Can Progressives Get Coffee to the Tea Party People?

While the Tea Parties get significant funding from Dick Armey’s Freedomworks, it’s a mistake for progressives to write off this conservative movement as just “Astroturf.” We need to ask who the people are who show up at the various stops of the Tea Party Express.

I went to the April 8 Tea Party rally at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, hoping to find out.

Two different leftists I know see at least some of the people in the Tea Party movement as white working-class people legitimately angered by a government that’s abandoned them to a fate of lost jobs, foreclosed homes and the sense of a bleak economic future for their children. There may be some truth to that idea, though neither speech makers nor the people I interviewed April 8 spoke of lost jobs. Primarily, they spoke of taxes, deficits and government spending. At least half of the people there appeared to be of retirement age.

The Tea Parties seem to have been seeded in the rubble of the September 2008 financial meltdown and the Wall Street bailouts that began during the Bush Administration, yet the speakers and the crowds at Tea Party rallies date their dissatisfaction from the election of President Obama and a Democratic majority in Congress.

All of the people at the rightist rallies roundly reject the Democratic health care law call for its repeal.

As the confusing legislative process lumbered along — and Democrats in Congress made more and more anti-progressive “compromises” to get Blue Dog Democrats’ votes (and, one suspects, fulfill promises to insurance companies) — progressives also opposed or at least questioned some aspects of the health insurance bill.

Theoretically, with doubts from both sides, Tea Party people and progressives could open a dialogue. The same could go for the bailout of banks and financial institutions. Common ground seems possible.

But, there are some very real obstacles to such engagement between the Right and progressives.

People at the Minnesota Tea Party rally appeared to oppose ANY health insurance reform, simply repeating the idea that it’s an encroachment of “big government” into a “free market system.”

For conservatives, government regulation of big insurance or pharmaceutical corporations has been translated into “Government telling YOU what to do,” as exemplified by the Democrats’ individual mandate to buy health insurance. All felt that the mandate—the state forcing people to buy insurance– is unconstitutional.

Only one 30-something man, who identified himself as Wyatt, noted that, “They could tax you and give you health care and that would be within the bounds of the Constitution. But, they didn’t go that way.”

Many opposed the stimulus bills, as much as the bailouts — but did so in the belief that stimulus spending is “out of control government spending.” Most people I talked with felt that the bailed-out auto companies and banks have been “nationalized” –that the government now owns them! This, too, was seen as “big government” encroaching where it shouldn’t go at all.

Government employees are the sames as lazy people on welfare in the eyes of the Tea Party rally crowd. In what I think is another attack on unions, the ridiculous claim was made that “average government workers make $70,000 and average private sector workers make $40,000.”

That reminded me of last year’s bashing of auto workers with the lie that they all make $70 an hour and, now, the blaming of teachers’ unions for public schools that have “failed”.

No speaker on April 8 mentioned the millions of dollars a year paid bank executives, hedge fund managers or health insurance CEOs and no one referred to their bailouts or subsidies.

It appears that for the Tea Party people, class rage runs horizontal and that it is fueled by a kind of “crabs in a barrel” petty envy. Is that by design of Tea Party leadership to make worker solidarity impossible? If stagnating wages and job insecurity are a main root of the Tea Party movement, that’s been mis-directed into 21st century red-baiting of President Obama as a “socialist” — another concern repeated over and over.

It’s obvious that many Tea Party people imbibe daily propaganda that plays fast and loose with the facts; their world-view is defined by Fox News pundits Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. They often appear to get their talking points, called “analysis,” from right-wing talk radio — especially Rush Limbaugh – and to worship Sarah Palin, taking her slogans as their own. Often, their answers to my questions simply parroted the words of right-wing broadcasters. When pressed to be more specific about any issue the response was bewilderment, followed by irritation or outright anger.

To be blunt, all but a couple of Tea Party people were unable to express in any specific terms what their anger is about, what the actual issues or concerns they have are. They voice sentiments along the lines that “Obama is ruining the country” or that immigrants are hurting us and some referred to a nasty rap song, “Press One For English,” but they could offer no specifics to back their feelings.

Iconography of the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers, “Don’t Tread On Me” and American flags were in evidence at the April 8 rally. The Tea Partiers are besotted with a kind of “independence” that claims to “need nothing from nobody”–even when a great many Tea Partiers who are 65-plus rely on Medicare and Social Security. At least a third of the crowd the other day obviously were people who are age-eligible for those government programs. Yet one sign and many speakers talked of “unearned entitlements”.

