The Historical Origins of Tea Party Ideology and White Supremacy

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This is a different sort of diary from what I usually write.  

John B. Judis has an excellent article in The New republic entitled Tea Minus Zero in which he examines the socialogical basis of many Tea party adherents and the ideas that seem to animate their popularity.  While the Tea Party is used and sometimes directed by Big Business and the Republican Party, Judis suggests that those of us, inlcuding me at times, have been too simplistic in our analysis.  While I find his article extremely interesting, I think he undervalues the extent of white supremacy in forming the core ideology of Tea Party adherents.  I see many Tea Partiers to be ideological descendants of “The Democracy” of the Jacksonian era.  

Here is a key point before the fold: Most actual tea party folks are “marginal middle class” and they “look uneasily upward at corporate CEOs and investment bankers, and downward at low-wage service workers and laborers, many of whom are minorities. And their political outlook is defined by whether they primarily blame those below or above for the social and economic anxieties they feel.”

More after the fold.

The Tea Parties are the descendants of a number of conservative insurgencies from the past two generations: the anti-tax rebellion of the late ’70s, the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition of the ’80s and ’90s, and Pat Buchanan’s presidential runs. Like the Tea Partiers I saw in Washington-and the picture of the Tea Partiers put forward by the Winston and Quinnipiac polls-these movements have been almost entirely white, disproportionately middle-aged or older, and more male than female (though parts of the Christian right are an exception on this count). A majority of their adherents generally are not college-educated, with incomes in the middle range-attributes that also closely match the Tea Party movement’s demographic profile. (A misleading picture of Tea Partiers as college-educated and affluent came from a New York Times/CBS poll of people who merely “support,” but don’t necessarily have anything to do with, the Tea Party movement. The other polls surveyed people who say they are “part of” the movement.)

Sociologists who have studied these earlier movements describe their followers as coming from the “marginal segments of the middle class.” That’s a sociological, but also a political, fact. These men and women look uneasily upward at corporate CEOs and investment bankers, and downward at low-wage service workers and laborers, many of whom are minorities. And their political outlook is defined by whether they primarily blame those below or above for the social and economic anxieties they feel. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the marginal middle class was the breeding ground for left-wing attacks against Wall Street. For the last half-century, it has nourished right-wing complaints about blacks, illegal immigrants, and the poor.


Tea Minus Zero

It’s the core of the Rush fans and many middle class Reagan/Bush II voters.  They have legitimate gripes as the class stratification has increased, but look downward to kick those below them rathe rthan fight those above them for a bigger piece fo the pie.   To me, white skin privilege/supremacy is key.  These folks fear falling into the “other” economcially, and thus only their white skin makes them superior.

I see one major point of the tea party/anti-Obama reaction to be nothing more than the death pangs of wite supremacy as an ideology.  I wrote about it last August:  

White Racists Want Their America Back.

“At this point in my life, I have never seen my America turned into what it has turned into, and I want my America back,” said one woman, on the verge of tears. ”

It’s not about health care, public options, details of plans.  That is not what motivates the opposition we see.  It’s the end of a way of life in which mediocre whites have better jobs, better lives, better health care, because of their skin privilege.  It’s the end of an idea, an idea that told some whites that they were better just because their skin was pinkish or “flesh-colored” as Crayola so racistly used to describe.  

It is the death rattle of racism.  The racists feel it.  Their way of life is ending.  White privilege is going away.  

Nonetheless, Judis brings up excellent points (and he does recognize the racism) in identifying the historical ideological strands that make up tea party ideology:

But the Tea Parties’ roots in U.S. history go back much further than the conservative movements of recent decades. The Tea Parties are defined by three general ideas that have played a key role in U.S. politics since the country’s early days. The first is an obsession with decline. This idea, which traces back to the outlook of New England Puritans during the seventeenth century, consists of a belief that a golden age occurred some time ago; that we are now in a period of severe social, economic, or moral decay; that evil forces and individuals are the cause of this situation; that the goal of politics is to restore the earlier period; and that the key to doing so is heeding a special text that can serve as a guidebook for the journey backward.


That is where the Tea Party movement’s second link to early U.S. history comes in. The Tea Partiers may share the Puritans’ fear of decline, but it is what they share with Thomas Jefferson that has far broader appeal: a staunch anti-statism. What began as a sentiment of the left-a rejection of state monopolies-became, after the industrial revolution and the rise of the labor movement, a weapon against progressive reforms. The basic idea-that government is a “necessary evil”-has retained its power, and, when the economy has faltered, Americans have been quick to blame Washington, perhaps even before they looked at Wall Street or big corporations. It happened in the late ’70s under Jimmy Carter and in the early ’90s under George H.W. Bush; and it has happened again during Obama’s first 18 months in office. According to a Pew poll, the percentage of Americans “angry” with government has risen from 10 percent in February 2000 to 21 percent today, while another 56 percent are “frustrated” with government.


