Tea Party and the Right

3 Ways Racism Still Drives the Tea Party's Efforts to Destroy President Obama

To fail to understand this most basic of realities is to fail to understand American politics in the Age of Obama.

Just as they did with their poor coverage of the Birther issue, and out of fear of a Conservative backlash, the mainstream media is loathe to speak truth to power and point out the obvious: racial hostility is one of the primary forces driving the opposition of the Tea Party GOP to President Obama. This has been evident during the debt ceiling debate and on policy matters across the board. To fail to understand this most basic of realities is to fail to understand American politics in the Age of Obama.

Having matured with the smear campaign against President Bill Clinton, Right-wing talk radio and Fox News have created an echo chamber in which ideological purity is the premier value: this dynamic has amplified the tensions between Conservatives and the rest of the American people, and removed any possibility of finding a shared middle ground on issues of common concern. A normal politics of negotiation and compromise is imperiled because the terms of the debate are presented in dire, stark, and apocalyptic language.

As a result, extreme party polarization, when added to a political conversation in which the volume has been turned up way high by the Right-wing rage machine, has created a situation where the temptation to use racial appeals to destroy President Barack Obama is almost too great to resist.

There are several elements driving the Tea Party GOP’s efforts to “blacken” President Obama with the goal of limiting his ability to lead the country, and hobbling the Democratic Party at every turn.

The First Element: Why the Surprise? The Tea Party is Exactly Who They Have Always Shown Themselves to Be

The racial hostility of the Tea Party to the African American community and other people of color has been well-documented: the race baiting of their leaders in public meetings; racist private emails that are later exposed and made public; and the stereotypical caricatures of President Obama as a pimp, or the face on a faux food stamp featuring the White House and a patch of watermelons have been circulated by Tea Party organizations.

Of course, the signs at their rallies and meetings that equate the President with an African witch doctor, Hitler (who is also not coincidentally a racial fascist), or that feature wicked slurs for black Americans (either written, or as yelled at Representative John Lewis) are more commonsense proof of how racial resentment, and an “us versus them” mentality, gives meaning to the Tea Party movement. In fact, a prominent African American Republican Party representative in California recently resigned because he could no longer be part of an organization which gave cover to such repeated acts of prejudice and bigotry.

Public opinion data has also demonstrated that Tea Party supporters are more likely to believe that African Americans are lazy, not hard-working, and that too much has been made of racism in American society. Providing important context, these attitudes are located within a broader political landscape, and likely shaped by a Right-wing media where the idea that Barack Obama is “anti-white,” that white people are somehow “oppressed,” or are “victims” in 21st century America, is a recurring theme.

Moreover, political scientists and sociologists have demonstrated that people who identify as conservatives are more likely to hold racially resentful and hostile attitudes towards non-whites. This is not a claim that all Conservatives are racist; rather, that negative racial attitudes can drive one’s propensity to be Conservative politically.

Because the Tea Party is the Republican Party on steroids, these traits and impulses are amplified accordingly.

As Michael Lind has compelling argued, the Tea Party movement is the latest echo of the Southern Confederacy. In all, they are neo-Secessionists whose language of “States Rights’,” “nullification” and “Second Amendment remedies” hearkens back to that of the old Confederacy. The federal government is viewed with deep hostility, and they are heirs to a political tradition that views the preservation of Jim Crow segregation in the name of “States’ Rights” as more important than civil rights for black Americans.

Tea Party representatives such as Rand Paul have echoed this suspicion of the civil rights laws which brought down Jim Crow; the Tea Party faithful have made repeated efforts to (quite literally)white wash the U.S. history curricula of the Arizona and Texas school systems; and in their creative reimagining of the U.S. Constitution, the Tea Party GOP has conveniently removed all of the “bad parts” (i.e. references to slavery) as a function of a feigned and convenient “colorblindness” that actively avoids the full complexity of the country’s past and present.

In keeping with their oversimplification and flattening of history, even the Tea Party’s Revolutionary War era costumes and histrionic railings against a “tyrannical government” speak to an embrace of Lost Cause ideology. Not coincidentally, the Confederacy also embraced the same symbolism, and imagined themselves as the true heirs to the founding fathers, the real champions of the U.S. Constitution.

The Second Element: The Politics of White Racial Resentment are Central to the Republican Party’s Electoral Strategy

The Republican Party has skillfully used race as a political wedge issue for decades. The Nixon Administration ushered in the Southern Strategy with its twin tactics of leveraging white fears of black Americans, and nurturing a white backlash against The Civil Rights Movement. This strategy of mining social and cultural difference, and ginning up white racial anxiety to advance policy goals, remains central to the Republican playbook in the 21st century.

