Race, Class and the Crisis:
The election of Barack Obama on a platform of “change” was an extraordinary political event that raised the hopes of millions of people. In the U.S., Black and Latino people in particular celebrated the election of this country’s first Black president and assumed that it could only mean further advances. Millions of white people, including many white workers, also celebrated Obama’s victory and expected him to bring a new sense of fairness to Washington that would benefit them too.
At the same time, Obama’s election provoked fear and anger among other sections of the white American population. While any Democratic candidate would have invoked the anger of conservatives, many whites from various social strata were horrified by the prospects of a Black president. A strong reaction from the right against Obama’s presidency was inevitable.
Obama, of course, has not disrupted the status quo the way such people feared. On the contrary, he has proved to be the staunch defender of capitalist interests that we revolutionary socialists warned he would be. Abroad, he has maintained the U.S. occupation of Iraq and expanded its war in Afghanistan. At home, he has bailed out the financiers who helped bring on the economic crisis while rejecting calls to alleviate the deteriorating conditions of the masses brought about by the “Great Recession.”
These circumstances have presented right-wing political forces with the opportunity to make a comeback. With generous support from sections of the ruling class itself, the most dramatic expression of the resurgence of right-wing political forces has been the mushrooming of the Tea Party movement over the past year or so.
This right-wing political success was not inevitable. The failure of union and community leaders to forcefully mount their own militant critique of the policies of the ruling Democrats as well as the Republicans, and their refusal to organize a real struggle against them, is a huge but largely unrecognized factor in the Tea Party’s rise. It is tragic that the anger and disappointment arising from the giveaway to the bankers was not primarily harnessed by a militant working-class movement.
The rise of the Tea Party is certainly not a welcome development. The movement itself is still a soup into which are tossed all sorts of racist and reactionary sentiments, and it has a leadership dedicated to an anti-working class agenda. Though they feign concern for the plight of “Middle America” and take Obama and the Democrats as their immediate target, the real aim of Tea Party leaders is a stepped-up attack on the workers and oppressed beyond what the Democrats and even some Republican politicians consider necessary and desirable at this point.
Beyond that, the Tea Party movement, through its social composition and political prescriptions, offers strong hints of what an even stronger far-right movement will look like in the future. As we will explain, as capitalism’s economic and social crisis intensifies, the most extreme right elements will be emboldened to put forward radical, openly fascistic, social programs – including the destruction of unions, violent attacks on oppressed people on a mass scale and imperialist militarism that will dwarf all recent U.S. interventions. The Tea Party is not that, but it is an indication of the direction right-wing politics will take.
Whatever the fate of the Tea Party movement, it is a symptom of the deep unrest in American society that will deepen with the crisis. As revolutionaries, we do not stand for capitalist “stability,” which in any case is fast disappearing. Much less do we defend the “mainstream” politics that are currently the primary promoter of exploitation and oppression for the masses. The only way to ultimately defeat the right wing is through building a hard revolutionary socialist political leadership in the working class and particularly among workers of color. As more and more workers in the course of mass struggle come to embrace the revolutionary socialist perspective, such a leadership will eventually win over some of the very confused but angry people who are looking now for answers at Tea Party rallies and meetings.
Tea Party Takes Off
The start of the Tea Party upsurge can be traced to an on-air rant against government mortgage policies by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade in February 2009. Claiming that the Obama Administration was bailing out “losers” who couldn’t pay their home loans, Santelli called for capitalists to mobilize for a “Chicago Tea Party” to dump mortgage-backed securities into the Chicago River – an echo of the 1773 Boston Tea Party protesting British-imposed “taxation without representation.” (Some anti-tax right-wingers have used “T.E.A.” as an acronym for “taxed enough already.”)
A large nationwide protest on Tax Day in April 2009 showed that the anti-government theme was tapping into strong sentiments. Tea Party clubs and demonstrations sprouted up across the country. The momentum continued into the summer with a focus on opposing the Democratic Party’s health care bill. Noisy town hall meeting disruptions and gun-toting anti-Obama demonstrators gained media attention, and the movement reached a publicity peak with a September march on Washington that drew nearly 100,000 participants. This year, a Tea Party Convention in Tennessee in February drew much media fanfare. More recently, Tea Party candidates displaced moderate Republicans in several state elections and party caucuses.
Early on, a number of well-heeled reactionaries jumped on the Tea Party bandwagon – those who weren’t on it from the start. And pretty soon virtually the entire right wing in the country, including most Republican politicians, threw themselves into the effort, at least to see what was in it for them.
