In January, Scott Brown, a little known Republican, won a by-election for the late Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat in the solidly Democratic state of Massachusetts. Brown’s upset victory deprived the Democrats of the 60-vote majority needed to overcome the Republican filibuster and pass legislation in the Senate. It also asserted the strength of the rightwing, anti-Obama backlash that is now targeting not only Democrats, but ‘moderate’ Republicans throughout the country. In a rural New York constituency, one such ‘moderate’, a supporter of gay marriage and abortion rights, was forced to resign as a candidate for the House of Representatives in favour of a more solidly ‘conservative’ contender (who went on to lose the election to a Democrat). Rick Perry, the Christian fundamentalist governor of Texas, who suggested secession from the United States as a possible answer to Obama’s ‘socialism’, was challenged (unsuccessfully) from the right in a primary contest for the gubernatorial nomination. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the party’s former presidential candidate, facing a similar challenge for the Senate seat in his home state, has become something of a target for the party’s right wing, which considers him the personification of a moderate, establishment Republican.
These challenges are strongly influenced by a new presence on the political scene: the so-called Tea Party movement. The Tea Partiers (or Teabaggers) first erupted into national consciousness last summer, when thousands descended upon town hall meetings called by legislators to discuss Democratic healthcare proposals. With placards picturing Obama as Hitler, and in a few cases symbolically carrying rifles and pistols, they methodically disrupted the speeches of elected officials. They commonly denounced the several proposed reform bills pending before Congress not for anything they actually contain, but for imaginary provisions bearing only the faintest resemblance to real ones. From the fact that the bills had no specific mechanism to prevent illegal aliens from getting emergency care (since added), they concluded that the Democrats were proposing to extend medical cover (perish the thought!) to all illegal aliens. (When Obama denied this charge in a special Congressional healthcare address, a Republican backbencher from South Carolina, Joe Wilson, interrupted him with a shout of “You lie!” from the floor. This breach of etiquette made Wilson an instant Tea Party hero.)
From the fact that one version of the legislation proposes to fund voluntary end-of-life counselling, the disrupters asserted that the bill sought to establish government ‘death panels’, which would deny the elderly permission for life-prolonging treatments in order to save the government money. In vain did hapless legislators attempt to refute these canards by reference to actual legislative text. What was soon to become known as the Tea Party movement insisted on arguing not simply on the basis of its own opinions, but of its own facts. The town meetings of July and August were followed by a national Tea Party march on Washington. The date chosen was September 12, to commemorate the day after 9/11 in 2001, when, according to the organisers, America stood united as never before in the face of the terrorist danger. Upwards of 70,000 turned out that day in what was perhaps the biggest rightwing demonstration the capital had witnessed since a big Ku Klux Klan march in the 1920s. Any marcher who may have momentarily forgot what country s/he was in would soon have been reminded by the profusion of American flags in the hands, and on the jackets and jeans, of the nearly all-white and not exactly youthful participants.
Many also dangled from the brims of their hats the teabags that have come to symbolise their movement; they are meant to evoke the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when rebellious colonists disguised as Indians dumped a shipment of British tea into the harbour. (The movement is apparently oblivious to the fact that “teabagging” is a slang term for a certain sexual practice.) The by now familiar placards were there, equating Obama with Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Most signs avoided overtly racist themes, with a couple of notable exceptions: one read: “The zoo has African lions - the White House has a lyin’ African”; another pictured Obama with a wild afro and a bone through his nose over a hammer-and-sickle emblem. The rise of the Tea Partiers has played havoc with the Republican establishment. Some, such as John McCain, have sought to take their distance, fearing that the new movement will further marginalise an already weakened party in coming elections. Others, however, see in the teabaggers a potential for renewal and rebranding in the wake of a historic defeat. Many hover between these positions. Sarah Palin appears to be hedging her bets. She was the main speaker at the National Tea Party convention in February, but recently endorsed mainstream Republican candidates in opposition to the ultras.