As a counter to the big tent strategy of the Democratic Party, the Republicans were able to use “States’ Rights” (a racist dog whistle famously used by Ronald Reagan in his notorious speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi), as well as “The Culture War” narrative to flip the South to their party. The Southern Democrats, once a separate faction in the Democratic Party, are now an indispensable part of the Republican Party’s electoral coalition. 

The Tea Party is a natural outgrowth of the Culture War, the ethos of the Solid South, and the Republican Party’s full-on embrace of the politics of racial resentment. The election of the country’s first Black President gave freedom and voice to the worst anti-government and paranoid impulses of that coalition. Once fit only for late night talk radio and the Internet, in the Age of Obama, the conspiracies and crazy talk that existed only on the fringes of American politics are now legitimated and given currency in mainstream Conservative thought.

The Tea Party GOP’s embrace of the bizarre—be it Birtherism or that the President is a closet Muslim Manchurian candidate Socialist who hates America—is given purchase and traction by a deep racial paranoia towards the very personhood of Barack Obama. They see him as de facto outside of the American experience. Thus, Barack Obama is not a “real” American. By implication, he is unfit to lead the country.

Conservatives in America have also skillfully manipulated language in order to limit the ways that public policy is discussed. For example, once a proud and noble political label, “liberal” has been transformed into a slur by Conservatives. The language of race has been similarly reframed. Phrases such as “reverse racism” and “playing the race card” have been ushered by the Right into our collective vocabulary. This language puts the onus on victims of racism, and removes the legitimacy of their justice claims. The Conservative cooptation of “colorblindness” has also created an environment where to even identify racist behavior, and make a critical intervention against it, is now framed as an act of “racism.”

These shifts in language paralleled the introduction of such ubiquitous phrases as “big government” by Ronald Reagan into the American political lexicon. The conservative mantras of “limited” or “small government,” and a belief that the State is always the problem and never the solution, has led to any number of deleterious public policy outcomes, most notably the Great Recession. The willingness of the Right to assault public unions has also been tied to a sense that the government sector disproportionately employs people of color.

Consequently, they are both undeserving of the wages and job security once enjoyed by workers in such positions. Public unions are therefore made easy targets for austerity initiatives and ruthless budget cutbacks.

Furthermore, in the free market fundamentalist worldview of the Tea Party GOP, unions are evil and the cause of the Great Recession--as opposed to reckless tax policies and a new Gilded Age where wealth and income are concentrated in the hands of the very few richest Americans at levels not seen since the 1920s.

Research also suggests that those most likely to respond to the language of “small” or “limited” government” are also heavily motivated by a sense of white racial grievance and racial resentment. This language is ostensibly race neutral and colorblind. However, much of the support for these policies is based on a latent understanding that “big government” exists to serve the whims of people of color, “illegal immigrants,” people who live in cities, or the poor—and not white Americans.

As Reagan famously deployed the language of “the welfare queen,” he also furthered a narrative that people of color, and those who lived in America’s inner cities, were more likely to be poor because they possessed “bad culture” (as opposed to structural inequalities in the labor market). The face of poverty in the public imagination was therefore transformed from a white one in the 1950s and 1960s to black and brown by the 1980s. The poor were therefore undeserving, and their situation was the result of moral failings, as opposed to changes in the global economy.

The racialized narrative surrounding poverty programs and the social safety net is still present today. But, it has been transposed onto white Americans who are experiencing hardship in the Great Recession, as well as their advocates who want a fairer and more equal distribution of resources in American society. Conservatives now talk about “productive Americans” and “class warfare” while the unemployed are framed by the Ayn Rand influenced Tea Party GOP as “lazy” or not “productive.”

The Right-wing media has successfully painted the social safety net as an enabling and motivation-crippling support, one akin to a drug or alcohol addiction, as opposed to a hallmark of a good and decent society.

The Third Element: We Want Him to Fail! Barack Obama is Just an Angry, Arrogant, Uppity, White People Hating Black Elitist

The Right-wing media sharpened their character assassination knives with President Bill Clinton. With President Barack Obama they have intensified their assault, and have added overt and subtle appeals to white racism to their already overflowing bag of tricks. If a listener carefully follows the narratives surrounding President Obama on Conservative talk radio, across the Right-wing blogosphere, or on Fox News, a picture has been developed which has wholly undermined his competence, legitimacy, and fitness to be President. More than ideological sniping, the Right-wing has used racial caricatures that are deeply rooted in the worst shadows of American political and cultural memory to assail the country’s first black President.

