Posted February 24, 2010
Earlier this month, the first National Tea Party Convention took place in Nashville, Tennessee. Though billed as an effort to unite tea party groups across the county into a more formal coalition, it has instead highlighted emerging contradictions within the “movement”. The Republican Party’s attempt to capitalize on the right-wing backlash of recent months has divided many tea party activists, raising some important questions as to where the resurgent right may be headed.
The nature of the convention itself was clearly at odds with the populist rhetoric associated with the tea party movement. Tea Party Nation, the main sponsor of the event, chose a lavish resort venue and set ticket prices at over $500, outraging self-styled grassroots tea partiers. Dozens of local groups boycotted the convention and some even protested outside of the hotel. The controversy culminated with several sponsors pulling out and two Republican House Reps. withdrawing from the list of speakers.
This dissent highlights two general tendencies within the movement. Activists associated with the GOP are keen to funnel energy around last fall’s health care backlash into electoral gains in 2010. On the other hand, a significant number of tea partiers are pushing to keep the Tea Party brand independent; they view the GOP as complicit in the alleged growth of “big government” and the undermining of “personal liberty.” Several local Tea Party groups have already begun registering independent candidates for this year’s elections, though these efforts are so far not being coordinated nationally. While it is doubtful that a fully-fledged “Tea Party” will become a viable electoral force in the long-term, we should not assume that this more radical wing will simply fizzle out.
It is difficult to predict how the various currents comprising the Tea Party movement will ultimately develop, but there are some worrying indicators. The Tea Party phenomenon has provided many opportunities for more explicitly racist and fascist far-right groups. Such organizations are offering a coherent ideology through which disgruntled working class whites can filter their raw frustration. This strategy is successfully swelling the ranks of many neo-Nazi organizations and helps explain the rise in hate crimes since Obama’s election.
The GOP will likely succeed in mobilizing mainstream tea partiers for the 2010 election. This is the stated aim of the next Tea Party conference planned for July. As the election approaches, pressure from tea party activists will likely push the Republicans even further to the right.
As many have noted, the Tea Party is partly a distorted expression of white working class frustration with decades of stagnating living standards and diminished economic opportunities. Also, as the many infamous displays at tea party rallies have shown, this largely white backlash is deeply racialized. Having a sitting black president has exacerbated this, but it is more deeply rooted in the broader demographic shifts in the U.S. As whites shrink as a proportion of the population, we may see a parallel strengthening of right-wing radicalism. As the economic crisis continues and working people grow increasingly cynical towards the two parties, those of us on the Left need to be seriously thinking of ways to confront the far-right.