The Tea Party movement is unmistakably a phenomenon of the right. Beyond this, however, it is sprawling and amorphous, with only a rudimentary national apparatus and nothing resembling a coherent political programme. One core element consists of professional Republican Party operatives and their corporate backers. Another is extreme-right outfits who sniff new recruitment opportunities: white supremacists, John Birchers (a few are still around), and various militia and ‘patriot’ groups, which continue to nurse their anger over the violent government suppression of armed religious cults at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas in the 1990s. But thousands without a history of political activism have been swept into the trend. One recent poll indicates that 20% of Americans identify with the movement in some way. The unifying theme seems to be paranoia in relation to the federal government in general and Obama in particular. Tea Partiers oppose the Bush/Obama bank bailout, healthcare reform and Obama’s stimulus package, not because these measures are corporate-friendly, but because they are seen as adding to an already heavy national debt burden, and, among the movement’s more extreme elements, as the initial steps in a vast government conspiracy to destroy the constitution and impose totalitarian rule.
The closest thing the movement has to a national spokesperson and ideologue is the clownish Fox News television commentator, Glenn Beck, the Tea Party’s Mad Hatter. It was Beck who issued the initial summons to the march on Washington. Watching his daily five o’clock rant, which reaches over three million viewers, has become a ritual for teabaggers from coast to coast. Beck specialises in stoking fears and paranoid delusions. Although forced to back off from some of his more outlandish assertions - that Fema (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is preparing secret concentration camps for dissenters, that Obama is an anti-white racist - Beck presents himself as a relentless unmasker of government plots against American liberty, past and present. He claims to base his thinking on the work of the libertarian philosopher, Ayn Rand, according to whom the highest human calling is unlimited pursuit of individual riches. In this optic, the proper role of government is to protect the acquisitive freedom of citizens, and the US constitution - a fictionalised version of which is for Beck the embodiment of eternal truth - was established chiefly for this end. Attempts by ‘progressives’ (the preferred current self-description of liberals, and Beck’s chief term of opprobrium) to redistribute wealth or achieve ‘social justice’ is nothing less than subversion of the original intent of the founding fathers. They supposedly believed in minimal government, not the bloated regime of big-spending, tax-guzzling bureaucrats and social engineers that now occupies official Washington.
Beck styles himself a strict constitutionalist, and has gone on the road with a one-man show clad in knee breeches and a tricorn hat, intended to evoke the American war of independence. Beck’s small-government creed, like that of most ‘conservatives’, is suspended at the door of the local police headquarters and the Pentagon. He advocates zero tolerance for criminals, is a staunch supporter of US troops abroad and has mounted a spirited defence of the waterboarding of ‘terrorists’. That George Bush swelled the federal budget deficit by a far greater amount than anything Obama is proposing goes virtually unmentioned. The trouble, according to Beck, began not with Obama, or even Franklin D Roosevelt, but under the Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson (1913-21), when ‘progressives’ got their hands on the federal government for the first time. Civil service reform, anti-trust legislation and the progressive income tax (Beck says the adjective refers to political philosophy rather than income-based calculation) - all were schemes to use the government as an instrument for human perfection, and thus amounted to nothing less than an early attempt to impose communism by peaceful means.
Beck surrounds his historical fictions with a good deal of pseudo-scholarly hocus-pocus, consisting of charts, elaborate blackboard demonstrations and panels of ‘experts’ and ‘scholars’. One regular guest on his show, Jonah Goldberg, is the author of a book titled Liberal fascism, which argues counterintuitively that fascism is a phenomenon of the left, as opposed to the right. Although echoing many Republican themes, Beck is careful to put some distance between himself and the actually existing party. There are ‘progressives’ lurking in both camps, he says, reminding us that that Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican president, adopted the progressive label as well as Woodrow Wilson. Much about the Tea Party movement is hardly extraordinary. Its ‘libertarianism’ represents the ideology of bourgeois individualism raised to the highest power, a doctrine that has always had widespread appeal in a country for which getting and spending are a secular religion. This ideology also dovetails neatly with the neoliberal agenda. Many leftist and liberal commentators were therefore initially inclined to dismiss the Tea Party movement as an ‘Astroturf’ phenomenon: ie, a pseudo-grassroots front for big corporations and the Republican Party.