The Tea Party has been dressed up as a “spontaneous” groundswell of popular protest – although right-wing ideologues take care to describe Tea Partyers as independently motivated citizens rather than the sort of collective horde they see in working-class protests. Indeed, certain aspects of the movement have lent themselves to this image. Many Tea Party supporters participate as self-described political independents who bring a certain cultural creativity to events – decking themselves out in revolutionary-era outfits and carrying homemade signs. Individual Tea Party chapters created on the fly have refused to become mere tools for the more organized forces within the movement. These forces are themselves divided along organizational and ideological lines: from purely individualistic libertarians to moralizing Christian evangelicals, from “neo-conservative” champions of imperialistic military adventures abroad to “paleo-conservative” supporters of an isolationist nationalism, etc.
Powers Behind the Scenes
Influential capitalist interests have been deeply involved with the organization and political direction of the movement since its inception. Take the supposedly spontaneous rant by Santelli. It turns out that months before his performance, a “Chicago Tea Party” website was registered by Zack Christenson, Republican producer for Chicago right-wing radio host Milt Rosenberg. Almost immediately after Santelli spoke, the website was activated and became part of a broad internet protest that got the Tea Party rolling.
Among the most influential forces behind the movement were organizations established by right-wing players that may not have been created for the specific purpose of building the Tea Party but quickly saw its potential. One such grouping was “DontGo,” an outfit led by right-wing activists Patrick Ruffini and Eric Odom. Originally concerned with opposing restrictions on oil drilling, DontGo soon proclaimed itself a home “for anyone who supports free markets, low-taxes, low-regulation and personal freedoms” and morphed into the “taxdayteaparty.com” website.
Another big organization in the Tax Day rallies and others is “Americans For Prosperity,” run by top lobbyist Tim Phillips and funded by Koch family foundations. (The latter are based on massive profits derived from the largest privately held energy company in the country, investing in non-renewable sources.) This group is the ultimate specialist in elite public relations offensives dressed up as reflecting popular sentiment. They set up websites tuned to specific issues, and lend them a just-folks flavor in attacking mildly liberal reform. One of its main projects is denouncing the concept of global warming and the need for alternative energy sources.
But perhaps the most important force behind the Tea Party rallies of last April is FreedomWorks, led by the former Republican House majority leader, Richard Armey and supported by publishing heir and former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes. This is no local Rotary Club but a sophisticated operation involving powerful conservative political operators in Washington and representing leading sections of the ruling class.
In tandem with organizations specifically set up as Tea Party outfits like the Tea Party Patriots, these power centers of the American right wield enormous influence. The independent citizens who flock to Tea Party chapters, because of their atomized nature, are no real alternative power center and offer no seriously different policies. And the organized far right and other “fringe” groups like the followers of Lyndon LaRouche that jump into the soup do not have major influence.
The National Tea Party Convention in Nashville embodied this influence and its class character. Costing more than $500 to attend, this well-heeled affair featured many of the major players on the American right, most prominently the Republican 2008 Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Its organizer was Mark Skoda, a political operative with executive experience in companies like UPS and FedEx. Skoda and fellow convention organizer Judson Phillips announced they were forming an “Ensuring Liberty Corporation” which will be allowed to take undisclosed donations – a convenient cover for corporate funding.
The most self-conscious of these elites recognize the calculation and organized power behind the upheaval. The FreedomWorks Foundation declares: “We understand that an effective social movement is almost never built around an engaged majority of the public.” Playing up the patriot angle, they praise the Declaration of Independence as an example of “sweeping political change driven by a small cadre of individuals.” Similarly, they label the organizing efforts of American revolutionary Samuel Adams as “targeted grassroots activism.” Their website explains:
Even the most famous act of Whig defiance against the Crown – the Boston Tea Party – was not a spontaneous looting by angry taxpayers, but an operation carefully choreographed by Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty.
There is truth to this statement and its emphasis on the importance of leadership: revolutionary socialists have always understood the importance of organizational as well as political leadership in uprisings large and small, including working-class revolution. But that involves strong and honest connections between revolutionaries and the broader ranks of workers. FreedomWorks’ “cadre” concept is one of social elites manipulating large numbers of supporters like puppets on a string.
The Tea Party is a loose but intricate web of chapters, front groups, committees, etc., backed and to a large extent controlled by think tanks, non-profits, Political Action Committees and other organizations erected by right-wing sugar daddies. The result is a decentralized but highly organized structure that serves quite well the elites that operate within or adjacent to the dominant right wing of the Republican Party. And despite the chorus of independents, the Republican Party is the main reservoir for Tea Party activities. Thus Don’tGo/taxdayteaparty leader Odom, who has often posed as being fiercely independent of the Republican leadership, has declared the Republican Party to be “our vessel and our only hope.” The elites don’t control everything or get their way on every point; they also bicker with each other. But they don’t have to be a monolithic and authoritarian bloc for the Tea Party to further their political agendas. The democratic veneer is itself a useful propaganda pitch.