No doubt, the ralliers themselves as “deserving” but, many of the rest of us, in their view, are not.

Such a cold view is the result of 40-plus years of Republican hammering against all social programs, especially those that might benefit some people of color and a kind of alien other called the “urban poor.”

It appears that compassion isn’t high on the Tea Party’s list of Christian virtues (although religion was rarely cited, except for God to bless America and the troops). A large part of their animus to health care reform in general seems to echo this view of mitigated autonomy for white people like themselves and “boot-strap Darwinism” for “the Others.”

There was a sense that sweeping statements against Obama AS Obama, is latest code for racism.

If unemployment continues to rise and as poverty increases among whites, will this skewed outlook shift towards a broader coalition? It’s hard to say, since for most of the United States’ existence, white working-class and lower middle-class people usually have been more likely to deal with economic anxiety or displacement by closing ranks against others based on race and citizenship status.

It would take a hell of a lot of education by progressives to get most Tea Party people to recognize that corporate elites are the problem, not people of color and the poor. Tea Party people seem to have completely internalized the old Calvnistic notion that “The Rich are God’s Chosen People,” translated for the 21st century as “the infallibility of the free market.” They seem to have no understanding at all of why financial markets melted down in September 2008; instead of seeing the banksters’ bailout as the problem, they think that the Obama Administration has “taken over” the banks and is refusing to lend to small businesses.

Like fellow white working-class Kansans that Thomas Frank tried to understand in his book What’s The Matter With Kansas? this movement sometimes feels like a throwback to 40 years ago.

It’s as if Richard Nixon’s so-called “silent majority” is most angry about a lost Golden Age of unquestioned “American greatness,” unquestoned white male authority and the pre-civil rights era. One speaker on the stage mentioned his “earliest political action standing up to forced busing in the 1970s,” an obvious allusion to ending racial segregation of the country’s schools. The Minnesota rally was all white (with the exception of one hired African-American singer), but, let’s be fair: very few people of color show up at Minnesota’s anti-war rallies either.

One poster read “We Are Not White, Black, Hispanic. We Are Americans.” The Obama as “witchdoctor” posters were not in evidence. I suspect that the undoubtedly well-paid political operatives organizing the Tea Party Express are doing a better job these days of public relations when it comes to racism.

As well documented in polls, most white Americans always continue to deny, as they always have, that racism is a problem—claiming “there’s no discrimination” as far back as 1960. In a time claimed to be “post-racist,” with an African-American in the White House, that denial may be stronger than ever. While they raged against deficits from President Obama’s economic stimulus plan or health bill , these Minnesota tea partiers were oblivious to deficits run up over eight years by George W. Bush’s wars and to the massive tax cuts we’ve seen for the wealthy. Asking them about the Bush years of $3 trillion wars and deficits brought only blank faces and silence.

While I don’t believe that the Tea Party Movment is “all about raicsm,” as some say, I do think that racism and a white fear of a loss of privilege are parts of the subterranean anger fueling the movement.

If we’re honest, we can see that any significant step forward for people of color—especially African-Americans—has been followed by a backlash. The election of Barack Obama, immigration from non-European countries, and more visibility of people of color in pro sports, entertainment and government positions coupled with very real economic pain and uncertainty among white people seems to be creating just such a backlash, made sharper by the Great Recession.

Another point progressives might wish to take heart in is Tea Party people’s concern about our Constitution, which was alluded to many times in speeches and signs –one read “Stop Shredding Our Constitution.” However, when asked about illegal spying on Americans, torture or other issues that clearly involve the Constitution, issues progressives have raised since early in the Bush administration, the response was indifference.

“In terms of national security, I support whatever keeps us safe and out of another tough situation like 9/11,” said Doug of Faribault — a sentiment many echoed.

Besides the insurance mandate and gun ownership, Tea Party people can’t tell you how the Constitution is being harmed, asserting, “I just know that Barack Obama and the Democrats are doing “unconstitutional things.”

For awhile, progressives could simply make fun of the Tea Party movement. That’s not prudent now that death threats, vandalism and a violent atmosphere are emerging from the movement and from its first cousins, the militias and white supremacist groups who have significantly grown in number since Obama’s election.

