Tea Bags, Taxes, & Productive Citizens

A conundrum of right-wing populist movements like the tea bag and town hall protests is that they often mobilize in ways that undermine the economic self-interest of participants. The solution to the puzzle is that these folks are simultaneously defending their existing relative power and privilege in other spheres, such as race and gender—or at least they think they are in some conscious or unconscious way.

To understand how this works, sociologist Rory McVeigh suggests using a Power Devaluation Model in which right-wing movements emerge to defend their interests in three arenas: political power, economic power, and social status. The importance of these spheres varies over time. In right-wing populism, economic power often takes a back seat to political power and social status, but not always. Hard economic times can lead anti-abortion and anti-gay Christian Right adherents to vote for Democrats who offer a clearly articulated and believable plan to fix the economy—at least for the middle classes.

In Right-Wing Populism in America, Matt Lyons and I argued populism was built around four interwoven elements:

  • Producerism
  • Demonization
  • Scapegoating
  • Conspiracy Theories of Power

We hear the tea bag and town hall protestors spewing conspiracy theories about death panels and impending government tyranny. Their rhetoric is full of demonization and scapegoating of targeted groups, especially immigrants. Their palpable anger and self-righteous excitement exemplifies the apocalyptic idea that time is running out to save society—an idea that fuels millennial visions of a needed coming confrontation with evil forces.

Producerism, however, is not a word used by most progressive activists, although its storyline might sound familiar. Producerism describes a world view in which people in the middle class feel they are being squeezed from above by crippling taxes, government bureaucracies, and financial elites while simultaneously being pushed around, robbed, and shoved aside by an underclass of "lazy, sinful, and subversive freeloaders." The idea is that unproductive parasites above and below are bleeding the productive middle class dry.

The producerist dynamic spawns conspiratorial allegations about parasitic elites manipulating society and this leads to anger being directed up the socioeconomic ladder. The list of scapegoats among the alleged elite parasites can include internationalists, Trilateralists, bankster plutocrats, socialists, Jews, Bilderbergers, liberal secular humanists, government bureaucrats, or any combination of this list. The underclass parasites include the freeloading "undeserving poor," sinful sex-obsessed perverts, and sinister subversives.

Those scapegoated as lazy freeloaders by white middle class producers include blacks and other people of color, immigrants, and welfare mothers (who are often visualized as "illegal" immigrants, non-white, or both). The "sinful" are abortionists, homosexuals, and feminists (and the pathetic wimpy men who defend them). Rounding out the usual suspects are left-wing social and political activists organizing impoverished and disenfranchised sectors of the population—especially "community organizers."

Producerist anger is directed upward at the alleged elite parasites—as witnessed by the rhetoric at the tea bag and town hall events. This anger, often harnessed by right-wing politicians, tends to also produce more direct and aggressive actions targeting demonized and scapegoated groups lower on the socio-economic ladder. As scholar Catherine McNicol Stock points out, the two key themes in historic U.S. populist movements are "the politics of rural producer radicalism and the culture of vigilante violence."

In the United States, the overall outcome of the producerist model of populism is a broad social and political movement some analysts call "middle American nationalism," "the radical center," "middle American radicals," or "white nationalism." Whatever the label, this form of repressive populism with a producerist frame is a common feature of right-wing organizing across the U.S. political right. Historically, it involves conscious or unconscious racism against people of color, especially immigrants.

Things are not that simple, however. Abby Ferber and Michael Kimmel point out that much of the racial rhetoric among neo-Nazis is rooted in gendered narratives involving patriarchy and fear of race mixing. Masculine identity and other gender issues are central to the militia movement—along with economic anxieties. In fact, all movements on the right or left incorporate critiques involving race, gender, and class politics.

There are different autonomous sectors of the political right and they overlap at their boundaries. The way they use populist rhetoric is shaped by their key issues and major frames as well as the demographics of their target audience. None of these movements offer a systemic, institutional, or structural critique of class oppression, but reflect varying forms of right-wing populism.

The Christian Right appears to be largely composed of successful upwardly-mobile suburbanites, including many managers and small business owners. Populist producerism in the Christian Right centers on mobilizing "godly people" against secularized elites seen as controlling the government and media, but the grievances are frequently related to gender—abortion, homosexuality, and the feminist movement.

The armed citizens’ militias and the broader Patriot movement attract people who have suffered or feel they will soon suffer some type of economic reversal. Populist producerism in these movements constructs narratives using anti-government or anti-regime rhetorical frames built around conspiracy theories.

In the ultra right, neo-Nazis and white supremacists weave a story of populist producerism in which "lazy blacks, crafty Jews, and predatory immigrants" of color are stripping the white race of its rights.

Producerism was used to mobilize poor and working class whites against newly-freed black former slaves after the Civil War. It was utilized by George Wallace in his presidential campaigns in the 1960s, then borrowed by Richard Nixon and the Republican Party to implement a racist "Southern Strategy" to gain the presidency.

Producerism in other countries and other historic periods often links a conspiracy theory of history with xenophobia, racism, and religious bigotry. People in various countries develop different narratives and pick different scapegoats, but the basic paradigm leads to an attack on the "parasites" by the "producers." Economic libertarians blast the government for high taxes and too much regulation of business. Anti-immigrant xenophobes blast the government for letting "illegals" steal their jobs and increase their taxes. Christian fundamentalists blast the government for allowing the lazy, sinful, and subversive elements to ruin society.

This is not a recent phenomenon, but part of a long tradition. As the right-wing populist sectors grow, politicians and activists within electoral reform movements try to recruit the populists to participate within electoral political frameworks. As they seek votes, some politicians begin to use populist rhetoric and pander to the scapegoating. This explains the popularity of Sarah Palin, Lou Dobbs, and Glenn Beck.

Watch for producerism to be a central frame used by Republicans in the 2010 congressional and state elections. It is important for us on the Left to make sure we do not adopt or reinforce frames or narratives used by the right-wing populists and their producerist blame game.



Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates (publiceye.org) and a vice-president of Defending Dissent (www.defendingdissent.org). The views here are his own.