A Mass Movement
The Tea Party’s high degree of manipulation – and actual creation – by right-wing elites does not mean that the movement does not have a mass character. According to a New York Times/CBS poll this April, 18 percent of the population regard themselves as Tea Party supporters, and 4 percent have been active participants in Tea Party events – a small proportion but a lot of people. A Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll in December 2009 had found that over 40 percent of those interviewed looked on the Tea Party movement favorably; a June 2010 Washington Post/ABC News poll brought that figure down to 36 percent. While these surveys can only give a rough indication, they do point to a political movement of serious proportions.
The most obvious demographic of Tea Party supporters – apparent at Tea Party gatherings of any size – is that they are overwhelmingly white. Surveys put this figures at close to 90 percent. They are also older than the average American, more likely to be male and tend to speak with Southern accents.
The specific class composition of Tea Party supporters cannot be determined with any precision, but we can get ballpark notions from national surveys that link Tea Party support with income and education levels. The Times/CBS poll found that 37 percent of Tea Party supporters are college graduates and over 60 percent have household incomes above $50,000 – over a fifth of them take in more than $100,000. Combined with the sheer number of Tea Partyers, as well as anecdotal evidence from rallies and meetings, these facts tell us that even though the Tea Party is slanted towards better-off strata of the white populace and has the backing of some very rich people, among its supporters are large numbers from the white working class and lower middle class.
Tea Party Politics
The Tea Party has served as an umbrella for a variety of right-wing causes and forces backing them. Any given demonstration can combine protests against abortion rights, gun control, immigration, etc. But as convenient as they are for servicing other right-wing causes, this is not the Tea Party protests’ primary benefit for the powers that be. In fact, issues the Tea Party leadership would otherwise support, like the religious and social agendas of Christian fundamentalism, are downplayed. And the positions of certain forms of national-isolationist conservatism, such as opposition to the military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, are actively opposed. The presence at rallies and meetings of Nazis and other white supremacists embarrasses both the leaders and many members.
The unifying issues for the Tea Party are those concerning a selective interpretation of conservative “small government” doctrines. The Tea Party Patriots, for example, claim to base themselves on “fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.” But for them this primarily means government limited only in its role as a provider of social programs and regulation of the economy; the Patriots are all for using taxpayers’ money for defense spending and the repressive police functions of the state.
This free enterprise emphasis fits the agenda of the capitalist elements within the movement. They want a stepped-up attack on the working class, beyond what Obama and the Democrats have yet undertaken, and a major front for this attack is against public sector workers and the “social wage” – including governmental programs like Social Security and Medicare. This opposition is cast defensively, treating the mild, ineffective and pro-capitalist health care reforms of the Obama administration as if they were “socialist.” This is partly calculated political hysteria designed to expand and energize the base. But good salespeople tend to believe their own pitch; and building an offense with a good defense is a nice fit with a whacked-out paranoia that engulfs important members of the capitalist class.
The Race Card in Hand
The elephant in the room is racism. Leaders and members of the movement have taken pains to minimize its appearance, scrambling to find people of color to place in high-profile roles, and policing public events for obvious racist expressions, denying or marginalizing them when they occur. Yet vicious racist animosities, principally against Blacks and Latino immigrants, run deep through the Tea Party movement.
There have been well-publicized examples of openly racist demagogy: outrageously racist placards and slogans at rallies, for example, like those suggesting that the name Obama stood for “Oppressive Blood-sucking Arrogant Muslim Alien,” warning that the Obama health plan would lead to “white slavery,” and quipping that, “The Zoo has an African Lion and the White House has a Lyin’ African.” And then there was the incident of racist epithets and spittle being hurled at Black Democratic politicians after a Tea Party rally in Washington.
Of course, there are somewhat more subtle racist ideas that have proved common in surveys of Tea Party supporters. An April New York Times/CBS poll, for example, asked: “In recent years, do you think too much has been made of the problems facing black people, too little has been made, or is it about right?” Over 50 percent of Tea Party supporters said “too much,” compared to only 19 percent of other respondents. A recent University of Washington poll found that 73 percent of Tea Party respondents agreed with the statement, “If blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites,” as compared to only a third of other respondents. The positive responses to these diplomatically worded questions are indirect indicators of harsher feelings.
The racist atmosphere is palpable enough for Tom Tancredo, a former Republican Congressman from Colorado, to feel comfortable at the Tea Party Convention podium offering up a variety of racial and ethnic slanders: “People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House. His name is Barack Hussein Obama.” South Carolina Lieutenant Governor and Tea Party figure Andre Bauer, while protesting a government program for free school lunches at a town hall meeting, said:
My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. 