Public opinion polls show a significant sense that neither of the two corporate-sponsored political parties represent the interests of everyday working people–and there’s a growing exodus from both parties. A third way needs to be born.

If progressives stay on the sidelines, supporting a Democratic Party that serves Wall Street and corporations as much as the Republicans ever did (or merely stay silent), then, the field is left wide open to the kind of reactionary, racist rage that periodically has bubbled over into violence throughout U.S. history in every economically and socially-challenging time since the Civil War.

To be blunt about it, white working class anger always has been be used to bolster the status quo. It always is mis-directed against immigrants, racial minorities and GLBT people to the advantage of economic elites, who are the real problem.

There’s a long history of white working class anger being expressed in hate crimes, lynchings and assassinations. From decades of KKK terrorism to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights movement activists, to todays’ violent hate crimes against Mexican immigrants, there’s plenty of evidence that such violence is all too possible—especially, during economic hard times.

Recent death threats and vandalism against Democratic members of Congress, with Republicans barely willing to acknowledge the violence, much less denounce it, makes real tragedies all too imaginable.

I didn’t see any sidearms or shoulder pistols on the lawn of the State Capitol in St. Paul. One man I talked with had a sign, saying “Damn right I’ve got a gun!”–a sentiment he passed off as “just messing with the people who think all Tea Party folks are armed.” Another man next to him chimed in “Just one?” and the man with the sign, smiled and said “Well, just one the government knows about.” Asking him if he was reassured by the recent Supreme Court decision which struck down the Washington,D.C. gun ban as unconsitutional and that another case overturning Chicago’s 27-year handgun ban is imminent did not seem to reassure him.

All facts to the contrary, the right wing believes that “In Obama’s Amreica, the liberals want to take your guns.”

Ultimatelty, what I came away with was that 90 percent of the people I talked with were mired in a frightening morass of ignorance. They were unable to articulate even their own concerns in any concrete way, but, merely repeated slogans about “freedom” or “big government is taking over”. They were oblivious to all facts that contradicted what Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and their Tea Party leaders have put forth.

This level of ignorance—especially among people who are armed — is terrifying in its implications.

If progressives had made death threats to Republican members of Congress or came to anti-war rallies with guns, you can bet we’d have been labeled “terrorists” and certainly arrested. Is law enforcement taking right wing threats seriously?

Of course, the Tea Party Express ended its rally with tributes to “the troops fighting for our freedom:” Gold Star mothers telling how their sons died in Iraq. Taps came over the loud speakers followed by a Toby Keith-type country-rock patriotic tune. Militarism and blind nationalism blanketed the crowd and at that point I left. One person in a crowd of 500 can’t point out that U.S. soldiers aren’t dying (and killing) for “our freedom” but, for transnational oil companies and the domination of other people’s countries.

Progressives must at least try to re-channel some Tea Party people’s rage towards those who have ripped all of us off for over the past 30 years. Progressives can point out who actually has skimmed off more and more of the wealth produced by workers’ increasingly productive labor.

We can try to challenge the anti-tax fever that’s gripped Tea Party folks by asking, “Do you want decent schools, parks, libraries and other basic infrastructure for your children–as was the case when you were grewing up?” We can point out that 30 to 40 years ago, corporations paid far more of their fair share than they do today, and that created the infrastructure that now crumbles.

We can challenge them to see that all of us deserve that American Dream of a decent life, and that the zero-sum game that’s been played since the 1970s is hurting the vast majority of us while a tiny elite grabs more and more of the country’s wealth. We can take on deficits by putting forth the necessity to re-consider national priorities and to move away from war.

Spending a couple of hours with the Tea Party Express, proved the truth of early 20th century labor organizer and anarchist, Emma Goldman’s observation that, “Ignorance is the most dangerous element in society.” We can offer the Tea Party people a strong cup of coffee to wake them up to reality, but, I suspect that only the Tea Partiers under 35 might be willing to take a drink.

Lydia Howell

Lydia Howell is an independent journalist in Minneapolis, winner of the 2007 Premack Aard for Public Interest Journalism, and producer/host of “Catalyst:politics & culture” on KFAI Radio.

With research and input from Jim Fuller.You can read his blog at: http://www.jamesclayfuller.com/

Photos by  Kim DeFranco.

Published by the LA Progressive on April 11, 2010
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