Tea Party Poses Threat to Democracy

The Great Recession has yielded at least two unexpected paradoxes. First, the nation's leading right-wing movement draws its name and inspiration from the anti-corporate Boston Tea Party in 1773, which was actually a guerrilla action to destroy the property of the world's first multinational corporation, held in response to the Tea Act, under which the British government granted East India privileged access to the U.S. market at the expense of small importers and shopkeepers. Nonetheless, the "pro-free market" Tea Partiers of today glorify this early blow against corporate globalization. Second, the most vociferous and visible protest activity hitting the streets of America has emerged not from those most victimized, but from a stridently right-wing Tea Party whose base is relatively affluent, well-educated, overwhelmingly white, and racially resentful.


Chip Berlet, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America and a long-time student of rightist movements for Political Research Associates, notes, "They grew up in families and social clusters where these ideas are considered common sense and what America is all about. Their ideas are based on what they are hearing from inside their 'information silos.'"


However, stressed Berlet, "Many in this group are white middle class and working class" whose real-life experiences with corporate power could potentially make them receptive to progressive appeals so the left cannot afford to wish them into non-existence.


Anxious But Aligning With The Super-Rich


The trick here is that the middle class and working class Tea Party supporters have been convinced their future is best assured by aligning with the wealthy and super wealthy against unemployed people, people of color, gays, and other elements of society that they associate with destabilizing changes. Despite the growing economic divide between the shrinking middle class and the increasingly stratospheric riches of the top 1 percent, Tea Partiers are identifying with "the job creators" and "tax providers" against the "tax consumers," who they imagine to be rejecting job opportunities in favor of unemployment compensation.


This Tea Party attitude thus presents a barrier to progressive efforts to coalesce working-class, jobless, and under-employed citizens into a cohesive movement for a democratization of the economy that would serve human needs and protect the environment, rather than be driven solely by profit-maximization.


Unfortunately, left-wing populists hostile to growing corporate power, observes historian Michael Kazin of Yale, author of the influential The Populist Persuasion, remain too scattered to exert much influence at this moment. "They don't have the institutional base to mobilize like the Right does," he said, referring to fundamentalist churches and a massive conservative media complex.


An Opening For The Left?


We have witnessed a surprisingly low level of insurgencies from labor (with exceptions like the Republic Doors and Windows plant takeover in Chicago) and other left-of-center forces. Yet, anti-globalization beliefs of rank-and-file Tea Party members present an opportunity for the left. A majority of Tea Party members hold strong views against corporate globalization and the off-shoring of U.S. jobs, which up until now has primarily been a cause taken up by labor and the left and rejected by the elites of both major political parties and even the Tea Party itself (with the exception of Representative Ron Paul). This significant piece of common ground—opposition to the corporate assault on the lives of the middle-class, their futures, and their communities—could potentially be a starting point for efforts to influence the Tea Party's base.


Further, if progressive solutions to the nation's multi-layered economic crisis are to ever enter the public debate, the Tea Party's constituency is at least part of those who need to be mobilized. Nearly 74 percent of self-described Tea Party supporters would support a "national manufacturing strategy to make sure that economic, tax, labor, and trade policies in this country work together to help support manufacturing in the United States," according to a 2010 poll conducted by the Mellman Group and the Alliance for American Manufacturing. Likewise, 56 percent of self-described Tea Party supporters "favor a tariff on products imported from other countries that are cheaper because they came from a country that does not have to comply with any climate change regulations in the country where the products were made," noted progressive journalist Mike Elk.


This poll is in line with other recent surveys showing an increasingly intense disaffection with globalization and "free trade" among once-staunch Republican supporters. "Six in ten Republicans in the poll agreed with a statement that free trade has been bad for the U.S. and said they would agree with a Republican candidate who favored tougher regulations to limit foreign imports," a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll learned in 2007.


Differing Views Among Leaders


Tea Partiers' views on globalization may eventually be reflected in how they view the three most prominent political figures with the widest followings in the Tea Party: Sarah Palin, Congressperson Ron Paul (Palin and Paul virtually tied in a presidential preference poll at the Conservative Political Action Committee earlier this year), and former Congressperson Dick Armey of Texas. Palin is a conventional conservative promoting the anti-regulatory, pro-globalization (although she was unable to name all three partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement) views of the right on economic issues in pushing for generally unrestrained corporate power, a "family values" approach to social issues, and fervent belief in the prerogative of the U.S. empire to act unilaterally.


In contrast, globalization critic Congressperson Ron Paul calls free-trade deals "a threat to our independence as a nation." Paul has been stoking the flames of resentment toward corporate off-shoring of jobs and the loss of U.S. sovereignty to trade agreements that privilege transnational corporations at the expense of laws democratically enacted by the U.S. and other nations. He has also been a consistent foe of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With Paul's firm position against the off-shoring of jobs, he is following a trail carved out by rightist or centrist populists that have gathered white middle-class followings, as with Ross Perot, Lou Dobbs, and Patrick Buchanan.