As well, hardened white supremacists felt at home conducting fishing expeditions among the Tea Party ranks, and they claim some success in getting a hearing. One wrote on the white supremacist website Stormfront:
The majority of the tea party people I’ve met are now at least willing to listen to the WN [white nationalist] viewpoint. I’ve converted several of them (especially on the Jew issue) and the immigration issue is a no brainer.
If the white supremacists have found some receptiveness, there has also been resistance to that vile message. Many Tea Party individuals sincerely believe they are not racists (although that includes people who are hardened racists in all but name). We have to point out the racist foundation underlining the movement while understanding that many people around the Tea Party are not lost forever to the cause of supporting the rights of people of color and for working-class unity in general.
Of course, those leaders who serve as a modifying force on the openly racist types are hardly progressive. Beneficiaries of racial and national oppression themselves, they want to further encourage divisions and utilize the racist sentiments of their supporters. The difference is that they understand that there are whites, including workers who work alongside Blacks, who are sympathetic to some Tea Party ideas but are hostile to racism. When the situation requires it, the leaders will play the race card in a more openly vicious manner.
Tea Party leaders may want to marginalize the open expression of white supremacy, armed hostility to the federal government and identification with historically notorious figures like Hitler. But they have encouraged and created a movement which has blended into an expanded gray area between “respectable” conservatism and the more radical forms of reaction.
The Tea Party’s Roots in American History
The Tea Party movement’s affinity for the leaders of the American revolution may go little deeper than rhetoric – while the former opposed British colonial rule with the slogan “no taxation without representation,” today’s Tea Party demands representation without taxation. But the movement’s broader pro-capitalist and racist ideas have deep roots in American history.
The United States arose as a country unencumbered by feudal restrictions and with a vast territory which could be annexed, bought and conquered. The system of slavery was extinguished only after having supplied enormous profits to the country’s capitalists, the basis for their future prosperity. By the time there was little land left to seize on this continent, America had developed into an imperialist power, and by the end of World War II it had become the leading power, profiting from the super-exploitation of oppressed peoples and the control of vast resources of the so-called “Third World.”
American capitalism has for most of its history had a relatively dynamic economy built not only through the exploitation of labor but also through a particular reliance on the systematic oppression of people of color and militarist expansionism. Its class divisions historically were not as rigid as in other capitalist and pre-capitalist societies; it has emphasized individual mobility rather than class solidarity as a means of advancing self-interest.
The American working class has never been good at “knowing its place.” Workers take seriously the notion that people have the right and capacity to rise in this society, and that the prosperity of American society makes a piece of the pie available even to people of humble background. But this feeling is fractured with racial, ethnic, national and cultural antagonisms and oppression. The massive concentration of industry has created a powerful working class – but one without a proportionate amount of class awareness.
The history of mass working-class struggles in this country is a rich one and it reflects these strengths and weaknesses. There have certainly been popular upsurges and waves of industrial militancy. But no independent political movement of the working class was ever forged, let alone one that was revolutionary. Political revolts most often have taken a populist form: multi-class protests in the name of “the people” rather than the working class, and which project vague notions of reform coupled with specific platforms that have been diversions from the real issues and solutions. Such revolts targeted sections of the “elite” rather than the capitalist class as a whole, and were normally opportunistically linked to some section of the capitalist class itself.
Historically, populist upsurges featured animosity towards oppressed or vulnerable sections of the population: thus Jacksonian populism in the early 1800’s reinforced slavery and murderous expansion into Indian lands while offering political gains to plebeian white males. The Populist rebellions of the 1890’s featured revolts of Black as well as white farmers in the South; but with political defeats its white plebeian supporters turned to segregationist reaction. The populist electoral campaigns of George Wallace in Alabama in the 1960’s rested on a racist reaction to the mass struggles of Black people and to the antiwar movement – even though they embodied legitimate and deep resentments about disdain for working class life exhibited by elite liberals.
Traditional grievances of working-class and middle-class whites, towards elites and oppressed alike, have been enhanced and supplemented in recent times. While the decades-long deterioration of the economy and the capitalists’ attacks have disproportionately affected working-class and poor people of color, white workers and even large sections of the middle classes have not been spared. These trends were deepened by the economic crisis of the past three years, when the disappearance or exodus of industrial jobs quickened. Millions have suffered the loss of homes or jobs, with drastic declines in living conditions. The “American Dream” of joining the middle class, either by upgrading working-class life or by escaping it, is being shredded.
On top of this are the “demographic” fears of the white populace, no longer confined to the presence of Black people. Tens of millions of immigrants, mainly people of color, largely from Mexico and Central America, have entered the country legally and “illegally.” Whites are projected to become a minority in the not too distant future. For many whites, the question is not only protecting their relative privileges but their social power itself. There are different degrees and qualities to this anxiety, but it goes far beyond paranoid “fringe elements.”
