Has the Tea Party Been Watching Mad Men—and Taking Notes?

Don Draper Don Draper is a fictional ad man who helps sell death and disease in a very small package. A cigarette package to be exact. Draper is the main character in the TV series Mad Men about the advertising industry in 1960‘s NYC. Advertising cigarettes by describing the symptoms of lung cancer and emphysema  would be a tough sell. So Draper conceals the real nature of the product by surrounding it with clouds of positive emotion and mental images that evoke pleasure, sociability and success.

Corporate advertising and its close cousin political propaganda are not always about lies. They can be about selling a product or a policy using truth. But when the product or policy is evil, lies are the only choice. Don Draper‘s sophisticated understanding of human weakness  burrows past any human logic and seizes on the most primeval emotions. Of course his ad campaign of lies is made easier because the product is viciously addictive and sold by a company whose morals would shame the most hardened criminal.

Today selling white supremacy also demands the use of sophisticated lies. It’s  400 year survival in America attests to its viciously addictive nature. It is sold by individuals who are as amoral as Don Draper pushing Luck Strikes. Over time white supremacy has been forced to give ground, grudgingly of course. It took a Civil War to end slavery. One hundred years of civil rights protest were met by mass arrests and terrorist attacks that would impress your typical al Queda cell. But today the most powerful organization pushing  white supremacy is the Republican Party and its political attack dog, the Tea Party.

Republicans and white supremacy

In 2008, 43% of the white vote and 54% of the white youth vote went to Barack Obama. 43% of the overall white vote might not sound like much, but in the USA this was astonishing. Obama accomplished this despite being labeled a socialist, a marxist, a terrorist,a nazi,a communist, a Kenyan, a muslim, an ape and a Hollywood caricature of an African medicine man. Joe the fake plumber might have grabbed the headlines, but the formerly all-white plumbers union endorsed Barack Obama.

??Racist protestor

With the white supremacy product cruising toward the toilet bowl, it was obvious to the Republican Party that something had to be done. Get back to their roots? Heavens no, the early Republican Party had championed racial equality.  Republicans like Frederick Douglass and Ulysses S. Grant were prominent advocates for civil rights. Grant was even a US President. The Party’s enthusiasm for racial justice waned over the years but was still hanging on as late as the 1960‘s.

But when the civil rights movement finally ended legal segregation, the Republican Party under Richard Nixon celebrated by ending the GOP quest for racial justice. Segregation was history, but white supremacy in American society was still alive and the Republicans were determined to keep it that way.

So Richard Nixon’s team cooked up  the “Southern Strategy” a scheme to maintain white supremacy while looking like it wasn’t preserving white supremacy. It wasn’t even really a southern strategy, it was a national strategy to hitch the white working class to the Republicans. The Republicans were determined to keep America’s racial divide because as long as working class America was divided, it could not stand strong in the face of corporate demands. All of the Nixon blather about keeping America strong was just another lie.


The Southern Strategy played on white working class fears of black advancement at their expense. But advertising white supremacy by showing pictures of school children being attacked by police dogs or klansman in sheets burning crosses would have been like trying to sell cigarettes with photos of diseased lungs. The public use of crude racial insults was another no-no (private use was still OK though, check out the Nixon tapes sometime). The USA was still addicted to racism, but it was time to cover up the needle tracks and flush the evidence. It was time for a Mad Men-style complete rebranding of white supremacy, suitable for the post-segregation, but not post-racial era.

So Nixon pounded on the topics of “state rights” and “law and order”. Everyone understood these terms stood for blacks. Nixon’s voters understood it and Nixon understood it. Everyone was in on the joke. For Nixon “states rights” meant the right of states to cut back on social programs that might benefit minorities. Since the Nixon Administration was one of the most lawless in US history, Nixon’s “law and order” pitch was as sincere as his crooked smile.

Although numerically there were more poor white people than poor black people, the percentage of black people in poverty was higher. So the face was poverty was sold as a black one to justify cutbacks in social programs. Low and middle income white workers who needed these social programs were also hurt, but many of them were paralyzed by racial fear of blacks and other minorities.

The social pathology of crime extended across all classes and races, but a black petty thief was more likely to go to prison than a thieving white bank president. So crime was sold with a black face. That the crimes of wealthy white people were far more damaging  was ignored. Many whites were so panicked by racial fears that they couldn’t connect the dots.

ReaganTea Party hero Ronald Reagan also loved the racial divide. He opened his 1980 presidential campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi where three civil rights workers had been murdered by KKK terrorists. Reagan was not  there to honor their memory. He gave a speech about “states rights” in a state that had long tolerated terrorism against blacks within its borders. Mississippi racists got the message, Ron is one of us.

Reagan also enjoyed spreading the image of the “Welfare Cadillac,” as if poor black women across the USA drove expensive cars and dressed like Diana Ross. That grotesque lie sure helped when cutting social programs that benefited poor people. Of course low income whites were once again collateral damage in this racial hate mongering, but the message was, at least you are better off than “them”. Everyone knew which “them” that referred to.

The Republicans throw a Tea Party

The Republican Party strategists knew this history when they went into attack mode in 2009. And they had a serious problem to solve. The worst economic disaster since 1929 had hit on their watch. Their policies of financial deregulation, outsourcing of jobs and the replacing good wages with credit cards and subprime mortgages had tanked the US economy,  nearly bringing down the entire world economy with it. They had rolled up huge deficits with their tax cuts for the ruling class and their endless wars abroad.

They feared class war from an angry American public and they needed an army to fight back on their side. They had one. They had a hardcore group of white voters who hated and feared the black president. These people felt their increasingly meager white privileges slipping away. But harnessing their racial fears  in  a nation which had just elected a black president would require making their feral racial hatred look more presentable.

So in true Don Draper Mad Men style, Republican operatives once again wrapped their toxic product in positive images that stirred powerful emotions. They decided to throw a Tea Party. They wrapped racial fears in the imagery of the American Revolution. Racism would not only be patriotic, but downright revolutionary. A new tyranny had descended upon America in the form of a black president with a suspicious name and a dangerously multicultural upbringing. Time to ride like Paul Revere before it was too late. That message reached deep into confused and fearful minds way past logic and deep into the most primeval emotions.

Tea Party

But what exactly was the nature of this tyranny? The corporate bankrollers behind the Tea Party wanted to dismantle what was left of the stingy and tattered American welfare state. Time to cut back on education, public services, and aid to the victims of the USA’s increasingly dysfunctional economy. That money could be better spent jacking up their corporate profits. Time to  remove worker protection and environmental protection laws.  Time to put that money in the pockets of the fabulously wealthy and into more government subsidies for corporations. Time to break the public sector unions and privatize everything in the name of corporate profit. Smaller government would simply mean bigger corporations.

The Lexington and Concord for the newly aroused Tea Party was the health care debate. Government was coming to take over health care. What kind of health care would be left if all of those lazy minorities and (gasp) immigrants were allowed into the system? And what would this do to the deficit? Never mind that lots of countries had national health care systems and were healthier than we were. And never mind that the wars of empire and the Bush tax cuts were the major reason for the deficit. Hey, blame it on the black guy in the White House and those hordes of dark people who were stealing welfare, food stamps and unemployment checks. Or were they stealing our jobs, our health care and our neighborhoods? Whatever. Paint a dark face on it all and fire up the legions of Tea Party supporters.

Then there were taxes. Our taxes are being wasted on undeserving lazy minorities and  those privileged government workers with their pensions and their health plans. Cut taxes on the rich so they can create jobs and put people back to work. Of course these were same “job creators” who had shipped US manufacturing overseas and given us Walmart in return.

And who would do the jobs of those greedy teachers, nurses, fire fighters, janitors and cops? Why the corporations who would land contracts for privatizing those jobs, privatized jobs that would  push these middle class workers into the poverty zone. The civil rights movement made it harder to racially discriminate against people who applied for government jobs. So not surprisingly, racial minorities turned to them in large numbers to achieve a comfortable middle class existence. How dare they! Time to end that gravy train. White workers were also hurt by this, but so what. Paint a dark face on it all and fire up the legions of Tea Party supporters.

Although the Tea Party claimed to worship the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and claimed to fight for all Americans, it was surprisingly silent on how to deal with the ongoing racial discrimination that makes “all men are created equal” and “equal protection of the laws” a mockery. For example, employment discrimination is illegal and unconstitutional. But has it disappeared just because we have a black president?  Try circulating a job resume when your name is Keisha or DeShawn as opposed to Karen or Dave and you’ll find out.

In a  survey of Fox News viewers, 2/3 said discrimination against whites was as big a problem as discrimination against minorities. Being as Fox News is a favorite of the Tea Party, what did the Tea Party do to correct this profound misunderstanding among their followers? Well nothing, unless you count the attacks they launched against ACORN, the AFL-CIO and the NAACP, all multiracial organizations who were working to overcome racial discrimination and create better opportunities for all Americans.

Behind the tri-corner hats, the tea bags, the rattlesnake flags and the fiery rhetoric lay 400 years of racial division that was bad for whites and worse for minorities.

Why racial division is a drug needle
in the heart of American  democracy

Does the Tea Party’s connection to Republican white supremacy mean that every Tea Party supporter is a hopeless “redneck” bigot? Of course not. Some are just scared and confused as they see their bank accounts dwindle away, their homes going into foreclosure and their jobs put on the chopping block.

White people tend to be clueless about the reality of race and the white privilege that goes with it. Our educational system treats it superficially with stories of minority heroes, but little in-depth teaching about white supremacy itself. Our mass media does a poor job of covering it. Even the Democrats, who are better on race, still do a pretty mediocre job.

I call the Democrats  The Flee Party. They flee the whole issue of race and white privilege unless some especially egregious incident happens or some prominent individual uses the N-word. Then there will be a week of superficial chatter before the whole thing is dropped. Even President Obama avoids talking about it unless forced to. Black unemployment is twice that of white unemployment yet he feared to even mention this in his jobs speech lest it bring his poll numbers down.

No wonder so many white people flunk Race 101.

400 years ago in the earliest days of colonization, black and white indentured servants worked the fields of Virginia plantations as equals. Their lives were nasty, brutish and often short. They stole food together, they ran away together, they formed sexual partnerships with one another and revolted against their miserable conditions together. A rebel army of black and white labor nearly overthrew the entire colonial government of Virginia in 1676. Google Bacon’s Rebellion for details. There was no obvious sense of race, but there was something else. There was solidarity among working people.

In response southern plantation owners put black labor into slavery and white labor was allowed to become free. This was the birth of racial division and the beginnings of white privilege. With this came a whole series of laws to make sure whites and blacks were kept divided. White labor was recruited to act as the overseers, patrollers and slave catchers. An entire culture of white supremacy spread across the American colonies like the bubonic plague. An entire culture of supposed black inferiority came with it. Solidarity among working people was broken, and we have been paying grievously for that ever since.

Although our Founding Fathers talked the talk of freedom and equality, many of them depended upon this racial division for their own wealthy lifestyles. They did nothing to disturb it, even though they recognized the danger they were sitting on. Jefferson called it,”A fire bell in the night.” He called it right. Although the Tea Party mentions the Founding Fathers  in at least every other sentence, they remain strangely silent about why the Founders kept white privilege going.


Our entire history is littered with the debris of  racial division. From the Civil War to the terrorism against the civil rights movement, it has cost  around 700,000 American lives,  at least.. The American working class is still deeply divided by race. It is unable to put up an effective defense against the ravages of corporate attacks on its standard of living. Just look at how dysfunctional our entire political system is as well as the weakness of our labor movement. Racial division has made us poorer, less healthy, less educated, more stressed and more unhappy. White supremacy has kept white people bound to a system that lowers their standard of living while it lowers the standard of living of minorities even more drastically.

But how do we remove this drug needle in the heart of America? All of us have been damaged as a result, just damaged in different ways depending upon what color we are. Many people have given up in despair, clinging to whatever they can grab to survive, too tired, too angry or too frightened to reach out to one another and confront the future together. How do we unite as a people when one group has an edge because of the color of their skin?

So here’s a challenge to those poor and middle class white people who have chosen to isolate themselves from the rest of America and allow us to remain  a weak and divided people. Join with the rest of us and let’s confront racism and white supremacy head on. Tell the Republican and Tea Party leadership to take their poisoned package of race hate and go straight to hell to hell. Tell the Democratic leadership to grow a spine and a brain and stop running away from race. We don't need any more racial Mad Men feeding us lies wrapped up in deception.

We’ve lived with this drug needle in the heart of our nation for too long. Yeah racism is addictive, but it's killing us. Pulling the needle out  is going to hurt bad, really bad.  Going through withdrawal and healing the wound will take all of the intelligence and courage we can muster. We’re are going to have a lot of disagreements along the way, some very painful. But if we succeed, then the true potential of our nation may finally be realized. Our claims to being a free people living in a democracy could actually become a reality.

Let’s make it happen.

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