Taking Tea Partiers Seriously
The people who brought you the tea bag and town hall protests are meeting at a Fuddruckers restaurant in Boise, Idaho, where the antler chandeliers and snowshoe wall decorations seem right at home. These are the patriotic men and women of the Idaho Liberty Agenda, a group that emerged from the 2008 Presidential campaign of rightwing libertarian gadfly Ron Paul. Two Idaho state representatives are here to discuss proposed legislation. Before they speak, an earnest woman is warning that the United States already has socialized medicine—this in November, during the first Senate debate on the health care legislation proposed by President Obama.
But no one is making threats against Obama, and no one is waving bizarrely worded placards. Folks looking for the local meeting of car buffs keep opening the door to the Liberty Agenda meeting before being directed to a second meeting room. It’s hard to tell the two groups apart.
Idaho State Representative Steven Thayn is aware that many on the left think that “anyone who believes what we believe must be a rightwing extremist kook.” According to Thayn, all he is proposing is that we “need to retool the system” and “balance the budget.” Of course, to Thayn, this “retooling” would include slashing taxes and essentially abolishing most government social services. Thayn, in his second term, is at the meeting with State Representative Phil Hart, also in his second term. Both are stalwarts of the Idaho Republican Party.
The meeting of these Idaho rightwing populists seems somewhat banal, but hardly directionless. The Idaho Liberty Agenda is considering the group’s legislative agenda, and mobilizing supporters to attend local committee meetings of the state Republican Party. They are gearing up for the 2010 off-year national Congressional elections. They are angry, but neither crazy nor stupid. There are similar meetings happening across the country. Reporters Alex Brant-Zawadzki and Dawn Teo have tracked how Republican election strategists are networking the “tea partiers.” They found that in “at least twenty-one states, local homegrown tea party groups are already recruiting precinct leaders” for the 2010 elections.
Meanwhile, inside the beltway that encircles Washington, D.C., like a fence around an asylum, liberal pundits, Democratic Party strategists, and hired-gun fundraisers describe the growing movement of rightwing populists as “radical right,” “crackpots,” or “wing-nuts.” They are the “lunatic fringe” of the self-destructing Republican Party. These are just ignorant “rednecks” and “Bible-thumpers.” So, just keep sending checks to the Democratic Party and everything will be fine in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
There are two problems with this cheerful and lucrative scenario.
The first is that liberal pundits, strategists, and fundraisers said the same things prior to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000. They said the same things before the 1994 off-year Congressional elections where conservative Republicans whacked the Democrats and then introduced the reactionary Contract with America.
The second problem is that the anger is real and increasing among white working people. If we dismiss them all, we not only slight the genuine grievances they have. We also push them into the welcoming arms of actual and dangerous far rightists.
It helps to recognize that much of what steams the tea bag contingent is legitimate. They see their jobs vanish in front of their eyes as Wall Street gets trillions. They see their wages stagnate. They worry that their children will be even less well off than they are. They sense that Washington doesn’t really care about them. On top of that, many are distraught about seeing their sons and daughters coming home in wheelchairs or body bags.
With no one appearing to champion their cause, they line up with the anti-Obama crowd, and they stir in some of their social worries about gay marriage and abortion, dark-skinned immigrants, and a black man in the White House.
A few in their midst project their frustration, anger, and rage into acts of violence. Activists defending reproductive and gay rights are the targets of increasingly virulent denunciations. Progressives ranging from community organizers to university professors are reporting death threats at a rate higher than usual. Nine politically motivated murders have occurred since Obama was inaugurated President a year ago, and the alleged perpetrators have been linked to some form of white supremacist or anti-Semitic ideologies emerging from rightwing conspiracy theories. Dr. George Tiller, for example, was shot dead by an anti-abortion activist tied to the sovereign citizen movement, based in a conspiratorial white supremacist interpretation of constitutional law.
The participants at the Idaho Liberty Agenda meeting would object to being linked to such harassment and violence. If asked, they would say they are not white supremacist thugs. While they might bag their limit of deer and ducks (and no matter what they might say to their buddies after a few beers at a local tavern), they currently have no plans to beat up or gun down liberals. And I believe them.
These folks, however, are part of a broader movement creating an atmosphere of fear in some communities. What’s going on here?
If you drive several hundred miles northeast over the mountains from that Boise, Idaho, meeting of the Liberty Agenda you reach Helena, Montana, in about nine hours of twisting travel. The long distances between major cities and relative sparseness of population allows libertarians and other slivered political tendencies to flourish. Travis McAdam leads a tour of the Montana Human Rights Network offices in a converted downtown Helena bank building not far from the state capitol. On the guest tour, the staff likes to drag open a huge vestigial vault door to reveal a set of battered filing cabinets.