This characterisation contains more than a grain of truth. One of the biggest early backers of the movement was a shadowy “free enterprise political advocacy group” named Americans for Prosperity. Its chief executive, Tim Phillips, is a professional Republican operative, while its founder, David H Koch, an oil and natural gas magnate, owns the second-largest privately held company in the US. The group refuses to disclose the identity of its donors. Another visible Tea Party presence is an outfit called Freedom Works, headed by Dick Armey, the former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives and outright corporate shill. Among its contributors are John Mellon Scaife, a notorious billionaire funder of rightwing causes, and business giants such as Olin and Exxon Mobil. And it is, of course, Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch who supplies Glenn Beck with his national media platform. The Republicans, moreover, are so discredited by eight years of Bush that they can only be repackaged by a movement that has a separate identity from the official party leadership and that attempts to capitalise on the current anti-Washington mood. Tea Partiers can be useful to the Republicans, provided that their discontents can ultimately be channelled into a vote for the party, whose immediate objective is to weaken or eliminate the Democratic majority in the 2010 Congressional elections. But Republicans can never hold this base without in some way addressing the causes of its anger at current economic distress.
This is why even the most corporate-loyal hacks must engage in a certain amount of anti-corporate rhetoric and profess opposition to the continuing bank bailout. The trick is to interlard this theme with the standard rightist mantra, including opposition to taxes (on the rich), rejection of economic regulation and government spending on anything but the military - slogans that can be turned to the advantage of the ruling class, including the great financial houses, at the end of the day. A certain amount of programmatic vagueness works to the advantage of Republican politicians, who seek to manipulate the right-populist base of the party in much the same way that the Democrats deceive their left-populist, ‘progressive’ followers: with a game of electoral bait and switch. Yet it is also undeniable that the spontaneous popular anger the teabaggers have harnessed lends itself more to exploitation by the right than mobilisation by the radical or even liberal left. There has to date been no movement of insurgent Democrats to exert comparable leftward pressure on their party. The viewing audience for Glenn Beck is more than twice as large as that of the leftish television commentators, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. And so we once again come up against the perennial American riddle explored by Thomas Frank in What’s the matter with Kansas (America): large numbers of lower middle class and working class people espousing a politics clearly contrary to their material interests.
Americans certainly have no monopoly on eruptions of irrational mass anger. The biggest one in western history occurred not in the US, but in Europe between the two world wars. It took the greatest living Marxist of his day, Leon Trotsky, to unravel the logic of fascism. In his under-appreciated German writings, Trotsky argued that Hitler’s stormtroopers could not be understood simply as tools of bourgeois reaction, but represented an independent plebeian upsurge based on the fury of the wildgewordene Kleinbürger, or petty bourgeois run amok, under extreme crisis conditions. he current crisis in the US is not nearly as profound as that of the 1930s, nor are the Teapartiers an incipient fascist movement. Rightwing anti-statism is an old current in American politics, which bubbles to the surface during times of uncertainty. But, like fascism, it cannot be explained simply by capitalist manipulation of public opinion. It also contains some of the elements of lower middle class frustration and rage that can be found in fascist movements - but with a particular American twist. One of the most thought-provoking attempts to understand American rightwing populism comes from the late liberal historian, Richard Hofstadter, in a collection of essays on the far right of the 1950s and 60s, The paranoid style in American politics (New York 1965).
