Rethinking the Role of Race in the Modern Tea Party Movement

The rapid rise of the Tea Party Movement has fueled ongoing debate about the potential influence of the movement on American public policy and politics. The movement’s appeal and almost exclusive attraction to working class white voters has also caused many to question the role that race has played in its emergence and in sustaining its anger. However much of the discussion on the role of race in the TPM tends to get lost in two perspectives: (1) to outright deny or downplay the influence of race in the movement’s political goals altogether which is made possible by the charges of the second perspective that (2)  limits itself to a catalogue list of racist actions, political slogans and associations that can be charged against individuals, Tea Party leaders and organizations.

Missing from the discussion is a real analysis of the role that race has in framing our national political, economic and historical narrative that can explain why public policies to limit the redistributive functions of government are the focus of conservative political groups in the form of “smaller government” advocacy. Indeed, the modern Tea Party can be said to have gotten its initial inspiration from CNBC’s Rick Santelli’s outburst on the floor of the Chicago stock exchange in which he blamed the federal government for giving subsidies to “subprime” mortgage holders who “were making bad economic decisions.” Santelli claimed that he would organize a Chicago Tea Party against President Obama’s plans to provide support to homeowners facing foreclosure. Of course, “subprime” became quickly coded by race and has been associated almost completely with homeowners of color whose experiences with foreclosure and mortgage debt had to be made somehow different and distinct from the experience of “mainstream” white American households who were morally superior and thus more deserving public sympathy.

The resulting global economic downturn has only prolonged the anxiety even as the crisis spread around the world. Yet, while the U.S. is generally recognized as the model for liberal capitalism, it is social democratic Europe who have recently gone through their own political wave of right wing ascendency, partly due to demographic shifts under increasing immigration from former colonies where the most severe fiscal austerity packages are being proposed. Still, the U.S. pushes forward with stimulus packages to spur job growth and diplomatic attempts to convince European governments to increase their own consumptive spending. The responses of the working class majorities among the U.S. and Europe are equally divergent, as the European working classes have taken to mass action against austerity measures in countries such as Greece and now France.

In the U.S. the greatest momentum among the working class majority is towards the mid-term election of more conservative politicians that include many who would not only raise the official retirement age of American workers [to levels three years higher than that being proposed in France and Greece, for instance] and some who would actually privatize the social security system, effectively eliminating the program completely.

In this context it is quite easy to understand why progressives in the US might be envious as they look across the Atlantic for inspiration and a glimpse of what working class responses to the economic crisis could be. (( “Why France Matters Here Too,” However, any notion that the mass movement of left and progressive forces against austerity in France can be replicated in the US fail to appreciate the glaring distinctions between the two countries, most importantly the impact of racial/ethnic division in fueling the hegemonic status of conservative/right ideological perspectives in US political discourse. ((See: The Right Nation – Conservative Power in America by: John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.))

Even as many Americans tend to underestimate the real level of inequality in the United States,  overall tolerance for inequality is much higher in the US than in Europe, and France in particular. In fact, although a recent study has shown that Americans might prefer to live in a more socially equal society, ((Building a Better America – One Wealth Quintile at a Time by: Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely.)) deeper analysis has shown that when race/ethnicity is made an explicit factor, acceptance [particularly by white Americans] of inequality increases. Specifically as the image of poverty becomes framed as predominantly people of color, urban African-Americans and Latino’s in particular, support among whites for redistributive policies is reduced. ((Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference by Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser)) In fact, as Alesina and Glaeser’s research has shown, approximately 50% of the difference in support for redistributive policies between the U.S. and social democratic European countries can be explained by racial/ethnic heterogeneity. ((Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference by Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser))

Once that is accepted it becomes clear that the reason why the working class white majority in the US will not organize and demand progressive policies, [they are, in fact, demanding greater austerity upon themselves as manifested through the Tea Party platforms] is that their primary aim is not to secure social rights for the working class as a unified social class identity across racial/ethnic lines but to secure the privileged rights of white working class households apart and socially distinct from workers of color. This is the only way to truly explain why Congressional Democrats have fallen short in gaining the support of this group to Republicans by 10 points in both 2006 and 2008 and watched their deficit balloon to 29 points in the recent mid-terms.

But to truly understand how this came about we must review the history, in particular the New Deal and the original Capital/Labor consensus that existed since WWII but began to collapse in the mid to late 1970’s. In the national trauma that followed the Great Depression and WWII, a new “Social Structure of Accumulation” was established that intended to stabilize the relationship and quell disputes between labor and capital through a capital-labor accord or consensus. ((Social Structure of Accumulation Theory by Victor Lippit, in: Contemporary Capitalism and its Crises; edited by: Terrence McDonough, Michael Reich, and David Kotz.))