For example, Conservative media has declared Barack Obama to be “arrogant” and “lazy.” In a naked example of white racism which questions the very maturity and adulthood of black men, President Obama has been called a “boy” and “man child” by the Right. These are very specific slurs that have been commonly used against black Americans as a way to question their basic competence. Obama has also been tarred as “uppity,” a description almost exclusively used to describe black Americans who “do not know their place.”

The Tea Party GOP also gave legitimacy to the Birther narrative (a lie that a majority of Republicans believed), which is prefaced on the absurd suggestion that a black person is somehow not quintessentially “American.”

Once their bigoted well-springs were exposed, and in a veritable slap to the face of the African American community, the Birthers moved on to suggest that President Obama, a highly accomplished Harvard graduate and University of Chicago Professor was given special treatment because of his race, and not qualified for the academic honors he clearly earned.

Perhaps most shockingly, the Republican Party ran campaign ads during the 2008 elections which argued that President Obama should learn to “respect” Sarah Palin—an act of political demagoguery that spoke directly to the pernicious idea cultivated in the Jim Crow imagination that black men had best behave around white women or there would be unspecified and “unpleasant” consequences.

Currently, one of the most common and recurring Right-wing attacks on Barack Obama is that he is a type of “black dandy,” living the high life, partying in the White House, incompetent, and wasting the people’s money as he travels the world with Michelle Obama—of note, a first lady who has also been subject to vicious racist attacks on her femininity, appearance, and personhood.

These claims are the Lengua Franca of the Right-wing media. Listeners and viewers who are immersed in this echo chamber, and subject to its daily diet of vitriol and misinformation, will of course—and quite reasonably from their perspective—view Barack Obama as a tyrant, a fool, and a man who wants to destroy “real America.” Patriotism would demand his removal in order to save The Republic. Given the tenor and tone of the racial caricatures used to savage the first Black President of the United States, how could Tea Party Conservatives come to any other conclusion?

Connecting the Dots: In the Time of the Great Recession this is About Much More Than Race

The Right-wing media and the Tea Party GOP have launched an assault on the basic legitimacy of President Obama because he is a Democrat. Their disdain for him is amplified because he is African American.

The symbolism embodied by America’s first Black President is too much for many in the Tea Party GOP to bear because it signals a sea change in America’s demographics, and the ushering in of a world in which white folks may not be the center of all things, and for all time—thus the Tea Party Conservative yearnings to “take America back” to a more “simple” past of White hopes, dreams, and nostalgic memories.

As we try to make sense of the Age of Obama, the debt ceiling debacle with its resulting and unprecedented downgrade of the U.S. credit rating by Standard & Poor’s, and look forward to the politics that will come in the months leading up to the 2012 election, the dynamics of partisanship, extreme ideology, and racism will only become more evident and important.

Do not be mistaken: this is also about “much more than race.” Here we cannot forget how African Americans have long been the “the miner’s canary” for this country. While white racial resentment is driving Tea Party hostility to President Barack Obama, the effects of their intractability and legislative hostage taking will be felt by Americans across the color line.

The austerity policies that will result from a debt ceiling bill which balances the federal budget on the backs of the working classes and the poor, while excluding the rich from any burden, are merely just sequels to Reagan era domestic approaches that starved and decimated America’s central cities, as well as gutted the country’s unions and middle classes. The evisceration of the black middle class by the Great Recession is an eerie foreshadowing of what is already happening to White America.

Ultimately, the Tea Party GOP is applying the shock doctrine and gangster style disaster capitalism on the American people—policies that were perfected and rehearsed on black and brown communities decades ago. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is prophetic in this regard: he warned that the sin of white racism is not just the harm that it does to African Americans; rather, it is also the damage that racism does to White America as well. Tragically, the willingness of the Tea Party GOP to sacrifice the American economy on the mantle of their narrow ideology, while they make every possible effort to destroy the country’s first Black President, is more proof of Dr. King’s wisdom.

In all, the Tea Party GOP is a faction, whose abandonment of normal politics is deeply motivated by a profound discomfort with the fact that America is led by a Black American. The global economic chaos that the Tea Party leaders cultivated, and the irresponsible brinkmanship they demonstrated in the debt ceiling fracas, is just one more data point in a long strategy that seeks to delegitimate and run over President Barack Obama at any cost…even if the American people and their economic well-being are collateral damage.

 

 

Editor and founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes which has been featured by the NY Times, the Utne Reader, Crooks and Liars, and The Atlantic Monthly. Writing under a pseudonym, Chauncey DeVega's essays on race, popular culture, and politics have appeared in various books, as well as on such sites as the Washington Post's The Root and Popmatters. He has also appeared on the Pacifica radio network, The Burt Cohen Show, Ring of Fire, and the Ed Schultz Radio Show.