Hofstadter contrasts interest politics (which are based on material interests, and to that extent rational), with what he calls “status politics”, often embraced by those unable to pursue their material interests successfully. One of the most prized status emblems in his view is the title of American. United States citizens are possessed of a stronger urge than most to proclaim their national fealty. In no other country is the flag so widely and self-righteously waved or saluted. The patriotic paraphernalia of the teabaggers has always been a staple of a far right that can trace its origins at least as far back as the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964. One cannot avoid the impression, especially given the political indifference of most Americans, that something other than a set of civic principles is being proclaimed with these patriotic asseverations. Since the US is the world’s hyperpower, being an American is the only high-status category available to many of the less privileged. This is why the ultra-right tends by and large to favour the strong assertion of US imperial might. But the identification of broad popular layers with the country’s global power hardly distinguishes the US from other actual or aspiring imperial hegemons of the past. More unusual, Hofstadter points out, is the conflation of two things normally regarded as distinct: nationality and social status within the nation.
Who is an American? The answer to this question has changed over time, but, in a country comprised of multiple and shifting immigrant layers, it has always included some to the exclusion of others. In the 18th and 19th centuries Anglo-Saxon Protestants exercised exclusive rights to the American brand. Native Americans, blacks (slave or free) and Catholic and Jewish immigrants and their offspring (citizens or not) stood squarely outside the prevailing definition. At different periods, previously excluded groups have been allowed inside the tent. The New Deal not only involved limited guarantees of worker rights, but was a symbolic welcome into the mainstream for the people who comprised large chunks of the working class: Irish, Italian and eastern European Catholics, and, to a lesser but significant degree, Jews. The older Anglo-Americans, of course, remained on the inside, and one branch of them, southern whites, demanded - and received - assurances that the expanding definition of ‘American’ would not be broadened to include black people. Agricultural labour, in which most blacks were employed, was deliberately denied the right to organise. Southern segregationists remained entrenched in the leadership of the Democratic Party. It was this new, all-white constellation of ‘Americans’ that emerged into the 50s and 60s to enjoy the fruits of post-war prosperity. Thus national identity throughout US history has been selectively bestowed and functions not, as in most other countries, as a condition of birth to be taken for granted, but as a status to be acquired.
Those who already possessed or had recently attained that status from about 1950 to 1965 came of age in the heyday of the American empire. The GI bill made it possible for millions of World War II veterans to attend university. Steadily rising wages permitted higher-paid union workers to earn, with overtime, as much as a junior doctor or lawyer, and hence to avoid female and child labour and think of themselves as middle class. For the children of immigrants, a nationwide network of highways were avenues of flight from the squalor of city tenements to private suburban homes; ‘bedroom communities’, in turn, became the centres of a culture of mass consumption, with the one-wage nuclear family as its primary unit. Although this period lasted for only a comparatively short time, it was for many so far superior to the depression and war decades that had gone before and the turmoil of the 60s that came after as to form a distinct - and idealised - golden age, which remains a reference point and object of nostalgia, not only for the people who were adults at the time, but for many of their children and grandchildren. Its ‘values’ were widely celebrated in Norman Rockwell paintings and countless television shows. Its unequalled standard of living was a potent weapon in the cold war, as well as a means of cementing the loyalty of a generation of white people to the ruling class.
It is the beneficiaries of this era, and those who still cling to its myths - more numerous in the south and the heavily white ‘heartland’ between the Atlantic and Pacific than in multi-ethnic coastal cities - that Sarah Palin refers to when she speaks of “real Americans”, and who supply most of the ageing white faces on display at Tea Party events. Their ‘patriotism’ has little to do with the founding fathers, the constitution or any of the other symbols they invoke. It is rather a public affirmation of the kind of people they happen to be. Who, in fact, are they? The more comfortable Anglo-Saxons among them have always considered themselves the country’s custodians. But the more dynamic and hence defining element probably comes from lower middle class white southerners, as well as the descendants of immigrant groups that came to these shores over the past 125 years or so. For these groups flag-waving and loud proclamations of patriotism have tended to serve as entry tickets into the society - for southerners a means of reasserting themselves after their attempt to secede during the civil war, and for the children of immigrants a way of assuring older layers of their eagerness to shed their European ways and loyalties in order to embrace a new American identity. Military service, compulsory for young men from World War II through the 70s, was also a path to integration.