Simmering economic frustration also accounts for the final historical strain that defines the Tea Parties: They are part of a tradition of producerism that dates to Andrew Jackson. Jacksonian Democrats believed that workers should enjoy the fruits of what they produce and not have to share them with the merchants and bankers who didn’t actually create anything. The Populists of the late nineteenth century invoked this ethic in denouncing the Eastern bankers who held their farms hostage. Producerism also underlay Roosevelt’s broadsides against economic royalists and Bill Clinton’s promise to give priority to those who “work hard and play by the rules.”

During the 1970s, conservatives began invoking producerism to justify their attacks on the welfare state, and it was at the core of the conservative tax revolt. While the Jacksonians and Populists had largely directed their anger upward, conservatives directed their ire at the people below who were beneficiaries of state programs-from the “welfare queens” of the ghetto to the “illegal aliens” of the barrio. Like the attack against “big government,” this conservative producerism has most deeply resonated during economic downturns. And the Tea Parties have clearly built their movement around it.

Tea Minus Zero

Judis’ analysis is as good as far as it goes, especially in locating one strand of ideas in Jacksonian democracy, but he fails to see the overiding issue of white supremacy that is animating many of these folks.

Let’s look at Jackosn a bit.  Many folks as Democrats are uncomfortable with Jackson, but see him as helping to push an imperfect democracy. I certainly believed that for a long time, although I was well aware of the Indian Removal policies and support for slavery.

A new look at Jackson, however, is in order:

Whereas this era has often been seen as a bumptious and buoyant period in American history, when “democracy” expanded well beyond the limited franchise the Founders imagined, Howe casts a much more somber eye over these years. There is much that is dark here, and that darkness, for Howe, was embodied in the figure of Andrew Jackson. Jackson emerges from this book as a villain whose sins were many and they reverberated for many years.

Howe faults Jackson for purging the Federal government of experienced employees and replacing them with patronage hacks; he blames the economic depression of 1837 on Jackson’s successful but wrong-headed fight to close the Second Bank; he thoroughly condemns Jackson’s role in the Indian removal.

More damning than these particulars, though, is Howe’s central assertion that “Jacksonian democracy” rested first and foremost on a foundation of white supremacy. Howe makes this point repeatedly and in various contexts. “White supremacy, resolute and explicit, constituted an essential component of what contemporaries called ‘the Democracy’ – that is, the Democratic Party.” (p. 423)

Jackson’s foil, both in real life and in the pages of this book, is John Quincy Adams. The latter is portrayed here as the nation’s hero to Jackson’s rogue – principled, smart, and ultimately on the right side of history, especially about the question of slavery.


Howe’s suspicion of Jacksonian democracy – a populism that flourished hand in glove with white supremacy – will doubtless irk other historians of this era.

Review: ‘What Hath God Wrought?’: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.

Ideas do not flow through history into people’s minds as whole reproductions.  Yes the racism of Jackosonian Democracy found its way into some aspects of Southern Populism (Pitchfork Ben Tillman), which led to segregation and Jim Crow.  Yes, there is deep anti-statism in American history and people pick up those idea.  And, yes, the Decline and Fall of Rome has long been an analogy for the far right.  And producerism has both right and left wing tendencies (unions, socialism, and kick the poor).  Indeed, these tendencies can overlap and be held by the same people in different ways in different times.

Still, I submit that there would be no Tea Party if Barack Obama were white.  The world of the marginal middle class embraces a rough equality of WHITES, and embraces the dying embers of a thoroughly discreditted

and pernicious ideology of white supremacy.

So I disagree with Mr. Judis’ conclusion:

None of this is what liberals want to hear, but we might as well face reality: The Tea Party movement-firmly grounded in a number of durable U.S. political traditions and well-positioned for a time of economic uncertainty-could be around for a while.  

There always may be marginal extremists and racists, but as a popular movement it will not be around for a while.  White supremacy animates the movement and that ideology is dying.  We should help it along by creating alliances of Americans who see and live a rainbow future.  

Also on Daily Kos:…


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    • TomP on May 19, 2010 at 7:47 pm
  1. is people who are doing the following

    1.  Using the Tea Party as a big kewpie doll to drive fear and turn the question into one of Democrats.versus.Republicans and thus drive the benefit their way.