That is, millions of whites in various social strata see the decline in their living and working standards as tied to the changing population demographics; they identify their own decline with the growing presence, and perceived growing political and economic power, of racial and national minorities. And they see themselves suffering in a way that well-off liberals don’t. Many are always ready to blame the oppressed and vulnerable for all kinds of ills, real and imagined; but the pervasive barrage of right-wing propaganda has struck some chord of reality and has been influential in altering and hardening opinions.
To be sure, the undermining of the “American Dream” has weakened the material basis for traditional conservative consciousness, as it disproves claims that capitalism can provide a good life for all. However, that alone does not guarantee that the political programs that reflect and guide such consciousness will be abandoned on a large scale. On the contrary, they are taking on a nasty edge of growing desperation. Nostalgia for semi-mythical “good old days” is woven in with very real fears of the present and future in a potent mix.
It is no accident that during this same period there has been a pronounced rise in overall right wing activity. The Southern Poverty Law Center says that there has been a rise in “anti-government Patriot groups” – from 149 in 2008 to 512 in 2009; while the associated militias over the same time period have grown in numbers from 42 to 127. These organizations are not the same as the Tea Party, but the reasons for their expansion are similar.
Union Leaders Provide No Alternative
A critical added ingredient that accounts for a good deal of the intensity and popularity of the Tea Party upsurge was the role of Obama and the Democrats in bailing out the financial industry with the infusion of trillions of taxpayer dollars. The general sense of resentment towards “elites” was given a specific target. Right-wing politicians were able to successfully identify the bankers with the Democrats and Obama, despite the enduring relationship between the Republicans and Wall Street.
Key to that success has been the refusal of the leaders of the organizations of workers, Blacks, Latinos and immigrants to mount any action protesting the bailouts – much less one that approaches the right wing’s energy and organization. On an issue that cries out for an organized working-class campaign, it is both a tragedy and a farce that the right has been able to use the popular anger to further their agenda. For months the labor bureaucracy was virtually silent on this patently anti-working class “solution” to the financial crisis. Now, in the face of the stepped-up tempo of attacks, in particular on public sector unions by cash-strapped local and state governments, and in response to restlessness in their ranks, union leaders are making belated but still punchless rhetorical denunciations of Wall Street.
The unwillingness of these misleaders to mobilize the working class in its own interests is the logical consequence of the reliance on capitalist politicians that the labor bureaucracy has counterposed to class militancy for decades. The labor bureaucrats never like to rock the boat, period. And they are less apt to mount a serious criticism of a Democratic administration which they worked so hard to put in power and play ball with.
Success Breeds Problems
The Tea Party has already been a major cause of electoral success for the Republicans, with the upset victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts for Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat, and the triumph of Tea Party candidates within the Republican Party in the run towards mid-term Congressional elections in November. The Tea Party’s carefully crafted image of anti-establishment independence promises to rally votes for Republican candidates, in spite of the Republicans’ continued unpopularity. However, Republican leaders know that the most extreme elements, like the open racists, will need to be silenced lest they scare away greater numbers of potential voters. Thus Joe Wierzbicki, a Republican fundraiser who runs Tea Party events from behind the scenes, expressed confidence that “the message will be moderated by the time it gets to [November] 2010.”
To achieve this, Tea Party leaders want to encourage reactionary sentiments without letting their supporters get so carried away that they openly hamper the practical conduct of capitalist politics. This involves reining in the far right types. Republican big leaguers like Armey and Karl Rove have pointedly wanted to exclude or marginalize the open white supremacists and others who can prove embarrassing – Armey even thinks that Tancredo (who gave the racist speech at the Tea Party Convention we quoted) is going too far. Even more crucially, it demands a careful juggling act so that political bluster against the bank bailouts, for example, does not provoke Tea Partyers into a dangerous anger at broader capitalist interests.
This balance is hard to achieve when the dominant policies of the Tea Parties are rent with contradictions, ideological and practical. Conservatives’ insistence on balanced budgets and further tax cuts, at the same time that they defend mammoth military spending, can only be maintained while they are not in power and trying to carry out that impossible agenda. Other issues involve interplay with the heavily conflicted consciousness of the Tea Party base, and they are trickier.
While Tea Party leaders condemn the bailouts and Wall Street, their true feelings are a little more complicated. A memo by FreedomWorks Vice President Max Pappas, obtained by the Washington Independent, noted the political volatility produced by the Obama and Bush II bailouts: “This presents a big opportunity for the right to throw off the image of being owned by business interests when what we really support are free markets.” Tea Party convention organizer Mark Skoda grumbled about the bonuses bankers were paying themselves in an interview with PBS Newshour, but concluded that the Federal rescue of large banks and GM and Chrysler was “probably necessary to ensure confidence in the economy.”