The Religious Right still has great influence in the Montana Republican Party and in the state itself, says McAdam, the executive director of the human rights group. He notes that in the past, “when the Religious Right loses a national election, they refocus on the states.” McAdam thinks it is predictable that the “Religious Right will be fighting tooth and nail to maintain the political power” they have in the Republican Party, not only in the states, but as a way to regain national influence.
“Democrats need to start addressing the long-term effects of this rightwing populist upsurge,” says McAdam. “A lot of people out here are getting their political education through the tea parties, so even when the tea party movement itself collapses, it will leave behind many new recruits for other rightwing groups.”
McAdam and his researchers have found that the Ron Paul libertarians, the Christian Right, and well-established ultraconservative groups such as the John Birch Society are all competing to inherit the tea party recruits in Montana and form them into a conservative political movement. Indications are that this is happening nationwide. At the same time in Montana and some other states, it is clear that the tea bag and town hall protesters are also being recruited by white supremacist and organized racist groups.
The activities of the Militia of Montana and the government standoff with the Montana Freemen garnered national headlines in the 1990s when armed units emerged from the broader “Patriot” movement during the early years of the Clinton Administration. Their ideas are “resurfacing at what are considered more mainstream meetings here in Montana,” McAdam says. “We hear talk about the one world government and black helicopters, and now these traditional anti-government conspiracy theories are incorporating new talking points related to, among other things, the swine flu vaccination and the private prison industry.”
On the ultraright, there is a plan among organized racists to encourage white people to move to Montana and build a segregated “separatist” homeland. “We even heard one racist leader suggest that conspiracy theories about Obama and the government are a soft way to get people interested in becoming active in building a white homeland here,” says McAdam. The white racists are well aware of McAdam. On the racist Stormfront website, a post suggested that “Travis McAdam can move his sorry butt to south africa and enjoy his negro overlords which he loves so much. Wonder if he’d cry for freedom then?”
Montana illustrates how rightwing organizing can stretch from the Republican Party out to organized white supremacist groups. “We call that moving from the margins to the mainstream,” says McAdam.
Veteran human rights organizers are pushing back against the inside-the-beltway spin that dismisses the rightwing populists as a marginal lunatic fringe whose only danger is to the electoral fortunes of the Republican Party. They say their communities and constituents are experiencing debilitating effects from the backwash of increasing anger and scapegoating.
Pramila Jayapal is the founder and executive director of OneAmerica, a statewide human rights group based in Seattle. “We stood up after 9/11 and did some effective organizing,” she says. “We registered 24,000 new immigrant citizens. We worked with the governor and other political leaders and made some real gains.”
The office of OneAmerica looks out on a multi-ethnic community that is predominantly pan-Asian, and packed with mom-and-pop restaurants and other small stores struggling to survive in hard economic times. Some storefronts are empty. Jayapal graciously shares her lunch of sushi while being interviewed.
“You asked me about the condition on the ground now, out in our communities? The situation is much worse,” says Jayapal. “Even if we have made small gains, it feels like there is a constant push to the political right.” She pauses. “People are so unhappy . . . the stories are so sad.” Then she smiles. “Good organizing is about changing politics and policies, and we have the moral high ground.”
Abdullahi Jama, senior community organizer with OneAmerica, echoes Jayapal’s sentiments. “We have built a dialogue with conservatives in this state about immigration, but we see ultraconservative think tanks and so-called experts constantly trying to create a clash between immigrants and law enforcement,” says Jama. “The Somali community here ends up being portrayed as terrorists by people using arguments that we see as baseless conspiracy theories.” Nonetheless, Jama, like Jayapal, is optimistic about their grassroots organizing efforts and their ability to reach out to white communities and reduce tensions.
Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center, says these “rightwing activists are creating a climate of fear in immigrant communities.” She understands that the economic downturn has added to that climate.
“Right now, there is high unemployment, and a lack of an adequate social safety net for all working class people in the United States,” she says, “and the fear and anxiety about our economic situation is cynically being used by anti-immigrant politicians and strategists and trumpeted by rightwing commentators.” This anger among white working people is fanned by Fox News, talk radio, and other media.
The “lies and distortions about immigrants coming from these rightwing movements are based in racism and xenophobia,” she warns, “and these forms of bigotry are spreading way beyond the boundaries of the conservatives themselves.” Hincapié says progressives need to take the rightwing populist anger seriously, understand the underlying economic concerns these individuals have, and vigorously counter their organizing efforts rather than just dismiss them.
This type of savvy progressive organizing, however, is hampered by constant demonizing rhetoric coming from the Democrats and their liberal allies, rhetoric that portrays the majority of Americans who are angry at the government as crazies and fools. Outside the beltway, this type of snide nastiness increases the percentage of doors slammed in the face of progressive grassroots organizers trying to reach out to broader audiences.