Hofstadter also remarks upon the attitudes to authority characteristic of immigrants and their second-generation offspring. They were, first of all, ‘little people’, who witnessed only the effects of political power without participating in it. They, were, moreover, responsible for disciplining their children - in whom their hopes for the future were invested - to the harsh demands of the new society. The family patriarch often taught his children unconditional obedience to the existing civil authorities, enforced by the unconditional obedience of the rest of the family to himself. When, however, the government began to deviate from the rigid morality and civic code on which they had been reared, these groups became bewildered, and were inclined to view change in a paranoid light. For them authority was not something to be negotiated with; it was univocal: either an unquestioned good or a malign conspiracy. Starting in the mid-60s, just about every constituent part of this newly forged American identity came under challenge, from inside and outside the tent. Within, there was the rebellion of many of this generation’s sons and daughters, who were more educated and took for granted the affluence that their parents regarded as a crowning achievement. Among them, scepticism and a cult of pleasure were replacing conformity and abstinence.
From without came the clamour of previously excluded populations demanding to be let in - but on their own terms, which were markedly different from the ones on which previous generations had gained admittance. The black Americans who took on Jim Crow in the south and the de facto segregation of northern and western cities saw little point in flag-waving or social climbing; neither had got them anywhere during centuries of racial oppression. They rather sought to challenge white dominance by methods of direct confrontation, and in some cases embraced a black nationalism that counterposed itself to white American chauvinism and identified with third-world anti-imperialist causes. There was also a growing Latino immigration from Puerto Rico, central America and Mexico. These groups had not, like earlier immigrant waves, left their countries of origin thousands of miles behind. Mexicans, from whom Texas and other parts of the south-west had been stolen by the US in the 1840s, could still think of themselves as an external colony of their native country, which lies just across the Rio Bravo. They were understandably less anxious to prove their patriotism than their European predecessors. The irregular white militias that now patrol the Mexican-American border to prevent the entry of ‘illegal aliens’ form an important component of the far right.
Thus, from all these quarters and in all these ways, the white, post-war generation of ‘real Americans’ came to feel themselves under siege, and began to suffer from what Hofstadter calls “status anxiety”, which in more extreme cases morphed into the paranoia that has reared its head once again with the Tea Party movement. That paranoid mentality extends to the federal government not because teabaggers have read Ayn Rand or Friedrich von Hayek (though these authors provide convenient ideological cover), but rather because the government, which was dominated by Democrats until 1980, did in fact make some attempt, often reluctant, to integrate new layers into the larger society. For white southerners, who regarded the government as something of an alien presence since the civil war, Washington was the enforcer of racial integration. In the country as a whole the government supported such things as affirmative action (programmes to promote the selective hiring and educational advancement of blacks and other minorities), English-Spanish bilingualism in state schools in certain regions, and welfare programmes that handed out money to minorities.
