(NNPA)—Following the Tea Party phenomenon and watching its recent convention, it was interesting to see media folks and Tea Party representatives struggle with the question of why so few Blacks were there. This is not a new thing, since the philosophical base of the Republican Party has been the Conservative movement for some time and their conventions have also been lily White. But the emergence of the Tea Party phenomenon should cause us to ask how far it is from bonafide anti-Black White nationalist politics striving to enhance its role in the political system.
The media has attempted to legitimize the Tea Party movement as a resurgent mobilization of “the American people” but when you listen to them say who they are, there are distinct traces of the Republican Party in their approval of “limited, or small government,” “national security,” opposition to social spending and large deficits and preferences for tax cuts. But how much of this is genuinely driven by the fact that the real source of their mobilization is that the President of the United States happens to be Black? Most of all, they identify as “Americans” and are trying to “take my country back” by taking over the Republican Party to ensure the election of representatives who will vote to do what they wish.
This is somewhat strange in light of the fact that at this moment the Republican Party has—with the lock-step of a German soldier—voted against most of the programs and proposals of the Obama administration. Nevertheless, they see some Republicans as favoring the economic establishment, which was the source of the decline of their own economic fortunes, and so this is a populist conservatism that to some extent is arrayed against institutional conservatism and its Republican political manifestation.
This reminds me somewhat of Ross Perot who led a populist conservative movement in the 1992 presidential election and won nearly 20 percent of the vote for the American Independent Party. If the nearly 20 million Perot voters had joined the 39 million Bush voters, Republicans would have overwhelmed the 45 million Bill Clinton voters. That is why there is such a push this time for the Republicans to capture the Tea Party voters rather than to give them any encouragement to form a third party.
This time there is also much confusion about the identity of the Tea Party voter, and the Ross Perot voter was also feeling deep angst about economic issues and were especially angry at George H. W. Bush, feeling that he had sold them out by raising taxes when he campaigned in 1988 saying: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” To the extent that the economic crisis is again at the heart of this mobilization, it may be also stimulated by the feeling that a Black President is fair game. So, it’s hard to tell the people who spout White nationalist slogans and carry signs at Tea Party gatherings that are dripping with a racist’s edge from those who truly have policy differences. Analyzing the Tea Party convention attendees after Sara Palin’s speech, I noted that when MSNBC discussed the movement, David Gergen quickly said that they were conservative, but “not racist.”
Well, this opens up can of worms that a friend of mine, Professor Robert Smith at San Francisco State University and others have addressed, by researching the relationship between conservatism and racism. Smith finds that, with some caveats, there is a strong connection.
In the 1960s, Mississippi Governor George Wallace could be identified as a politician whose views were directly opposed to Blacks and their interests, while Republican Barry Goldwater opposed social policies of that era on the grounds that he was opposed to “big government.” There is supposed to be a philosophical difference between them, but on racial questions, I wondered then as I do now about the real difference. If you oppose “big government” and support a narrow frame of limited government that privileges national defense, domestic security, reduction of taxes, don’t you exclude by definition the interests of Blacks and others for political equality and the fair distribution of social resources? I think so. So the real difference between segregationist George Wallace and Barry Goldwater was negligible when it came to race.
Digging a little deeper, I ran across an academic study by Joseph Bafumi at Dartmouth College, full of statistics, which found that those who identified themselves ethnically as “Americans” like many of the Tea Partiers do were likely to be more anti-Black than those who did not. They believed that we were spending too much to improve the condition of Blacks and thus, Blacks constituted a threat to their own interests—which is probably why so many Whites opposed Affirmative Action. He followed these ethnically described “Americans” in the Presidential election of 2008 and found that they were more largely situated in the Southern states and more likely not to vote for Barack Obama.
The obverse of this is the self-described “Americans” are now more likely to oppose Obama’s policies and from what we see of those in the Tea Party movement, they are more likely to anchor that group in a white nationalists ethnic and ideological direction. Basically, it means that their opposition to Obama on stated policy grounds cannot be trusted, that they are just as likely to oppose him on racial grounds, but that their opposition may use policy as proxy for race.
Something of this surfaced in an interview with two women at the recent Tea Party Convention by CNN. One of them was a small business owner who was asked whether she supported Obama’s Stimulus Package. She said no and when faced with the interviewer’s comment that the Stimulus Package had produced funds for the Small Business Administration to support businesses like hers, she said that she wouldn’t participate in any case. This is a key that her opposition to Obama was not necessarily rooted in his policies because when faced with the fact that he supported her business, she rejected him anyway.
The question one has to ask is how far will this revival of radical conservatism take America. Because of the growing voting power of Blacks and Hispanics, they may not be able to re-take political power and if they cannot, what then? In any case, the message to the Democratic party is that they must have something to vote for that matches the energy of Tea Party politics come the elections of 2010 and 2012.
(Dr. Ron Walters is a Political Analysts and Professor Emeritus of Government and Politics of the University of Maryland College Park.)