The consensus, which became embodied in the New Deal and the Wager Act of 1935 [that preceded the war] created a fragmented system of social protection that actually reinforced the racial/ethnic privileges demanded by the white working class to remain socially and spatially distinct from Blacks. It ensured, [for white workers] full employment in manufacturing industries, provided substantial benefits in terms of health and retirement and a middle class standard of living that didn’t require a great deal of formal education.

By limiting labor/capital negotiations on social projection benefits and wages to the firm level rather than nationally or industry wide as in solidarity bargaining strategies institutionalized across Europe, white workers in the US were able to secure social rights within racially exclusive union-brokered deals for themselves without having to share those gains with African-American [and Latino] workers excluded from union protection.

African-Americans under New Deal policies experienced new forms of social exclusion from New Deal social protections for the white working class. The racially fragmented social policies laid the structural foundations for the increase in racialized income and wealth disparities in two geographically based forms.

In the north, the capital/labor consensus enabled unionized white workers to deny Black workers union membership, access to quality jobs that could support social mobility into the middle class and the many social protections won through disputes against capital.
((Race, Money and the American Welfare State; by Michael K. Brown.))

In the south the compromise over New Deal legislation enabled racist state governments to determine eligibility and levels of support through unemployment and social insurance programs that effectively eliminated Black workers from eligibility since they were largely confined to agricultural and domestic labor. ((Race, Money and the American Welfare State; by Michael K. Brown.))

While African-American workers were. by default, excluded from social protection programs that were tied to work, when they did receive benefits they typically got lower benefits due to their confinement to the lowest wage sectors of these industries. This left African-American workers disproportionately reliant on “means-tested” programs associated with poverty, which meant that conservatives could then racialize poverty and demonize these social welfare programs for political gain as resulting from deviance rather than the structural realities of race and the predominant political economy accumulation represented by the capital-labor consensus.

Again the primary compromise of the original capital-labor consensus which stabilized the relationship between the two was that white workers would be allowed to maintain their social distance [and superiority] over Black and other workers of color due to their exclusion from the better manufacturing jobs, under-funded education and exclusion from protection and advocacy by mainstream labor unions.

The Civil Rights Movement would disrupt that arrangement. Despite the fact that the national Civil Rights leadership was literally forced to abandon economic justice frames in their advocacy or risk being blacklisted as Communist, the movement’s success had far ranging redistributive political economic implications. For instance, the Civil Rights Act barring discrimination by race in areas of employment, education and housing brought Black workers into direct competition with white unionized workers in manufacturing sectors, forced white school districts to teach Black children along side white children and allowed the emerging Black middle class to abandon socially integrated Black communities for middle class suburban neighborhoods that elevated their asset values while giving them access to wider job possibilities and social networking opportunities.

The success of the Civil Rights Movement was made possible in no small part due to the rising national productivity and high economic growth rates enjoyed throughout the post-war period supported by an expansionary Keynesian macro-economic policy. Liberal reformers believed that continued high growth rates in the national economy would allow them to extend employment opportunities to African-American workers without asking white workers in segregated labor markets to sacrifice their perceived entitlement to exclusive social rights. ((The Political Economy of Hope and Fear: Capitalism and the Black Condition in America by Marcellus Andrews.))

During this period, the country’s macro-economic priority was to maintain full employment [as supported by the Full Employment Act of 1946] to ensure that aggregate demand continued to grow in order to support a growing economy. According to liberal economic theory of racial reform, “blacks, who suffer more in periods of high unemployment and recession, can be most effectively helped into the economic mainstream by increasing the aggregate labor demand through a policy that boost the overall demand for goods and services in the economy.” ((American Dilemma by Gunnar Myrdal.))

An expansionary government that increases public spending on public works projects, and entices businesses and consumers to spend more by reducing the cost of credit [or buying out their troubled asset portfolios] can raise the level of aggregate demand in the economy which will lead to growth and increased employment. So long as the national economy continued to grow at a good pace, workers of color could be integrated into the labor force without competing directly with white workers for scarce jobs. However, in order for these policies to work, the populace must be willing to cope with the potential outcome of rising inflation due to increased deficit spending. ((The Political Economy of Hope and Fear: Capitalism and the Black Condition in America by Marcellus Andrews.)) Further, if growth slows, resulting in an increase in long term unemployment amongst white workers, this would amount to the remaining employed white workers being asked to tax themselves in order to offer inclusion and opportunity for Black workers who then compete against them for jobs. As this scenario began to unfold, it would eventually destabilize the tense peace of the post-civil rights reform era.

Empowered by the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, African-American demands for social rights to accessing public services, education and in redress of past labor discrimination meant not only a direct loss of jobs for white workers but a reduction in their socially privileged status vis-à-vis Black workers. Coupled with the inflationary pressures that followed the OPEC oil shocks of the early 70’s, white workers began to entertain political ideas that questioned the relevance of the old capital-labor consensus.