Meanwhile, Armey and his Freedom Works organization have been vehement on the alleged benefits of "free trade" while minimizing the effects of U.S. job relocations. Currently a high-level corporate lobbyist (clients have included the United Arab Emirates and the Mexican Senate), as a Congressperson, Armey ardently championed "free-trade" agreements like NAFTA, as well as the World Trade Organization, which grant investors exceptional privileges and encourage the relocation of U.S. jobs to low-wage dictatorships.


Perhaps recognizing the deep divisions prevailing on globalization in the Tea Party, the issue of trade is conspicuously absent from the Tea Party's official "Contract From America," as is any mention of the Wall Street bailout. The potential for warring among leaders like Paul, Armey, and Palin may spur increasing divisiveness among Tea Partiers.


The salience of this anti-globalization sentiment suggests a real potential for countering and perhaps even dividing the Tea Party, if coupled with a set of major, high-profile initiatives against the relocation of U.S. jobs undertaken by progressive forces. For example, the AFL-CIO could potentially declare a moratorium on all job relocations from the U.S. and back this up with militant, mass actions and public outreach at the local level. Placing every instance of job destruction within the context of a national economic crisis intensified by corporations' abandonment of U.S. workers and communities might well generate a favorable response from many Tea Partiers, and openings for dialog.


To be sure, developing an effective progressive strategy in responding to the strong anti-globalization current in the Tea Party will be complex and difficult. A thoughtful strategy for countering the Tea Party must confront a variety of problems, including the relative absence of civic institutions where Americans can discuss their political concerns in a comfortable, non-threatening setting.


Open To Re-Framing?


The single most coherent element among the Tea Partiers is a "fear of falling," a term popularized by progressive author Barbara Ehrenreich. Those clustered around the Tea Party fear falling back into the working class, according to Berlet. In line with this fear, the recession presents a nightmare where Tea Partiers envision themselves as potentially deprived of their economic security and social status. This is a powerful motivator of their activism.


The ideological line of least resistance is initially to hold the government almost completely responsible for economic failure, with comparatively little discussion of the role of Wall Street or corporate globalization in inducing the crisis and de-stabilizing middle-class existence.


Tea Partiers—although identifying with the right—nonetheless hold ambivalent views about both the role of government and the power of corporations. For example, Scott, a 42-year-old lower-management figure I interviewed at a Tea Party rally in Milwaukee, insisted, "People need to take care of themselves." He focused heavily on attacking the concept of government involvement in health care. Admitting that he had no insurance to cover his family, including a wife and two children, he still maintained, "Giving everything away to everybody just won't work."


Yet moments later, as speakers like ultra-right columnist Michelle Malkin were denouncing any form of government role in healthcare, he voiced support for health-care reform that would provide his family with coverage. "If everyone could afford it, that would be okay." The implicit basis for the outrage of Scott and other Tea Partiers was not blind opposition to all government initiatives, but a sense that the government has neglected to address the anxieties of people like themselves. They evinced a submerged fury at the rip-off-minded Wall Street bankers co-existing with a more explicit rage at the "socialistic" government that bailed out big business.


Following the same mindset, Tea Partiers tend to focus their anger at supposed recipients of government largesse below them on the social ladder. In reality, the richest 1 percent of Americans now claim about 23.5 percent of national income, a near tripling of their 8 percent share since 1973, as Les Leopold writes in The Looting of America. Yet despite this upward shift in income facilitated by fundamental changes in corporate and federal policy, signs carried at typical Tea Party protests carry messages like "Re-Distribute My Work Ethic, Not My Wealth" and "Socialism: My Tax Dollars at Work for Those Who Won't."


Special targets of contempt are people of color and gays and lesbians. A University of Washington survey found that 74 percent of Tea Party supporters agree with the following statement: "While equal opportunity for blacks and minorities to succeed is important, it's not really the government's job to guarantee it." Fifty-two percent of respondents also said that "compared to the size of their group, lesbians and gays have too much political power." Fully 88 percent of Tea Party members support Arizona's draconian anti-immigrant "show me your papers" law.


Reflecting these attitudes, there have been very ugly incidents at Tea Party events involving some members. Numerous rallies featured signs that expressed racist sentiments, especially directed toward President Obama. In March, as African-American congresspeople walked toward the Capitol to vote on health-care reform, they faced a barrage of racial slurs and Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) was spat on.


Social critic Noam Chomsky has drawn some parallels between the current situation and the pre-Nazi period in Germany where the Weimar Republic was too ineffectual to address the nation's economic problems. Major parties consequently lost their following, resulting in growing support for the Nazis.


"The most striking fact about Weimar was…that the Conservative and Liberal parties were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over," Chomsky told interviewer Christopher Hedges (TruthDig, 4/19/10).


