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:

Photos by  Kim DeFranco.


  1. Pam says

    I would like to go to a tea party with my anti-war signs. It’s the wars, stupid. They are what are bankrupting this country. I would like to hear what tea party people have to say to that.

  2. Lydia G Sanchez Bracamonte says

    While a admire the strength that it must have taken for Howell to have attended a “Tea Party Rally”. I would never encourage anyone to even pretend taht any mind or individual could change at a Public rally. I am always saddened that these reactionary elements truly believe they are middle ground people in terms of their political beliefs. But I also think that the vast majority of them are paid reactionarys and represent the wrorst elements brought together by teh Bush/Cheney administration.

    They will do anything to create havoc and disorder. And will be willing to use the progressive forces own tactics to control the media time that should be going to honest movements of change.
    But with the FCC rulings to deregulate resulting im an increase in control of only one opinion, the opinions of the Big corporations and their move towards ologarcical control, we are far from seeing our movements take center stage.

    I personally do enter into discussion with the TeaParty elements in my home town when they come to community events and try to dislocate logic from reality. Often they can not respond to truth verified by hard research and study. ANd it is at this point that they will begin the name calling, agressive behavior and insults which will ultimately end in threats. Laugh at them, laugh in their face. And ask them what they are afraid of. I know that my standing up to these elements gives others pause. And then the voices of reason will come to stand with you. But Do not do this in a crowd where you stand alone or are in the minority. This is an unwise tactic. Pick your ground wisely. But begin to report on issues of real importance such as the hundreds of thousands of people that marched for Health Care reform and Progressive immigration reform and against the incrochment of ICE in our communities. That is what we need to report and to hear. We need you to report on what The corporate news Services fail to cover.

  3. Wiam says

    …”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.”

    Exactly. Regardless of how obnoxious some tea partiers have gotten, they are simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the disappointment a huge portion of the electorate feels about the betrayal of the middle class and working Americans by our corporatist government. The vast majority of people who are upset about Obama’s policies are not stupid, nor are they racist. Many of them voted for Obama hoping for a hero who would use the immense popular support our Democratic Party had in 2008 to rein in the kleptocratic takeover of our country.

    Instead of getting a “people’s hero,” we have a president who does “some good stuff” while enabling the ongoing destruction of our nation’s greatest asset: the middle class. He gave us bankster bailouts instead of support for Main Street. Instead of offering loans to homeowners, he handed money to banks so they could foreclose on American taxpayers and get even more “too big to fail.” He’s forcing us to buy insurance instead of giving us true health care reform. Even the “good stuff” in the health care act expands wealth redistribution from the middle class to the rich. In order to “help” those people the insurance companies kick off (the “high risk” pool), the public will have to pay for their health care rather than forcing the insurance industry to be responsible for people who’ve already paid into the system for years. They get taken care of on the public’s dime, which means they won’t be in the news telling stories about cheating insurance companies, while the rich get richer having dumped them off on the public. “Some good stuff” means another nail in the coffin of the middle class.

    The same pattern emerges with the wars in the middle east (war profiteers still have no bid contracts in spite of Obama’s promise to make Change). Obama’s promise of transparency in federal government goes by the wayside when it comes to his secret meetings last summer which is likely when he promised to kill the public option if the insurance and hospital industries didn’t take down his Universal Health Insurance bill.

    The bottom line is that America needed a hero and all we got was this corporatist president and a bought off Congress. While plenty of people still support Obama, our Dem Party is looking at devastating losses in upcoming elections because when the right is mad, they vote. When the left is mad (or disappointed), we sit out the vote. The reason Republican Scott Brown is now the Senator from Massachusetts is because Democrats and Independents realize that our Democrats are as beholden to big business as the Republicans. The disappointment is that Obama’s policies indicate he is as corporatist as the rest of them.

    For those who think we can write off the tea partiers as stupid racists, I suggest you take the time to talk to friends and neighbors who are not tea party activists, but who are just disgusted with the Obama Administration’s obvious lack of concern for our needs. Those are the people who will ultimately make or break the Democratic Party’s chances for years to come.