Since white workers were no longer able to rely on the power of the state to enforce their segregated social privilege and spatial distance from Black workers, they eventually bought into free market ideologies that promoted “merit based” allocation of economic opportunity through liberated free market preference. They could safely express their “racial preferences” for social and spatial separation from African-Americans by supporting the establishment and, indeed, the exalting of private markets in areas such as housing, public education and health care. In short, they would be assured through the expansion of free market ideology only limited competition for jobs since the neoliberalization of national and local governance would deny Blacks access to quality education, poor health care and few transportation options necessary for jobs that increasingly abandoned downtown urban districts for majority white suburban labor markets.

There would, however, be one last vestige of the Civil Rights era that would remain as a persistent thorn. Affirmative Action was instituted as national policy in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement to redress years of employment and educational discrimination by qualified Black job applicants and workers who were passed over for admissions, jobs and promotions. However, during the white backlash that began in the mid-late 70’s and culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, affirmative action began to reframe as a policy of reverse discrimination and the unfair awarding of positions to “un”qualified Black applicants.

A collective myth began to emerge among working class whites that “real Americans” and true citizens didn’t rely on public services or government interference in their favor in order to secure their livelihoods. The ability of an individual or household to achieve a good quality of life through private rather than public or collective means became a symbol of true citizenship and a moral litmus test on who deserved to be serviced by the institutions of the nation.

Of course, this myth neglects the long history of collective organizing by labor unions and economic justice organizations to secure the labor standards that made the original capital-labor consensus possible. As important, the collective myth of individualism was effective in abstracting from public knowledge the role that government played in supporting the social development of society and in the maintenance of vital public infrastructure and services. This is how we eventually get to Tea Party activist shouting slogans such as the now iconic; “keep the government out of my medicare”.

The result of all this, however, was the hegemonic rise of the neoliberal free market social theory which began to be grafted and adopted on to any and every social issue that confronted society. The dominance of neoliberal ideology laid the ground for a rolling back of the ability and will [by electing right wing ideologues who had no intention of enforcing the Civil Rights Act and were hostile to redistributive economics and targeted labor policies] of government to intervene on the behalf of Black and other workers of color.

The roll back of the state through deregulation also removed any protection the white working class had from the disruptions and volatility of the “free” market by weakening their own bargaining power against capital. Further, the shift from full employment policies meant there was higher unemployment and a larger reserve army of labor which [along with the retreat of unions] further weakened the bargaining power of labor and enabled capital to completely abandon the capital-labor accord that sustained the New Deal state. The result has been a higher share of national income going to profit rather than to worker’s wages.

The before tax profit rate to capital on national income reached 11.6% by 2005, the highest level since 1966. On the labor side, the share of national income going to workers fell to 56.9% of national income, its lowest levels since 1966. ((Social Structure of Accumulation Theory by Victor Lippit, in: Contemporary Capitalism and its Crises; edited by: Terrence McDonough, Michael Reich, and David Kotz.)) Intensified global competition justified a shift from national policies that sought to redistribute economic development socially between groups and spatially between regions, forcing both to take on more entrepreneurial positions in order to attain meaningful employment under conditions of “labor flexibility” and to attract the necessary investment to sustain growth in urban markets. ((See: The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology and Development in American Urbanism by Jason Hackworth.)) Stagnating and declining real wages allowed profits to reach record highs but also meant that capital had to look abroad to emerging markets for a consumer base that could absorb its productive output which began to bias toward high end services in the financial and knowledge sectors rather than production of real commodities.

The fragmenting of the national economy into low wage/low skilled service sectors and high wage/high skilled technology and knowledge sectors meant that the white working class has lost its primary means of social mobility into the middle class. The traditional  path through stable, socially segregated manufacturing labor has been largely outsourced or automated. Meanwhile, as inequality rose to its highest levels since the Great Depression, households had to take on more debt in order to finance their middle class consumer based lifestyles. By 2007, household debt as a percentage of disposable income rose to 128.8% from 59% in 1982. ((Social Structure of Accumulation Theory by Victor Lippit, in: Contemporary Capitalism and its Crises; edited by: Terrence McDonough, Michael Reich, and David Kotz.))  When this became unsustainable, the asset bubbles began to burst in 2001. It was only a matter of time before the white working class would erupt and demand action on its behalf.

The modern “Tea Party” is a direct result of this history as the white working class aims to reestablish some measure of segregated social privilege and protection in a volatile free market. Without those protections the white working class cannot sustain or reproduce a white social identity as the mainstream middle class that is privileged and distinct from workers of color. And let’s be clear.  Whites cling to racial identity not out of reverence to heritage or culture but due to the social status and privilege it confers. The deification of the “founding fathers” and the religious zealotry surrounding their interpretation of the National Constitution has more to do with their ability to claim sole ownership over the national narrative and a sincere understanding or acceptance of the document’s intended logic. All this coalesces to make the movement quite schizophrenic as they claim to want and need government action yet they despise the fact that an institution which used to be their sole possession increasingly must consider the needs of a broader group [i.e. “we want to take our country back!”].

