The Tea Party Movement is a Reaction to Obama’s Race, Not Just His Economic Policies

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Graced by extensive Fox News coverage, Sarah Palin speeches, and tentative GOP support, the Tea Party movement has burst into the American political vernacular. But despite its publicity, surprisingly little effort has been devoted to understanding the motivations underlying the movement, or the psychologies of the individuals who support it. A recent New York Times/CBS poll sought to correct this. In their analysis of the poll, the Times concluded that Tea Party supporters (note: not the protestors themselves) are motivated first and foremost by class divisions. However, some of the poll results indicate that the movement centers around a much darker fear.

First, some background on the explicit aims of the Tea Party movement. In 2009, a number of unrelated grassroots protests cropped up in reaction to the recently-passed American Recovery and Re-investment Act of 2009, aka the stimulus bill. Some, taking their cue from conservative demigod and radio host Rush Limbaugh, referred to these as “Porkulus” protests, an early demonstration of the movement’s attachment to vacuous monikers. Eventually these disparate campaigns united under a common banner. Along the way, they picked up media attention and (god knows where) the idea to purchase and unload 1 million bags of tea at a protest in Washington, a historical analogy distorted to the point of absurdity. The modern Tea Party movement was born.

There is an understandable tendency to write off these demonstrations as the ranting of an ignorant, incoherent and radical band of kooks who are unrepresentative of any larger social or political forces. Despite their radical slogans, however, the Tea Party, ostensibly at least, represents legitimate political interests. Ask a Tea Partyer (I can’t bring myself to use Teabagger, though it’s tempting) what he or she is protesting about, and the answer will be variations on a common theme: less government, less government spending, less government wastefulness, less transfer of wealth from the upper classes to the poor (i.e. less socialism), and, of course, less government programs which facilitate this wealth transfer, like welfare and healthcare reform.

But who supports the Tea Party? The New York Times/CBS poll gives us some insight. First of all, although Tea Party supporters harbor a host of economic concerns, they actually seem quite well off in terms of their own personal economic status. In fact, according to the Times, “Tea Party supporters over all are more likely than the general public to say their personal financial situation is fairly good or very good.”

But a second trend that stands out in contrast to this is the Tea Party supporters’ deep-rooted pessimism on a whole host of issues. Despite answering that their personal finances are on solid footing, “55 percent are concerned that someone in their household will be out of a job in the next year. And more than two-thirds say the recession has been difficult or caused hardship and major life changes.” At the national level, this pessimism becomes even more intense. “More than 90 percent of Tea Party supporters think the country is headed in the wrong direction”, and almost the same percent disapprove with the job Obama has done thus far in office.

Where does this pessimism come from? Sure, a certain level of distrust and gloom can be expected from conservatives who lost the latest election in a landslide to the Democrats. The recession, of course, also contributes. But these glaring figures must surely stem from more specific concerns. The Times’ analysis concludes that the pessimism and anger towards the government stems from “the conviction that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich.” Can this really be the cause? It’s the exact opposite criticism that we expect to hear from populist political movements. Moreover, it seems odd that Tea Party supporter worries would be based solely around class if their own economic concerns aren’t particularly dire.

Allow me to propose at least one alternative source of Tea Party pessimism.

The conclusion that the Tea Party is motivated by class divisions only tells half of the story. The other half wasn’t emphasized in the New York Times/CBS poll because, well, respondents won’t fess up to it. It’s race.

While Tea Party supporters are pretty homogenous in terms of economic status, they are homogenous in plenty of other ways as well. The Times writes that they “tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45.” In current demographic projections, they will be a minority by year 2042. America’s past belonged to middle-aged white males; the future, almost certainly, will not. A significantly higher percentage of Tea Party supporters, compared with the general public, believe that Obama administration favors blacks over whites. They are more likely even than Republicans to say that “too much has been made of the problems facing black people.” And when interviewed, their statements often reveal overtly racist sentiments.

So while class-based economic fears may certainly play into Tea Party supporters’ psyches, race-based fears do as well. And quite likely, what is happening in the Times/CBS pole is a conflation of the two. Minorities—notably African Americans and Hispanics—are overwhelmingly more likely to suffer from poverty than whites, and thus Tea Party supporters’ concern about preferential treatment for the poor is likely a convenient screen for expressing the much less politically correct insecurity: that minority races are usurping white political and economic dominance. And you can bet that the Tea Party supporters’ distrust of President Obama personally, also well-noted in the poll, has less to do with his policies and more to do with the color of his skin.

During the healthcare debates, Tea Party protesters hurled racial epithets and spit on black Missouri congressman Emanuel Cleaver II. They carried signs equating President Obama’s policies to Nazism and Stalinism, and propounded conspiracy theories based around his middle name, Hussein. Despite this, it is important to take the Tea Party protests, and especially Tea Party supporters, seriously—they are likely to play an important role in the upcoming Congressional elections. In this sense the New York Times article is a step in the right direction. But opinion polls simply cannot tell the whole story. Without even being asked, a Tea Party supporter will tick off the things they dislike about President Obama and his economic policies. What they won’t tell you is if they would actually give a damn about these policies if he were white.

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