Why the Tea Party?

by Charles Post

I would like to thank Paul Street, Dan La Botz, Sheila Cohen, and Derek Seidman,

  1. Jon Meacham, “We Are All Socialist Now,” Newsweek, February 7, 2009.
  2. Only 53 Percent Say Capitalism Better than Socialism,” Rasmussen Reports, April 9, 2009.
  3. Christopher F. Karpowitz, et al. “Tea Time in America? The Impact of the Tea Party Movement on the 2010 Midterm Elections,” PS: Political Science & Politics (April 2011), 303-309.
  4. The following is based on CNN’s exit-poll data for the 2008 and 2010 elections.
  5. D. Croteau, Politics and the Class Divide: Working People and the Middle-Class Left (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1995) for a critique of the dominance of “reactionary” ideas among workers in the US.
  6. Frank Newport, “Democrats, Republicans Differ Widely on Taxing the Rich: Majority of Americans Agree that Wealth in the US Should Be More Evenly Distributed,” April 14, 2011. Similar results are found in the surveys analyzed by Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Press, 2011), Chapter 3.
  7. John Aloysius Farrell, “Koch Industries’ Web of Influence,” Huffington Post, April 4, 2011. Andy Kroll, “The Right-Wing Network Behind the War on Unions,” Mother Jones, April 25, 2011.
  8. Street and DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party, Chapters 1 and 6.
  9. Data on campaign contributions from capitalists—or “business”—is from Center for Responsible Politics, “2010 Overview: Business-Labor-Ideology Split in PAC and Individual Donations to Candidates and Parties,” OpenSecrets.org.
  10. Center for Responsible Politics, “2012 Presidential Candidate Fundraising Summary,” OpenSecrets.org.
  11. US Chamber of Commerce, “U.S. Chamber President Looks Toward an Improving Economy, Promotes Plan to Spur Job Creation,” January 11, 2011.
  12. Default is Not An Option—Spread the Word,” Chamber Post: A Blog for Business, July 21, 2011.
  13. US Chamber of Commerce, “U.S. Chamber Urges High Court to Strike Down 2007 Arizona Immigration Law,” September 1, 2010.
  14. Miriam Jordan, “More ‘Silent Raids’ Over Immigration,” The Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2011.
  15. Business Roundtable, “Policy Burdens Inhibiting Economic Growth,” June 21, 2010.
  16. Business Roundtable, “Taxing American Corporations in the Global Marketplace: The Case for Corporate Tax Reform,” April 2011.
  17. Business Roundtable, “BRT Releases First Quarter 2011 CEO Economic Outlook Survey Media Conference Call Transcript,” March 30, 2011.
  18. Business Roundtable, “,” April 7, 2011.
  19. Letter on Debt Limit to Congressional Leadership, May 11, 2011.
  20. Nicholas Confessore, “New Stable of Wealthy Donors Fueled Obama Campaign’s Record Fund-Raising Quarter,” New York Times, July 16, 2011.
  21. Carl Hulse and Helene Cooper, “Obama and Leaders Reach Debt Deal,” New York Times , August 1, 2011); Michael D. Shear, “Boehner Outlines Debt Agreement,” New York Times—The Caucus: The Politics and Government Blog of The Times, July 31, 2011.
  22. Both Street and DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party, Chapters 1 and 3, and Bhaskar Sunkara, “A Thousand Platitudes: Liberal Hysteria and the Tea Party,” New Politics Blog, June 2, 2011, present ample evidence that Tea Party supporters tend to be professionals, well-off entrepreneurs and managers whose household incomes generally put them in the top 20% of all U.S. households.

