Tea Party Rides 'Perfect Storm' of Populist Rage
New America Media, Round Table Discussion, Annette Fuentes Posted: Jan 25, 2010
Editor’s Note: A conservative backlash against the Obama administration and the Democrat-agenda of health care and immigration reform is growing, with the Tea Party movement as the most visible proof. Long-time community organizers and activists Suzanne Pharr, Chip Berlet and Loretta Ross discuss the Tea Party and conservative thought as the evolution of earlier movements in U.S. history and what they mean for the prospects of the Democratic Party and democracy. Pharr is former director of the Highlander Center in Tennessee, and author of, “In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Liberation. Ross is the national coordinator of Sistersong, a women of color reproductive health collective in Atlanta, GA. Chip Berlet is senior analyst for Public Research Associates, a Boston-based think-tank that researches right-wing movements. NAM editor Annette Fuentes facilitated and edited the following discussion.
NAM: Let’s start the conversation by talking about the Tea Party movement, its racial diversity and whether you were surprised about their growing popularity.
Suzanne Pharr: There is fairly strong organizing throughout [Tennessee]. We have it written about in the newspapers each time they get together. We are in the center of Appalachia. It’s a conservative region, so a large number of people have begun to organize here. I’d say its 100 percent white and mostly middle class, although I understand almost everyone who is white identifies as middle class.
I don’t know if it has enough traction yet to affect the political landscape here, but it has provided a place for people to talk about government. There is always a piece of it that is coded racial language or overt.
Was I surprised? No. Chip has done such a great job of doing research into understanding the far right. Mine has been focused on the mid–right, those who stand in the middle and get pulled in, particularly by the organizing of the religious right. I’ve been very interested in how they recruit people in the middle. I think that’s why this wasn’t a surprise. It seemed a logical outcome. It stands right in line with attacks against the New Deal and the service framework of the country, which came out of the Reagan years. Reagan and his crew racialized every social issue. So, immigration and crime and drugs and prisons became racialized. Conservative radio outlets built capacity leading into the Bush years, in which we created more and more disastrous programs. And then with the election of a black president, I’m not surprised at the “take our country back” cry. It has been the theme since the civil rights movement. But because of the perfect storm of circumstances—the economy, a black president--the people who push that theme have the opportunity of possibly creating a new party.
My fear in the Bush years was that we were on the road to fascism. I was moved to see that so many people in this country had some sort of passion for whatever change Obama represented to them. Those are the people I feel need to be ignited now. Those are the people who had their hearts open, and if we lose that momentum, that’s a tragedy.
Loretta Ross: Was I surprised? Ditto to everything Suzanne says. It’s hard to be surprised, but the hardest thing is not to be cynical and to work for human rights when these forces keep reinventing themselves. They never retreat. They just regroup. We suffer under our own illusions if we think the election of Obama would push them into retreat. What we see in the Deep South is an alliance being made in an interesting way. In the last 30 years, we’ve had neo-Confederates flirting with the edges of the mainstream, like David Duke temporarily choosing the ballot instead of bullets. There is a resurgence of a neo-Confederate movement—the re-legitimization of the Council of Conservative Citizens. We have mainstream Republicans thinking they can foment this rage on the far right and use them, but they will find they cannot control them and their violent tendencies.
The fact that the Tea Party groups are getting a lot of media attention doesn’t surprise me. Do we forget Father Coughlin? Every time David Duke put his hat in the ring, he got more attention [than] any legitimate candidate. It’s a country fascinated with fascism in a bizarre way. I’m addicted to the History channel, and a week doesn’t go by that there aren’t 20 iterations of Hitler. It’s part of the fabric of our country.
The idea of people of color being included in the Tea Party movement is not original. We’ve had people of color as apologists for white supremacists as long as we’ve had white supremacists. The white people will say quickly they are not personally racist. But white supremacy is a set of beliefs that promotes a status quo of domination and subordination. You don’t have to be white to believe in it. The media will find the one black person at a Tea Party event to prove it’s not racist.
Why now? Is the economy driving this? Suzanne’s metaphor of a perfect storm is right. I think even if the economy was good, we would have this because of the first black president. In the 1930s, the backlash against the New Deal went a long way to solidifying the Republican Party. All they do is repackage their arguments against it. They say they don’t believe in big government, but part of it is the alleged beneficiaries of these programs.