It is quite a trick for Tea Party leaders to denounce the bailouts while supporting them, and to disassociate themselves from business interests while embracing pro-business “free market” policies. Tea Party leaders shamelessly hide their long, cozy and supportive relationship with the financiers. They fail to mention that over the years they have been the biggest boosters of corporate welfare from the government. It was only possible for them to strike an anti-Wall Street pose once the bailouts were safely in place and the Republicans were out of the White House.
The problem is that millions of the Tea Party supporters, not to mention workers in general, are genuinely angry about the bailouts and the role and position of the banks – and many of them want the government to do something about it. Tea Party rhetoric can only go so far in hiding this conflict. Republican and Wall Street opposition to the mild attempts at financial regulation introduced by the Obama administration and Democratic Congressmen was not popular with the public or even with many Tea Party supporters. A more troublesome if less immediate concern than giving the Democrats an issue to exploit is that the anger could help build an active workers’ movement against the austerity attacks that will be intensifying.
Another critical area is the role of the state in the economy and as a source of jobs in particular. Underneath the political rhetoric, catch phrases and slogans about limited government, there is a deep ambivalence among even Tea Party supporters about “keeping the government out” when it comes to basic needs. For example, one poll this March indicated that an overwhelming majority of Tea Party sympathizers want the government to foster job creation. As Bloomberg news reporter Heidi Przybyla observed:
Tea Party activists ... want the federal government out of their lives except when it comes to creating jobs.
More than 90 percent of Tea Party backers interviewed in a new Bloomberg National Poll say the U.S. is verging more toward socialism than capitalism, the federal government is trying to control too many aspects of private life and more decisions should be made at the state level.
At the same time, 70 percent of those who sympathize with the Tea Party, which organized protests this week against President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul, want a federal government that fosters job creation.
They also look to the government to rein in Wall Street, with almost half saying the government should do something about executive bonuses. Supporters are also conflicted over whether private-enterprise elements should be introduced into government programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Related to the job issue is trade policy. Many populists in recent years, including the right-wingers Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs, hurled tirades at corporations fleeing the U.S. and settling in havens of cheaper labor like Mexico and China. This issue is missing from A-list Tea Party speeches and the Tea Party’s semi-official “Contract From America.” Of course, protests over this question can easily take a nasty chauvinist form, as Buchanan and Dobbs illustrate. In any case, it indicates yet another ticklish issue facing Tea Party organizers, where the concerns of their popular base conflict with those of their capitalist paymasters.
Another such issue is the BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. As the image of the company and the entire industry gets worse, the obvious step of regulating oil drilling is not exactly a message the Tea Party wants to send. Those Tea Party figures who have spoken on the issue, like Kentucky senatorial candidate Rand Paul and of course Sarah Palin, are not exactly in tune with their supporters in the Gulf Coast states – Paul defends BP from Obama’s “un-American” criticisms, and Palin blames “extreme environmentalists” for the disaster. This kind of rhetoric will hardly convince anyone other than the most blindly committed or those with self-serving interests.
The Raw Edge of the Tea Party
There is a yawning gap between the needs and anger of much of the Tea Party base and the political needs of its leadership. And the more desperate the economic situation becomes, the greater will be the pressure to call for government help.
Tea Party leaders stave off a reckoning by going beyond mere ideology by appealing to the crudest and narrowest self-interest of its supporters. In the campaign against the health-care bill, for example, traction was gained by casting the “reforms” as favoring poor people of color at the expense of the white majority. Buchanan, for example, declared his admiration for the Tea Party’s creation of an embryonic “ethnonationalist” consciousness – and did his best to advance it along racist lines.
Immigrants are 21 percent of the uninsured, but only 7 percent of the population. This means white folks on Medicare or headed there will see benefits curtailed, while new arrivals from the Third World, whence almost all immigrants come, get taxpayer-subsidized health insurance. Any wonder why all those Tea Party and town-hall protests seem to be made up of angry white folks?
Of course, everything Buchanan says here is a lie. Obama’s health care reform denied government assistance to undocumented immigrants, and it is the capitalist health care profiteers who prevent working-class people from obtaining quality, affordable care.
One sector that will be subject to the intensified divide-and-conquer strategy is public-sector workers. Throughout the country, these workers are under attack through layoffs, wage and benefit cuts and privatization. Look for calls from the Tea Parties for an end to the “privileges” public workers have won – particularly unionized public workers. Such calls will be crafted to appeal not only to capitalist and middle-class elements but also to non-unionized workers who have not matched public workers gains’ over the years. And since public employment has been a major source of decent jobs for Black workers, attacks on the public sector present the right wing with another opportunity to raise racist resentments among whites.