    2.  Create false versions of such a “rainbow movement” using false memes about what the problems really are in this country and having the idea for unity-for-unity’s sake (but not true unity in the sense of doing anything real to help the people who need help).  For example, positing that “lack of civility” and “insufficient centrism” are what are causing our country’s big problems, using false equivalencies and astroturf reasoning to support politicians instead of positions and political parties.

    The Tea Party is at least half driven by Democrats who just won’t shut up about it, in order to cynically drive people who aren’t there into the Democratic Camp out of fear of the “other”.

    OTOH, I really don’t disagree with the thesis that the Tea Party is filled with entitled white people (especially, angry white middle aged men).  We don’t have to talk about the Tea Party, though, or try to define ourselves in relation to it (as in the childish Coffee Party) to build a new future.

    We do, however, have to have a louder voice of the left, and define the quintessential divide that is driving a lot of our most pressing problems is the powerful versus the not-powerful.

    So, my question would be “Are we done yet?”

    And like an annoying child in the back seat I will keep asking this

    AreWeDoneYet AreWeDoneYet AreWeDoneYet AreWeDoneYet AreWeDoneYet AreWeDoneYet AreWeDoneYet AreWeDoneYet AreWeDoneYet AreWeDoneYet ???????

    Are we done hitching our wagons to personalities and then glorifying and defending those personalities as opposed to working on the problem of how the powerful are working overtime to screw us all, all of us who are not so powerful?  White, black, brown, gay, straight, Republican, libertarian, working stiffs, poor white collar .. everyone?  By the Democrats, Republicans, and anyone who has high political office or corporate position and wealth?

    Are we done with our unhealthy fascination of a few angry white guys?

    No?  When will we be?

    Are we done with obnoxiously and pollyannishly talking about “lack of civility” being the worst problem this country faces?

    Are we done with hitching our wagon to a single political party and expecting that party to save us?

    Because, honestly, I don’t really care, and I can’t be motivated to move, until we are (done).

  2. I disagree that the Tea Party gatherings are dependent on a A-A president. If H Clinton was prez I think it would be about the same.

    Still, I submit that there would be no Tea Party if Barack Obama were white.

    From observing and listening to Tea Party types I would say stagnating incomes which they blame on Big Guvmint Liberals is the main theme.

  3. …. I am so sick of these recycled Republicans pretending they are not Republicans, it’s part of the whole con game.

    My district has a huge (relatively speaking) contingent of these Tea Party types and the ones I know personally on a political basis are all a bunch of damned con artists.

    They’re wealthy, capitalistic- evangie- religious,  and they make a fetish out of not paying taxes. And they use a pretty sophisticated approach to market themselves to the seniors and to the conservative religious adherents.

    While the concept of “white supremacy does animate the movement” plays a part, each year there are successive waves of a generation that is aging into the retirement era of uncertainty and fixed incomes.  And all the Tea Republicans have to do is remind them of how afraid they are of death and taxes, and they’re in the pocket.  Then they say that the brown people (ie the terrorists and the Democrats, because in their imaginary world there are no Caucasion Dems)  are going to rob them, and they’re the only ones who can protect them. Voila, another set.

    Our culture has changed dramatically, neighbors in many places, are so much less trusting or prove to be just downright weird or malicious.  I think part of this is, frankly, too many attorneys have nothing better to do than to dream up ways to waste other people’s money because it’s fun to pit aggrieved parties against each other for a living.   And the other part is the rise of the political alliance with political conservatives and the religiously less tolerant.  Ugh.  And wages…. how we value everything, we make so many poor people in this country with our lack of decent wages and health care.  Still.  

  4. Granted there is a small faction of racism in there but no longer will this media construction of the race war going to work.   I’m 55 and a used to be Mike Dukakis democrat.

    Like Rome fell so too is America but it’s by design this time around.  That promise of freedom simply has to be taken out in favor of globalist parasite billionaires who will at all costs remain at the top of the food chain even if that means taking out most of the world’s population.

    We should be taking about growing our own food, forming local alliances of like minded people instead of enforcing the globalists vision of shutting up all people on this fuckwadian PC let’s not offend anybody while shoving the gestapo super corporate fascism prozium dystopian tazer grandma boot up everybody’s depopulated ass.

    In this post America world?  Fuck diversity of the corporate kind.  Fuck Al Gore and his long term Maurice Strong Bernie Madoff Carbon Swindle.  For that matter fuck the fake two party system, the entertainment division of the secret world government.

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