Tea Party Convention Divides the Right

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.


3 responses to “Tea Party Convention Divides the Right”

  1. Isaac Avatar

    I starting thinking and worrying about the Tea Party pretty early last year when around 10,000 white people rallied at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta on tax day. A historic majority of voters had elected Obama, trusted him, and were not willing to be critical of him or his pro-war, pro-business policies.

    While the recession has hit African-Americans and other communities of color hardest in absolute terms, according to some data layoffs of white workers are at record levels – the highest since the 1930s. The weakness of unions (and of the general idea that collective, solidarity-based action against the boss) was the fuel and the relative impoverishment of workers who’d previously had some level of comfort and insulation is the spark.

    In the cultural realm, this is illustrated in the video of one of the best country songs of last year, Shuttin’ Detroit Down by John Rich:

    With lyrics like

    the boss man takes his bonus pay and jets out of town/ DC’s bailing out the bankers as the farmers auction ground/

    while they’re living it up on Wall Street in that New York City town/

    Here in the real world there shuttin’ Detroit down

    you’d hope that this was some kind of working class anthem, sticking up for the downtrodden in the face of the powers that be. Unfortunately John Rich is associated with the Tea Party – sticking up for the the less-downtrodden at the expense of the really downtrodden.

    I was reading TIME magazine the other day, which is clearly in the openly big business Obama camp, and their arrogant attitude towards the Tea Party disgusted me. To the TIME columnists, the Tea Party has everything to do with dumb rednecks who just don’t understand that “the economy must be saved” (courtesy of their shrinking pocketbooks) or that “Afghanistan must be liberated” (with the bodies of their sons and daughters.) There’s no recognition of real grievances many people have – and in the absence of a strong, antiracist and multiracial movement that is also critical of Obama, it becomes the default “option B.”

    From the beginning I was worried about the far-right racists lurking in Tea Party events. I think the core of the Tea Party activity is clearly antagonistic to any progressive movement in this country – but because of the vacuum that exists, these demagogues have the ear of plenty of people who could be convinced of radical ideas. What it will take to convince them, as others have noted, is the emergence of working class struggles that are clear about who their friends and enemies are.

  2. Lars Avatar

    Good article and I really agree with the comment by redchuck4. Independent working class action is the answer to racism and right-wing populism in the working class. There was a very interesting debate on this and failed anti-racist tactics in the British paper Red Pepper a while ago:

  3. redchuck4 Avatar

    Great article!

    The key to fighting the far-right– whether in its Tea Party or other forms– will be to understand that it is not a product of media manipulation. Instead its growth is a response to the real deterioration of working class (and middle class) standards of living and working conditions. In the absence of strong, collective organizations– unions, community groups, etc.– more privileged working people will attempt to defend themselves at the expense of other workers.

    We need to rebuild collective, class organizations– first and foremost unions– if the left wants to pose a real alternative to the right. Unfortunately, most of the left’s embrace of “lesser-evil” pro-Democratic party politics is an obstacle to rebuilding the unions and social movements that would have to target BOTH the Democrats and Republicans.