A sector the Tea Party rhetorically favors is small business, whose chance for development they claim government interference is ruining. This is partly a direct appeal to the petty-bourgeois elements that form an important sector of the Tea Party base. And of course it fits in with the strategy of more intensive privatization and the general interests of not-so-petty businesses. It also summarizes a multi-class strategy that speaks for individual mobility, attempting to paper over the Tea Partyers’ very real competing class interests.
A critical element of the appeal of the Tea Parties for working class people is also based on a form of class consciousness – a very distorted form. As discussed earlier, right-wing populism wins support on the basis of deep resentments against elites. The fact that class resentment is egged on by the right wing’s own elites who look down on their own followers as rabble and chumps has not diluted its effect.
Liberalism is typically patronizing; it resides not only within the capitalist class but also has deep roots in academia and the professions. From these lofty positions, liberals look down on uneducated “rednecks” and laborers even as they profess sympathy for the downtrodden. Thus a best-selling liberal book attacking Tea Party-type conservative ideas was named Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. The acerbic liberal writer Matt Taibbi specializes in disdain for the Tea Partyers. He wrote on his blog: “I’m beginning to think that if the Tea Party had a symbol, it shouldn’t be the snake from that ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag, it should be a drooling yutz sticking a pencil in his own ear.” Liberals rarely show such contempt for politicians and union bureaucrats who do next to nothing to alleviate the pain felt by working people.
Liberals also like to mock the Tea Party as a movement that is going nowhere. Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi and liberal economist Paul Krugman have both labeled the Tea Party upsurge as “astroturf” – a put-down of the Tea Party’s “grass roots” referring to the artificial grass used in sports arenas. The liberals conveniently forget that the “movement” they cheered on throughout 2008, Obama’s “grassroots” supporters, has also won practically nothing of what it wanted: an end to military adventures abroad, health care for all, genuine immigration reform, etc. Their derision is based on the extensive manipulative role by the wealthy power centers and on the obvious media hype behind the Tea Party movement. But they didn’t complain when similar forces were supporting Obama’s run for the White House.
It is clear if sad that reactionary policies are popular with a large segment of the population, even though not a majority. To fail to see this mass character leads to an understatement of the influence and danger of the Tea Party. That would be understandable if it simply reflected a desire to not be steamrolled by the image that Tea Party leaders project. But it also reflects a distorted political orientation. The Democrats want to claim the mantle of populist champion of the downtrodden as their own – but they want their brand to be a passive electoral machine.
Further left, the International Socialist Organization puts mocking quotation marks around words like “grassroots,” “populist” or even “movement” when referring to the Tea Party. It too derides the media for spinning “a fairy tale image of the movement as representing grassroots, populist discontent.” The ISO does not like to label the Tea Party populist because it feels that the Tea Party besmirches populism’s good name. Thus the ISO endorsed the view of Sara Robinson on the liberal website Campaign for America’s Future:
Robinson advises Democrats to adopt a more aggressive, pro-populist, pro-working class stance as a way to put a wedge between the two groups of conservatives now unifying around anti-incumbent ‘populist’ sentiment. This is good advice as far as it goes, but it’s directed at the wrong audience.
No, this is terrible advice. As we have observed, populism’s condemnation of specific powerful elites only discourages distinctly working-class consciousness and hostility to capitalist exploitation in favor of a vague identification with “the people” – the better to allow small capitalist interests, and thus capitalist interests in general, to dominate. Left populism can slide rightward in a relatively brief time: for example, populist denunciations of financiers can lead to a targeting of “Jewish bankers.”
Whither the Tea Party?
It is impossible to know just how the Tea Party movement – with its various organizational forms and its cultural attachments – will develop from here. That depends on the class struggle in general as well as the particular dynamics of the movement. It may be that this movement has neared and perhaps already passed its zenith, as measured by mass enthusiasm and intensity. It is significant that the April 15 Tea Party rally in Washington this year was a bust: despite heavy advance work, only a few thousand attended, in stark contrast to the demonstrations of the previous April.
In any case, there will be an organizational apparatus left over, increasingly dominated by the Republican Party – which is just what the leaders of the conservative wing of the Republicans have in mind for a movement. So in one form or another the Tea Parties will be around for a while, but so will its contradictions.
Whatever its fate, the Tea Party phenomenon has served notice that capitalist rule will increasingly rely on reactionary measures and movements to protect itself and divert anger over the misery it creates. Like right-wing populism in general, it has common characteristics with fascism: its mass base, its ties to sections of capitalist class while finding targets in both the “elite” and the oppressed and vulnerable segments of population.