So, beginning in the late 60s, there began to materialise what became known as the ‘white backlash’. In 1968, thousands of youths of mainly eastern European Catholic descent stoned organisers sent into Chicago by Martin Luther King to agitate for the racial integration of housing. In Boston in the 70s, Irish-American mobs attacked black youths being bussed into their neighbourhoods to integrate the schools. During the same decade California witnessed a ‘tax revolt’, the aim of which was to rescind income taxes that supposedly went to fund various social programmes. Yet, spontaneous as this ‘backlash’ was, it could not have achieved scope or durability without being consciously exploited by the Republican Party. In the Nixon campaigns of 1968 and 1972, the Republicans deliberately crafted a so-called southern strategy, designed to capture the votes of southern whites who had become disillusioned with the Democrats due to their support for black civil rights. Racist sentiments were thinly disguised by tough-on-crime rhetoric and denunciations of ‘welfare cheats’. The Republicans have since replaced the Democrats as the main party of the south, which, because it has also supplanted the north-east as a manufacturing centre, exerts a national influence beyond its demographic weight. The southern ‘good ole boy’ culture of white plebeian resentment against ‘north-eastern liberals’ - symbolised by tattoos, Confederate flags and Nascar racing - has also gained a certain currency among status-anxious whites throughout the country.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan made a conscious appeal to the mainly Catholic blue-collar workers who had voted Democratic in the past, but were coming to feel that blacks and other minorities were gaining at their expense. These were the ‘Reagan Democrats’, who, together with southern whites, came to constitute the broad social base upon which the Republican Party relied in subsequent decades to carry forward a comprehensive project of capitalist retrenchment. This project, as Thomas Frank has argued, had little to do with the fears and resentments of the voting bloc that brought the Republicans to power, and in fact undermined the economic position of the base in the end. The Tea Party movement may be a new political presence, but it also represents a reactivation of political forces long in the making - the product of sentiments arising from below, but artfully fostered to the advantage of those at the top. The present political conjuncture - the election of a black president amid the deepest recession in 70 years - could almost have been designed to trigger the deepest anxieties and resentments of backward-looking layers. And, whether or not the Republican leadership shares their passions, they are only too content to ride back to power on the momentum of a movement that points the finger of blame for the current economic downturn at minorities and big government - or anyone but their corporate capitalist paymasters.
The concern of the latter is that the anti-banker rhetoric and denunciation of ‘country club’ Republicans now heard at Tea Party gatherings could get out of hand, even leading to some kind of rightist third-party challenge. But most Republican bigwigs remain confident that the movement is still small enough to be controlled, and that its favourites, Sarah Palin and Texas libertarian Ron Paul, who stand no chance of winning a presidential election, can be excluded from serious contention as candidates in 2012, when a somewhat more conventional standard-bearer will emerge to claim the allegiance of their followers. Leftwing alarmists who fear that the Tea Partiers could become home-grown brownshirts miss one essential fact: that the generational cohort of white Americans at the centre of the movement is a slowly diminishing quantity. It is being undermined by the gradual decline of anti-black racism and new immigrant waves. By 2040, most Americans will be non-white. This statistic is no doubt feeding the fires of white anxiety at the moment. The ‘post-racial’ society said to have been announced by Obama’s election has by no means arrived. But the erosion of old ethnic and racial identities in the cities and suburbs where most of the population live does constitute a powerful counter-trend, making racism and xenophobia less viable as a basis for any kind of mass politics.
The major unanswered question concerns the strength of the other ideological current in the present rightwing surge: the worship of ‘free markets’, ‘small government‘and ‘balanced budgets’. These are shibboleths of bourgeois ideology, which ruling class members of all political shades have an interest in keeping alive, and which have long had resonance among the lower social strata of a country that embodies bourgeois social relations in a purer form than any other. The Tea Partiers are at the moment attempting to use the government deficit as a metaphor for the indebtedness with which so many ordinary households are burdened in order to oppose further spending on healthcare and jobs. Yet free-market dogma requires more to remain viable than a historical pedigree: it must to one extent or another be grounded in the life-possibilities of at least a portion of the majority that does not live off the profits of capital. Free-market dogma received a new lease of life during the neoliberal apogee of the 1980s and 90s, when the ruling class renewed its ranks from among successful dot-com entrepreneurs, and when many who worked for a living, though deriving only a fraction of their income from investments, were nonetheless seduced by climbing stock prices to see themselves as members of a ‘stakeholder society’. But now, with no new apparent future bubble to sustain popular illusions, neoliberal platitudes may be losing even the semblance of plausibility they once possessed. The main current asset of the Tea Party movement thus seems to be its ability to act as a magnet for the inchoate rage against the status quo felt by many who do not necessarily share the prejudices of its chauvinist-libertarian core. Like so many times in the past, the latter are directing that anger at false targets. The growing distance between their rhetoric and reality may present the possibility of directing it at the right ones.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.