But in a correspondence with Berlet, Chomsky said that such quotes projected a sense of inevitability about the Nazis' rise that he did not intend. Chomsky believes that the Tea Party threat increases the urgency of effective action by the American left. Unlike the sectarian German left of the Weimar period, which cut itself off from much of its target audience, the U.S. left needs to engage the public with credible messages and practical programs addressing their concerns and needs.


As for the challenges facing the left, Chomsky points to the deeply-rooted "social-democratic" views of the majority of Americans (extensively documented in his book Failed States), which are far more significant than ephemeral, momentary shifts in party identification or candidate preferences. Public opinion polling in the U.S. has consistently shown support for a single-payer health-care system in the 64 percent range, opposition to the relocation or "off-shoring" of jobs to sites like Mexico and China at 78 percent, and majority support for a strong social safety net, as long as the term "welfare" is not associated with it. Likewise, a majority of Americans now accept the idea of gay marriage. Yet these views find little outlet for expression, much less action, because of the weakness of progressive institutions.


For example, the union movement represents just 7.2 percent of private-sector workers. Even in the midst of an economic crisis where corporations continue to amass profits while relocating jobs and laying off workers, the Democratic Party's leaders' voice on critical economic issues is muted. Further, progressive media have a minuscule reach compared to the right-wing echo machine.


Defusing The Tea Party's Dangerous Side


While there is a positive strain among Tea Partiers that needs to be tapped, there is also a negative component that the left can defuse only through direct personal contact with Tea Party members. "The Tea Party is a movement organized around fervent opposition to 'economic tyranny' and people 'not like us,'" Berlet notes.


With extremist white-supremacist and militia groups reportedly infiltrating the Tea Party, the threat of physical violence directed toward immigrants and other "outsiders" is becoming more serious. Berlet, unlike some on the left, is very scrupulous about the use of the term "fascist." He emphatically states that the Tea Party is not fascist at this time, but warns that it clearly projects some critical elements of the traditional fascist appeal. Berlet noted, "It's built around the myth of a true heartland and the 'real people'—historically, they've been white people defending their power and privilege against those lower on the economic scale. The Tea Party is about apocalyptic scapegoating, and reordering society to expel the people who 'don't belong'."


What's the Matter with Kansas? author Thomas Frank explains why the Democrats are so deeply alienated from their electoral base (Wall Street Journal, 2/24/10): "The answer to the riddle is as plain as the caviar on a lobbyist's spoon. Democrats don't speak to angry, working-class people because a lot of them can't speak to angry, working-class people. They don't know how. "Many of the party's resident geniuses gave up on that constituency long ago, preferring instead to remodel their organization as the vanguard of enlightened professionals and the shrine of purest globaloney."


What's needed instead, insists Berlet, is an approach that directly seeks to engage Tea Party adherents in a dialog where a progressive perspective can be patiently introduced. A lot of progressives out in the field have decided that they have to treat these people with respect, Berlet reports. "You might not be able to persuade the leaders, but you can relate to ordinary activists." This would entail setting up local forums and discussions in non-threatening settings where progressives could use their personal connections to Tea Party sympathizers and members to delve into the contradictory feelings of populist rightists who simultaneously fear those below them and are outraged by the greed of America's economic elite. Berlet adds, "If you've flatly said that all Tea Party people are crazy loons, you'll never be able to talk with them. All you'll do is get them angry at your patronizing attitude."


Author and talk-show host Thom Hartmann argued in a recent speech in Wisconsin that progressives will be able to discover much more common ground than they expect with Tea Party members. "We should keep in mind that even the Tea Party people are on our side when it comes to believing that corporations are not people," a reference to the recent Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that declared that corporations have the same rights as humans.


"Polls show that 86 percent of the American people are with us against the notion of corporations as people," added Texas populist writer and broadcaster Jim Hightower. "But many people have been used, abused, and confused, and they're leaning the wrong way." Hightower suggested using informal settings to discover political commonalities with Tea Partiers. We should try to win them over, talking with our friends and neighbors at the Chat'N'Chew diner, the union hall, the supermarket line, and at pot-luck dinners." Only then can the left effectively challenge the architects of economic decline, sharpening inequality, and rising social divisions.


Berlet's call for direct dialog with the Tea Party rank and file will surely meet a skeptical response from many on the left, given the Tea Party leadership's harsh attacks on anything vaguely progressive. But the threat of an increasingly extreme and intolerant right, led by the Tea Party, is so dire that progressives can no longer avoid such engagement, Berlet maintains. This effort is crucial to developing a coherent response that channels Tea Partiers' fury away from the victims of corporate policies of disinvestment and environmental ruin, and away from pervasive racism and homophobia.


Only then can the left effectively challenge the architects of inequality and polarization in the corporate suites, on Wall Street, and among their allies in government.


Roger Bybee is a freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications. Thanks to Chip Berlet, Noam Chomsky, Mike Elk, and Rob Larson for their comments.