    Progressives need to do more than just try to convince tea partiers that taxes pay for schools and roads, things that they want. American taxpayers know that. What they don’t like is paying taxes for things like making banksters richer and freebie healthcare welfare for people who can choose not to work. Until progressives start to understand that we should be against that kind of thing as well, we’re doomed to repeat the (Nixonian & Reaganesque) past.

  4. in_awe says

    USATODAY 3/8/2010:

    Federal pay ahead of private industry
    “Federal employees earn higher average salaries than private-sector workers in more than eight out of 10 occupations, a USA TODAY analysis of federal data finds.


    Overall, federal workers earned an average salary of $67,691 in 2008 for occupations that exist both in government and the private sector, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The average pay for the same mix of jobs in the private sector was $60,046 in 2008, the most recent data available.

    CHART: Federal salaries compared to private-sector

    These salary figures do not include the value of health, pension and other benefits, which averaged $40,785 per federal employee in 2008 vs. $9,882 per private worker, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.”

    So, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics the average total compensation for a federal worker is $108,000 vs. $70,000 for a private sector worker in a comparable job.

    “The federal pay premium cut across all job categories — white-collar, blue-collar, management, professional, technical and low-skill. In all, 180 jobs paid better average salaries in the federal government; 36 paid better in the private sector. ”

    In a study released in January using BLS numbers: “…in state and local governments and the U.S. private sector. Public sector pay averaged $39.66 per hour in 2009, which was 45 percent higher than the private sector average. The public sector [compensation component by component] advantage was 34 percent in wages and 70 percent in benefits.

    “…the ratio of public to private sector pay is generally higher in the high-pay regions. For example, the Pacific region has the highest public pay and a public pay advantage of 59 percent, while the West South Central region has the lowest public pay and a public pay advantage of just 26 percent.” Total compensation paid per hour in the Pacific Region was $49.02 for public sector versus $30.78 for private sector worker.


    “In 2009, DB plans were available to 84 percent of state and local workers but just 21 percent of private workers. And public sector DB plans are generally much more generous than the remaining private plans. One study found that the median public sector DB plan paid benefits more than twice as high as the median private plan.

    Some of the factors driving up costs in public DB plans include:

    Early Retirement. Public sector workers generally retire earlier than private sector workers and enjoy generous pension benefits for life indexed for inflation. They can typically retire at age 55 after 30 years of work, as in California’s CalPERs system. In CalPERs, workers receive an annual pension equal to 60 percent of final salary after 30 years. Public safety workers in CalPERs can retire at age 50 after 30 years of work with benefits equal to 90 percent of their final salary. These lucrative benefits have put CalPERs in deep financial trouble.

    Pension Formulas. Virtually all public sector plans calculate benefits based on pay in the last one to three years of work. Private plans are more likely to use a lower-cost approach such as the last five years of pay or career-average pay. Also, public plans typically have a more generous factor to adjust pension benefits for number of years worked. In the public sector, benefits equal to about 60 percent of pay after 30 years of work is typical. In some jurisdictions, government workers inflate or “spike” their pension earnings by getting themselves big raises or working overtime in their final year or two on the job.”

    Stanford University recently released a study of California state worker retirement fund liabilities and determined that they are underfunded to an extent exceeding $500 Billion! And that does not cover retiree health care benefits. The tax payer is on the hook for these shortfalls in funding.

    Yeah, all supporters of the Tea Party are idiots, right?

  5. Gary says

    Good luck trying to have a dialog with those so blinded. Perhaps some of them need jobs to keep them off the street?

  6. Elaine says

    Emma Goldman should know that spending only 2 hours with a tea party group & not with a lot of tea party groups & should listen to the letter from Jon Voight to the American People. He read it last night on Huckabee, he was at the Tea Party Movement in Washington DC & he will tell you all those racial slurs were not made. So my opinion of Emma Goldman is not very good. I suggest that maybe she is a bias progressive that wants to live under socialism & thinks she is a very elite person that can make accurate judgements on people in just a couple of hours. She probably picked out the people that she thought were dumber than her which would make her feel superior to them.

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