    While Alexander Cockburn’s claim that the majority of Tea Party support comes from the most economically squeezed elements of traditional small business people is clearly off the mark, Dan La Botz (Personal Correspondence, June 11, 2011) has shared his initial research on the influence of Tea Party politics among a minority of white small businessmen and union and non-union workers. A New York Times/CBS News poll taken before the 2010 Congressional elections showed a small—less than 5 percent —shift of voters with family incomes of less than $50,000 toward the Republicans. However, the biggest shift of almost 20 percent came from College graduates. “More Groups Blue in ’08 Are Now Red,” New York Times, October 28, 2010.
  23. “Rampant Xenophobia,” The Progressive, October 16, 2010.
  24. In a number of writings, Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio have argued that the Tea Party is a media- driven “re-branding” of the Republican Party. There is no question that much of the cadre of the Tea Party comes from the ranks of the Republicans, and right-wing media like Fox News has fueled its “rancid populism.” However, the rise of the Tea Party does have the potential of not simply “re-branding” the Republicans, but changing its social character —from the preferred party of U.S. capital to a party of the radicalized middle classes.
  25. As Clara Zetkin, the German revolutionary socialist, pointed out in 1923, fascism—which unleashes the armed middle classes against the organizations of working people—is “a punishment of the proletariat for failing to carry on the revolution begun in Russia.” (“Fascism,” Labor Monthly, August 1923.) As we will argue below, the working class in the United States and in most of the advanced capitalist world has not only “failed to carry on the revolution” but has been in continuous organizational and political retreat for most of the last thirty years.
  26. Street and DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party, Chapter 6. While the equation of the Tea Party with classical fascism is clearly wrong, we disagree with Sunkara (“A Thousand Platitudes”) who claims that “The tale of the Tea Party, full of sound and fury, may signify nothing.” Sunkara systematically under-estimates the virulent, though “color-blind” racism of the “mainstream” of the Tea Party—not merely the fringe of open white supremacists. Street and DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party, Chapter 4, detail the centrality of racism to the Tea Party’s appeal to white middle class voters.
  27. Our analysis of the contradictions of reformism is drawn from Robert Brenner, “The Paradox of Social-Democracy: The American Case” in M. Davis, F. Pfiel, and M. Springer (eds.), The Year Left: An American Socialist Yearbook. (London: Verso, 1985), pp. 32-86.
  28. A similar point is made by Street and DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party, Chapter 7.
  29. Linda Burnham, “Notes on an Orientation to the Obama Presidency,” ZNet, February 25, 2009.
  30. Kenneth Baer’s Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2000) details this process in the 1980s and 1990s.
  31. Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, “The GOP’s Winning Streak,” Politico.com, April 10, 2011.
  32. The National Commission On Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, The Moment of Truth: Report of the National Commission On Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, December 2010.
  33. Jeff Zeleny, “After Protracted Fight, Both Sides Emerge Bruised,” New York Times , July 31, 2011.
  34. Solidarity’s pamphlet, Bush’s War, the 2004 Elections and the Movements, pp. 16-29 recounts this history. Sunkara (“A Thousand Platitudes”) makes a compelling critique of liberal and left calls for “national unity” and a defense of capitalist state institutions against the Tea Party right.
  35. Mark Landler and Michael D. Shear, “Taking on GOP, Obama Unveils Debt Relief Program,” New York Times, April 14, 2011.
  36. Our analysis does not lead us to support the strategy of some on the left for an appeal to the “base” of the Tea Party on the basis of economic populism. The upper middle class social composition of the Tea Party and their racism and hostility to egalitarian social policies would make such appeals futile. Richard Wolff, “A New Dawn for the US Left,” Guardian.co.uk, June 3, 2011.
  37. Wolff, in the same essay (“A New Dawn”), predicts a resurgent U.S. left.
  38. See the excellent reports from Andrew Serantinger and others on the struggle in Madison on the Solidarity Webzine. Paul Street presents a similar analysis in “Report from North America: The Wisconsin Rebellion and its Limits in a Global Context,” May Day International, May 1, 2011.
  39. Starting All Over From Scratch? A Plea for “Radical Reform” of Our Movement,” New Politics, No. 51 (Summer 2011), p. 103.
  40. Notes Toward a Socialism for our Times,” New Socialist, 63 (2008-1), pp. 4-8.
  41. Johanna Brenner, “Caught in the Whirlwind: Working-Class Families Face the Economic Crisis,” in L. Panitch, G. Albo, V. Chibber (eds.) The Crisis This Time: Socialist Register 2011 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 64-82.