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Why Glenn Beck Is the Perfect Pitchman for the Tea Party's Deranged Ideas About US History

How the tea party crowd's talk about individual rights is rooted in centuries of racial demonology.

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These historians and their popular interpreters, especially Beck and Jonah Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism, naturally ignore the real threats to individualism that the turn-of-the-twentieth-century progressive movement was responding to -- namely a massive concentration of corporate political and economic power and Gilded Era “wage slavery.” Instead, they present history as a zero-sum, all-or-nothing “battlefield of ideas,” with the founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill on one side, and Jefferson Davis, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, and Obama on the other.  The individual versus the state.  Freedom versus slavery.

In such an epic view of American history, there is, however, a fly in the ointment or, more accurately, a Confederate in the conceptual attic -- and that’s the inability of the Tea Party and affiliated right-wing movements to whistle past Dixie.

Is the Tea Party Racist?

Of course it is.  Polls confirm that Tea Party militants entertain deep-seated racial resentment.  In April, a New York Times/CBS News study revealed that most tea partiers tend to be over 45, white, male, affluent, and educated and think that “too much has been made of the problems facing black people.”  A high percentage of them also believe that Obama favors blacks over whites.

But to say the movement is racist based only on the spit and vitriol hurled at African-American congressmen and civil rights activists like Emanuel Cleaver, or on the placards depicting Obama as a monkey or a pimp, allows for rebuttal.  The minute the reality of the spitting incident is challenged and “Don’t Tread on Me” is substituted for “Go Back to Kenya,” voilà, the movement is instantly as wholesome as apple pie.

A debate over a recent University of Washington poll helps us understand why the movement is racist no matter which slogans and symbols it chooses to use.  The poll found that “support for the Tea Party remains a valid predictor of racial resentment.”  When right-wingers offered the criticism that the pollsters' methodology conflated racism with support for small-government ideology, they reexamined their data and found themselves in agreement (of a sort) with their critics.  “Ideology,” they wrote in a follow up, was indeed an important factor, for “as people become more conservative, it increases by 23 percent the chance that they're racially resentful.”  In other words, it wasn’t membership in the Tea Party movement per se that predicted racism, but conservatism itself (though the Tea Party does have a higher percentage of members who displayed racism than conservatism in general).

This should surprise no one.  After all, the Founding Fathers cut Thomas Jefferson’s description of slavery as an “execrable commerce” and an “assemblage of horrors” from the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, and race has been crucially embedded in the conception of the patriot ideal of the sovereign individual ever since.  As Harvard historian Jill Lepore has written about the original Boston Tea Party, the colonists had a choice: “either abolish slavery… [or] resist parliamentary rule.  It could not do both.”  Many in Virginia, of course, didn’t want to do both.  Instead, they simply defined the defense of slavery as part of American liberty.

While Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, failed in his effort to extend the notion of individual inalienable rights to blacks, he was successful in setting two rhetorical precedents that would continue to influence American political culture.  First, he used chattel slavery as a metaphor for British tyranny, equating the oppression of Africans with the oppression of the white colonists.  At the same time, he stoked racial fears to incite rebellion: King George III, he wrote, was “exciting” blacks to “rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them by murdering” whites.  One could draw a straight line from these words to George H.W. Bush’s infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad.

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