However, as this article argues what the Tea Party is rallying against is not “big government” per se, but the type of “universalist” government that would be advocated by the left to address, through policy, the social inclusion of marginalized groups into the mainstream. So a “public option” that would “reduce” the real concerns white working class Americans have with the current state of health care to the concerns shared by people of color is unacceptable as it denies their right to an exalted social status and potentially will force them to share waiting room space in hospitals and doctor’s clinics with those they deem socially undesirable.

For that reason, the white working class will likely never be emotionally able to make the obvious connection between their interest and the interest of progressive political activists and communities of color. At least for some generations yet, this will be the case. So in their self-induced paranoid delusion they must shift further and further to the right in hopes that they can somehow retool the state to act in their favor while excluding “the other” from access to those same social rights and privileges.

The fundamental dispute between right leaning conservatives and left leaning progressives is over this issue of inclusion. For the right, the national narrative is a country founded and established by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and that entitles them to higher social privileges but also it entitles them to inform or demand of the rest of us of the pace, place and space of our integration into the country’s mainstream, if at all.

The progressive coalition is an amalgamation of liberal whites and excluded or marginalized social groups who, for better or worse, are attempting to come together and discuss openly the nature of their inclusion, and to rethink the narrative of the country as a diverse nation and sometimes to demand it. The willingness of the left progressive coalition to have this discussion is its strength and a weakness as it provides little comfort for those who are more attracted to the dictated outcomes that an autocratic leadership can provide. It should be no surprise, then, that the Tea Party Movement attracts a fairly large share of fundamentalist Christians as well.

This should help us understand how structural racism influences public policy, and in the case of the Tea Party, leads to the rise of a reactionary social movement that on the face of it continues to befuddle liberal political pundits as it appears to consistently advocate for economic positions contrary to its own interest. It’s only when we understand the white working class majority, and the Tea Party by extension, are voting not against their economic interest but against a universalization of social rights that would extend to all ethnic groups. Only then can we can gain real appreciation of the task that lay before progressive advocates. It also sheds some light on the consistent charges of the white working class to the elitism of liberal white America who assumes that these groups are somehow ignorant of their true interest or are being led astray. They are much clearer in their goals than we would like to give them credit for.

Yet we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of a “race vs class” discussion that is so familiar to progressives. For at the same time, the point isn’t to call out the movement or any individuals within it as racist or bigots even as they may be. The goal is to understand how structural and institutional racism operates in a liberal free market context and more broadly how race and the politics of white racial identity act to limit the ability of progressive forces to establish a more redistributive system of governance. In short, how race acts as justification for white working class support for neoliberal policies of governance. How the persistence of racial inequality can be made consistent with rising aggregate prosperity.

For the last three or four decades, white leftists in the U.S. have been frustrated at their inability to recruit support from among the white working and middle classes. Throughout this time they have refused time and again to confront the way race is utilized consistently as a wedge in American politics to blunt the potential of progressive coalitions. Refusal to acknowledge and understand the race wedge leaves the white left ineffective as organizers of the white working class, leaving this group open to right wing conservative ideologies that are more comfortable utilizing race as a political weapon to consistently repopulate their base of support. More importantly, inability to confront race as a means of broadening its support has not only meant the left are ineffective, but has allowed conservative and liberal ideologues to altogether eliminate a critical left perspective from the public discourse in America.

In the U.S. the “left” is occupied by liberals in what is actually the political center. A quick sweep of American political talk shows that typically feature someone from the right in public debate against a liberal centrist [who is labeled as representing the left] as if a true left opinion did not exist or had no thoughts that the country should feel a need to consider or respect. The delegitimizing of the left discourse in American politics as “extreme” can be contrasted with the inclusion of right wing conservative discourse that allows extremist rhetoric like that espoused in Tea Party gatherings to be treated as legitimate discourse. A great example of this is in the national debate on reforming social security as an austerity measure to cut national deficits. The right and center debate the issue within their major frames.  Right wing focuses on individual responsibility leading to calls for privatization and centrist commitments to managerial reforms that can make the program solvent for at least another century at best.

Completely absent from the debate [the left or critical class analysis] is the role that rising inequality has in leaving the program short of funding. U.S Social Security is funded by a tax on all income below $90thousand. The greater proportion of American income are held by people who make more than the $90thousand cap means that a larger share of national income is not being taxed to contribute to the system. Learning to confront the race wedge is critical to any strategy to develop a broader progressive coalition that can open public discourse to a critical class perspective.

Khalil is a writer living in New York. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Khalil Tian.