Chip Berlet: It’s important to note that in terms of the Confederacy, most people who are progressive don’t think about it, but 10 of the states in the south who picked McCain were in the original confederacy. What we have with the Tea Party, if you interview them they will say, ‘there isn’t a racist bone in my body.’ Then they talk a story line that is rooted in white privilege, but they are blithely unaware of it.
The Democrats could have built a huge coalition, instead the right has decided to build a movement, picking up on these old themes. Sure, the Tea Party started out as Astro Turf, but it has turned into a mass movement and it’s angry and has guns. What is the other mass movement with guns you think of? The Ku Klux Klan. Take the country back-- that is what the KKK said after the Civil War. What they want back is white power and white privilege.
Obama came to Massachusetts on Sunday and used a populist message: that we’re in this together and we have to reform those who plundered the economy. That’s a powerful populist message. To be honest, Obama always had populist appeal, but he’s surrounded by centrists who are beholden to the financial industry. They don’t like Obama talking a populist progressive message. They don’t want to tighten their belts.
Ross: What is also telling is that the anger is not directed in any explicit way toward the financial institutions. It’s not aimed at insurance companies, not aimed at the people who control our economic destinies. It’s being aimed, not only at the government and Obama, but at other folks who are powerless--immigrants, people of color getting into college, gays and lesbians.
Berlet: The backbone of the Tea Party is the middle class, who are downwardly mobile. It goes to what populism is. It can be either left or right. In American history, populism has overwhelmingly been led by whites who rail against elites but end up stomping on the poor and gays and people of color. Even if the Republicans don’t sweep 2012 with this rhetoric, the history is that this is a tool used by right. They scapegoat. It’s not a real solution. But it’s very powerful in the short term.
Pharr: Where is this going? Who can say. I thought the Tea Party organizing this summer around health care was an opening practice for immigration. This is next on Obama’s agenda. There are many folks out there who weren’t part of the Tea Party who will come out on immigration and we’ll see an enormous organizing effort. The ones who have the bigger picture, are seeing this is a great place to do organizing, particularly during an economic crisis. You need a structure to organize that sentiment and the TP structure, small groups, is perfect. I think we have 20 now in Tennessee.
As Loretta says, we’re in long history with immigration being racialized. We’re going to see a great attack against Obama’s efforts and against the immigrants themselves. It’s a strategy. One of things I notice about the left—we’re really good at analyzing. We’ve been not so good on our grassroots organizing, and part of that is we have been hampered in such tremendous way by being in nonprofit structures. The best we can do is look back at the great organizing of the civil rights movement. But in the last 30 years, we haven’t done the base-building working with people.
If Obama had made strong moves in the beginning, he would have maintained the base, and now there is erosion of that base. But there was no movement to be the wind behind his back, to say, ‘You better do this.’
Ross: I took a less optimistic view of Obama as a radical change agent. I thought the election pitted a neo-liberal against a neo-fascist. And the neo-liberal won. People packed into Obama our hopes and dreams. It was painfully clear how mainstream he was.
What I see as most dangerous short-term consequence of the Tea Party movement and our discourse on it is it is going to re-legitimate discredited ideas. The racialization of immigration policies, which happened at the turn of the century, the same way racial profiling was re-legitimated during the war on terror--all will be resurrected and legitimized. And that is where we who don’t use word fascism lightly think that this country is headed.
I do share Suzanne’s idea about the limits of nonprofits, but a good portion of the left does not work under the 501(c)(3) structure, and it is still impotent. I spend lot of time talking to middle America; many are in my own family. But I find that we bring to them our stereotypes, biases and arrogance around their lifestyle, opinions and ideas. What the right does is create the appearance that they care about their problems and suffering.
Berlet: The antidote is a militant, shit-kicking social movement of the left. Political parties don’t move social movements. Social movements move parties. Since the 1960s, we’ve seen right-wing social movements, the Christian right, xenophobic right, and they’ve pulled the Republicans to the right. Countering that is our job as social organizers. We have to believe there is chance of pulling people toward social justice, economic justice. Shame on us if we don’t try. Liberal centrists have been running around raising millions for social liberal movements, and all of it went into the Democratic Party. We could have had a left-wing social movement to put pressure on the Democratic Party.
If you don’t want to see a Palin-Dobbs ticket in 2012, it’s time to start building a social movement. We’ve got to have Obama’s back against the attacks, but we have to hold him accountable. The country could move right or left, and the right has been doing a better job. But they are using tactics developed by the left in the civil rights movement, labor movement, gay movement. We’ve got to go back to what we do best: get out and talk to people in our states.
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