, demobilizing, standing down, and wasting popular and working class energy and thereby leaving the authoritarian sentiments of the in fact ugly and plutocratic, arch-nationalist and racist and patriarchal right dangerously unchallenged.
Who are the Tea Party people? Angry though they may be, these right wing “populists” hardly come from disadvantaged, and working class sections of the
While we are not entirely comfortable with the tendency of some left writers to raise the specter of “fascism” in the U.S. political context (where corporate-imperial “Americanism” seems to hold sway and render classic fascism largely unnecessary and redundant for the power elite), it is interesting (in light of Chomsky’s chilling “early Nazi Germany” analogy and Rovics’ dire warnings about a “real fascist” threat) to observe that (as Leon Trotsky noted again and again during the early 1930s) the class basis for the original Nazi movement in Germany was found among petit-bourgeois, not proletarians.
One of the Tea Partyers' great gripes with Obama, for whom their disapproval is massive (88 percent for Tea Party supporters compared to 40 percent for the populace as a whole) is that his policies (supposedly) “favor the poor.” This curious judgment on the corporatist, Wall Street-captive Obama administration is shared by 55 percent of the Tea Party supporters but only 27 percent of the overall populace. Consistent with this revealing “grievance,” 80 percent of the Tea Party supporters think it is a “bad idea” to “raise income taxes on households that make more than $250,000 a year to help provide health insurance for people who do not already have it.” More than half (54 percent) of the overall populace thinks that is a “good idea.” Nearly three-fourths (73 percent) of the Tea Party crowd thinks that “providing government benefits to poor people encourages them to remain poor” and does NOT “help them until they begin to stand on their own.” That (false) belief is shared by just 38 percent of the less affluent broad populace. The Tea Partyers’ belief that Obama “favor[s] the poor” is related to their frankly risible misunderstanding of the nation’s militantly corporate-centrist president as a “very liberal” chief executive who is transitioning the United States towards socialism. More than three-fourths (77 percent) of the Tea Partiers (compared to just 31 percent of the overall population) consider Obama “very liberal.” A remarkable 92 percent (!) of the Tea Party crowd says that the president is “moving the country to socialism” – a very, very bad thing in their view.
As the CBS and New York Times data shows, Tea Partyers are hardly poor or dispossessed, suffering under the economic collapse and recession, but falsely supporting pro-business, anti-worker policies at their own expense. The “populist uprising” of the Tea Party crowd over current economic conditions reflects their own comparative affluence and lack of willingness to share the benefits they enjoy with others as well as a related venomous propaganda campaign undertaken by the Republican Party, business, and the right-wing media, designed to manufacture anger among relatively privileged sections of the populace. In this regard it is interesting to note the CBS-New York Times survey’s finding that 62 percent of Tea Partiers support Medicare and Social Security – programs they either currently or will in the near future benefit from – while most of them strongly oppose Obama and the Democrats’ health care initiatives – designed (despite the bill’s overall corporatist nature) to extend some protections to the poor and uninsured. Most Tea Partiers oppose the expansion of government in order to pay for social welfare services, with 63 percent believing that “we should be reducing the size of the federal government” rather than expanding it. There are some parts of the supposedly evil welfare state that they do not wish to see dismantled, however: programs whose benefits they enjoy.
The Tea Partyers are symptomatic of a broader egoistic hypocrisy among much of the nation’s relatively well-off populace. Their problem is not really with big government and welfare (as long as they benefit); rather, they despise government when it is employed to help the poor. Disturbingly enough – and as we will show in an upcoming piece – those who already have health care coverage are systematically more likely to oppose Obama and the Democrats on health “reform,” while those who have no coverage are more likely to support the President and his party on that issue. In short, it’s the affluent middle and middle upper class who are the most likely to be taken in by the Tea Party/talk radio rhetoric.