We need to be wary of the way centrists in both the Republican and Democratic Parties distort and confine the political dialogue. In their model, they are a noble and heroic center defending society from the “extremists” of the left and right. By using terms like “extremism” and trivializing dissident ideas as dangerous or crackpot, centrists are defending the status quo. They create the impression that dissident organizers are simply the advance guard for political insurgency, violence in the streets, and terrorism. The term “Radical Religious Right,” for example, is designed by Democrats to get liberals to lump together the Christian Right with armed neo-Nazi terrorists. Flip this model over, and the term “extremism” is used by centrists to dismiss progressives as scary utopian radical troublemakers secretly building bombs in our basements. The “centrist-extremist” model is also used by law enforcement to justify spying on dissident groups on the left and right.
The application of “centrist-extremist” theory reinforces an elitist view of democracy and suggests that only certain people are capable of participation in “serious” policy debates. It also implies that policy debates confined only to ideas validated by the political “center” should be taken seriously in civil society. Progressives, therefore, should be careful about using the term “extremism” or “extremist” as a label for political ideas or action they oppose. The model favored by centrists marginalizes “extremists of the right and left” and thus undercuts progressive ideas for the fundamental reordering of priorities in the United States.
Art Heitzer, a Wisconsin attorney long active in progressive struggles, attended the National Lawyers Guild convention panel in Seattle late last year where Hincapié spoke about the plight of immigrants. Heitzer recognizes there are a lot of white working class people being targeted for recruitment by reactionary rightwing populist forces, but is convinced that “many of them could be our allies in holding Obama accountable to his campaign promises.” Polling over the past thirty years shows that when Democrats forcefully stress issues such as relieving poverty or seeking peace, some independents and Republican voters who oppose abortion or gay rights will vote for a Democratic Presidential candidate despite their continued allegiance to gender-based hot button issues. This makes the Democratic Party rush to the political center, continued troop deployments, and retreat from abortion and gay rights even more morally reprehensible and politically misguided.
Authors from Jean Hardisty (Mobilizing Resentment) to Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter with Kansas?) have explained the ways many white working people can be persuaded to vote against their economic self-interest. The trick is to use social issues: abortion, gay marriage, socialist-fascist health care czars, unplugging grandma. These white voters are not clueless, though, since they are actually defending their advantages and privileges as white Americans. Men are defending their place on top of the traditional social hierarchy. This model of male-led family structure is embraced by many conservative white women, especially those in fundamentalist Christian churches.
But there is no social science evidence that people who join rightwing movements are any more or less crazy or ignorant than their neighbors. While some have psychological predilections for authoritarianism and tend to see the world in overly simplified “us” vs. “them” terms, the same predilections can be found on the political left. This is also true with belief in conspiracy theories. Two serious demographic studies of the membership of the John Birch Society demonstrate that Birchers are generally above average in income, education, and social status.
Fundraising and spin-doctoring is not organizing. Republicans have repeatedly won elections by out-organizing Democrats through face-to-face mobilizations and direct contacts with voters regarding favored issues. At the same time, Republicans over the past thirty years generally have been better at logistically supporting voter registration and election day turnout. For the Democrats, labor unions still play an important role, as do other special interest groups, including women, people of color, and youth. It was excitement over the Obama campaign, especially among youth, that mobilized a successful grassroots registration and voter turnout effort in 2008. It is unlikely, given Obama’s falling voter satisfaction ratings, that this mobilization will be repeated in the 2010 elections.
The shotgun wedding of the Palin wing of the Republican Party with rightwing populists, the Christian Right, and economic libertarians could assist Republicans in further rolling back the social safety net and other progressive gains of the last seventy-five years. Are you ready for a Presidential ticket in 2012 featuring Sarah Palin and Lou Dobbs? That certainly would be going rogue.
But no matter how the electoral political battles turn out, the trivialization of rightwing populism must stop. It is toxic to democracy in a general sense. And it also results in an increasingly hostile environment for immigrants, people of color, Muslims, Arabs, reproductive rights activists, and lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons.
When centrist liberals toss smug and dismissive names at the current rightwing populist revolt, they make it more difficult for progressive organizers to reach out to unconvinced people who see their neighbors (and perhaps themselves) unfairly labeled as stupid or crazy.
The only way to counter the resurgent right is to rebuild militant progressive movements and raise a ruckus. Then, even as we rally our base, we have a chance of convincing some on the right that what we stand for will actually help them. But we can’t get there by name-calling.
Chip Berlet's article appears on page 24 of the February 2010 issue. Subscribe to The Progressive for just $14.97 by clicking here.
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