But critical elements of a fascist movement are missing. Even if racialist feelings are deeply embedded in the Tea Party, it is significant that the open manifestations of racism are suppressed. It is also telling that that anti-semitism has seen little play, particularly considering that the crisis and the bailouts that have triggered so much anger have focused on the financial sector whose disproportionate Jewish presence has long been a target for far right conspiracy theories and venom. Moreover, the Tea Parties lack a central leader and an authoritarian power structure. It is not obvious where it will find its proverbial Man (or Woman) on the White Horse, and the movement is far too loose to enforce discipline.
The major difference between the Tea Party and fascism is that fascism has traditionally been statist: it demands a strong state that can dominate and organize the economy, including carrying out large-scale nationalizations, to discipline the greedy elite and mobilize masses in times of crisis. Historically fascism even acted in the name of socialism and the working class. In contrast, the Tea Party worships a social program of “free enterprise” unrestrained by state interference. These days, even avowedly Nazi groups largely speak in terms of free enterprise, localized government and even constitutional and individual rights. Whether or not they are simply lying in order to appeal to a broader number of potential supporters is subordinate to the fact that they feel they must take this route.
American historical tendencies are supplemented by contemporary international developments. Statified capitalist countries like China and Vietnam have demonstrated that centralized, authoritarian rule can be wedded to aggressive marketization of the economy.
Make no mistake: the worsening economic and political crisis dictates an inevitable shift towards demands for state intervention by the far right. At the least, this will be necessary to capture masses increasingly disenchanted by the failures of “the market” to solve mass unemployment and decaying public services. The contradictions in mass Tea Party consciousness between its worries about “socialism” and the need for state intervention can be utilized by statist Nazi elements.
How to Fight the Right Wing
But these are considerations for the future. For now, the Tea Parties dominate the landscape of the American right, and the difference between fascism and Tea Party populism is very real. We noted above that the Tea Parties were in part fueled by the lack of a serious working-class opposition to Obama’s evident pro-capitalist actions. When the working class under reformist leadership did not present a strong independent pole, the right stepped in and appeared to do so. Likewise, in the successful rise of fascism in Europe in the early 20th century, the petty-bourgeois masses – desperate but lacking an independent social program of their own – were drawn to its strong political pole in the absence of an independent working class pole.
The obvious need then is to build such a pole of attraction – a revolutionary party leadership within a rising working-class movement of struggle. Revolutionaries should be urging the formation of united fronts of workers in order to build struggle with maximum strength and show that all workers have the same interest in combating the capitalist class and its attacks. The LRP’s active presence in the Transport Workers Union in New York is the outstanding example of such revolutionary work.
A key contradiction to be exploited among Tea Party supporters is the question of state intervention. A primary weapon in the revolutionary arsenal, most thoroughly explained by Leon Trotsky in the Transitional Program of 1938, is the use of demands on the capitalist state to provide for workers’ interests. By making united front demands on the state, which more and more workers will look to as the only institution with the power to get the economy moving again, revolutionaries aim to prove in practice that only a workers’ state can do the job.
In dealing with Tea Party types, revolutionaries can in no way tolerate or pander to their backward consciousness: racism, sexism, homophobia, hostility to immigrants – these will all have to be fought. Building a successful revolution means championing the demands of the oppressed.
At the same time, we want to identify with the correct instinct among some Tea Partyers of despising elitists, liberal and otherwise. It is certainly not wrong to be suspicious of capitalist governments; a sense of powerlessness should be expected from those who don’t call the shots. Likewise, the right to bear arms is an important democratic right that we defend. We align with such views as working-class revolutionists with a fighting plan to remake society.
In the end, right-wing populism can only be defeated by proletarian revolution and a strategy that leads to that conclusion. The attempts to counter it by building or supporting a left-wing version of populism will only serve to derail the proletarian struggle and set up a victory of the most reactionary segments of society.
At a time when class struggle is at historically low levels in this country, it can be hard to imagine with any confidence that capitalism can be overcome and a workers’ society can be built. But the lack of labor militancy and the Tea Party fanfare should not obscure the fact that even in a conservative bastion like the United States, there is deep disquiet about the capitalist system and its workings. A recent survey indicated that younger adults feel equally positive about the terms “socialism” and “capitalism.” Even if socialism is not interpreted in the revolutionary sense, this is still a remarkable statement about how the system’s decay and assault on its working and poor majority are influencing people’s perception. Such doubts about capitalism must be transformed into active opposition – by a determined working class and its revolutionary leadership.
The American dream of privileged mobility is dying. The only way to defend and advance the gains in living and working standards of the masses under capitalism is through the revolutionary struggle for a world without capitalist rule.