“THE RIGHT PEOPLE ARE ANGRY:” A REPORT FROM
Our observation of the Tea Party crowd on the ground in
One thing that cannot quite be adequately conveyed by survey data and which requires direct experiential observation is the Tea Partyers’ deep underlying racism. The
One interesting and not so post-racial moment came when John O’Hara, president of the right wing Illinois Policy Institute and a leading national figure in the Tea Party “movement, “spoke to the
Black and Latino residents of the
Returning from the
“Naturally, the average Tea Partyer – when sober – will deny having ‘a racist bone’ in his body, but any group whose unifying characteristic is daily engorgement on Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck is, by definition, racist. Anyone who tries to tell you different, is far too tolerant of bigoted behavior, assumptions and speech to be anything but a closet racist, himself.”
“Tea Partyers live in a world of throbbing hatreds that render them damn near incoherent. They shout and hoot and holler in fevered support of political statements with which they cannot possibly agree. For example, the highly popular “Limited Government” plank of The Contract states: ‘The purpose of our government is to exercise only those limited powers that have been relinquished to it by the people, chief among these being the protection of our liberties by administering justice and ensuring our safety from threats arising inside or outside our country’s sovereign borders.’”
“That means, the government should provide only police, criminal justice and public safety services, and a national defense. No public schools or publicly supported colleges, no tax breaks for homeowners, none of the public supports that ‘middle class,’ ‘law-abiding,’ ‘patriotic,’ ‘taxpayers’ with strong ‘family values’ have been demanding for themselves for the last 65 years. (‘And don’t you dare touch my Medicare!’)”
“Any ‘movement’ that actually believed in as shrunken a government as The Contract describes would be either very rich, or very tiny. The plank only begins to make sense when understood as a kind of scatter-shot code talk for restricting government assistance to ‘worthy’ Americans, and cutting the flotsam and jetsam people loose.”
Rovics says it is “simplistic” to see the Tea Party and talk radio crowd as “racists or whatever.” Without simplifying the complex issues of race and class/classism in
It’s useful perhaps to think of an historical analogy when assessing whether – or the degree to which – the Left should be reaching out to the Tea Party. Here is a reasonable question for those progressives who want to “find common ground” with this “movement”: if you were a civil rights activist during the 1950s and 1960s, would you have thought it realistic to expect southern segregationists to play an integral part in actively working toward desegregation? Elitist white racism dressed up as the common man’s populism needs to be openly ridiculed and shamed to the point where its proponents are either forced to abandon their reactionary beliefs or their racial intolerance is forced underground and is no longer considered an acceptable part of public discourse. Much of the Tea Party backlash is characterized by religiously and racially motivated hatred of Obama as a black, foreign, and Muslim threat. This can’t all simply be reduced to people with “real grievances.” The Tea Partyers are mainly people of overlapping racial and socioeconomic privilege. They are intent on maintaining that privilege at the expense of disproportionately poor minorities. The ugly message at Tea Party rallies is clear: “keep your hands off my money; social welfare is fine, as long as I’m the beneficiary, but if my taxes go to the poor and needy, I’ll scream in the street until they’re cut off.”
This is a toxic brew. It reflects a culture of greed, narcissism, nationalism, white supremacy, and self indulgence. The Tea Party at its heart is a tool of the neoliberal corporate-imperial state, singing praises of “small government” and “free markets,” while quietly demanding massive state welfare subsidies for oneself, and demanding “market discipline,” “personal responsibility,” and “rugged individualism for the less fortunate. On the global stage, it is worth adding that, as Ford notes, “all but a sliver of the Tea Party crowd are belligerent hawks, as racist in their global worldview as in their domestic outlook. Just as they reject a national social contract with non-whites, they reject any compact with other peoples of the world, particularly the non-white ones. White nationalism is warlike, expansionist, and proud of it – a grave danger to the survival of humanity.” While we agree that the Left should seek to make inroads with those privileged Americans who have been seduced by the culture of greed and buy into Republican-Tea Party propaganda, our first task remains mobilizing the poor and disadvantaged who already support progressive policies but have largely been ignored in and marginalized by the political process. The privileged in
We have in this essay consistently put the word “movement” in quote marks throughout this report for reasons that will become more evident in its next installment. In Part 2 we will present numerous reasons to view the Tea Party’s claim (seconded by some left intellectuals and activists) to be a social movement or “uprising” at all with extreme skepticism. We will also examine the true elite forces behind the “movement,” why and how dominant
Anthony DiMaggio is the author of the newly released When Media Goes to War (Monthly Review, 2010) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (