It began nearly a year ago with tax day protests, as thousands rallied in cities across the country. It continued into the summer with raucous town hall meetings and gun-toting anti-Obama demonstrators. It reached its apex with a September 12 march on Washington, which drew nearly 100,000 participants. Now, some in the tea party movement are turning their attention to becoming a force in the 2010 congressional elections.
Reports on the September 12 event pointed out that it was a nearly all-white crowd with some demonstrators carrying an assortment of anti-Barack Obama "homemade" posters, such as: "The Anti-Christ is Living in the White House" and "Oppressive Bloodsucking Arrogant Muslim Alien."
Is there a future for the movement? A Rasmussen Reports poll suggests that there very well might be. In a three-way congressional generic ballot test survey between a Democrat, Republican, and tea party candidate, Democrats attracted 36 percent of the vote, the tea party candidate received 23 percent, and the Republican finished third at 18 percent (with 22 percent undecided). The Rasmussen Reports website did point out that survey "respondents were asked to assume that the tea party movement organized as a new political party. In practical terms, it is unlikely that a true third-party option would perform as well as the polling data indicates."
Interestingly, in an effort to build the movement, some tea party organizers have taken to "studying the grassroots training methods of the late Saul Alinsky, the community organizer known for campus protests in the 1960s who inspired the structure of [Barack] Obama’s presidential campaign," the San Francisco Chronicle reported. They are also using Tea Party: The Documentary Film as an organizing tool.
There is one issue, however, that could stymie the movement’s growth: race. Tea party events have become a safe haven for people carrying racist anti-Obama signs, so people of color have stayed away in droves. In addition, members of white nationalist organizations have openly participated in tea party events and view the movement as fertile recruiting ground. Questions about the overlap between tea partiers and anti-immigration activists may be answered if and when an immigration reform bill is taken up this year.
Are the openly-racist elements within the tea party movement an aberration scorned by most tea party participants as many in the movement insist? Or are they more firmly entrenched than tea partiers would care to admit? For the past 17 years, Devin Burghart has researched and written on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism. Currently the vice president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, an organization monitoring and writing about the activities of white nationalist groups, Burghart told me, "The tea parties themselves are made up of a diverse bloc of different political elements, and white nationalists have chosen to make a stand inside the tea parties…."
Not only have "tea partiers turned up with overtly racist signs and slogans," at rallies "from coast to coast," he said, many participants also "cling to the belief that our first African-American president…was not even born in the country." Unfortunately, Burghart noted, "There’s little evidence to indicate that tea party leaders are doing anything to address the racism in their ranks."
In an article at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights’ website, Leonard Zeskind, the organization’s president and the author of Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream, pointed out that the anti-Obama opposition contains "many different political elements: ultra-conservative Republicans of both the Pat Buchanan and free market variety; anti-tax tea party libertarians from the Ron Paul camp; Christian right activists intent on re-molding the country into their kind of Kingdom; birth certificate conspiracy theorists; anti-immigrant nativists of the armed Minuteman and the policy wonk variety; third party ‘constitutionalists’; and white nationalists of both the citizens councils and the Stormfront national socialist variety."
If tea party activists can ferret out racists and white nationalists from its ranks—and not become a mouthpiece for Christian Right ideologues—they could become a much stronger force on the American political landscape. Meanwhile, a host of groups operating under assorted tea party banners have set their sites on the 2010 mid-term elections.
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.