(Originally posted on ZNet, December 27, 2011; notes can be found there)
Much of the early left commentary on “the Tea Party” – the right-wing Republican Tea Party phenomenon – was quite naïve. A number of prominent liberal and left thinkers and activists in the spring of 2010 advised progressives to reach out to “the Tea Party folks” and connect with its members as potential allies. The counsel was advanced in a number of left commentaries that came out in early 2010, including essays with the following titles: “Could Progressives Find Allies in the Tea Party?” (Katrina Vanden Heuvel in The Nation); “Breaking Ranks: Tea Parties, Espresso Snobs, Freedom and Equality” (David Rovics on CounterPunch); “How to Talk to a Tea Party Activist” (Chuck Collins in The Nation); “Peace Activists Extend an Olive Branch to Tea Party to Talk About War” (Medea Benjamin on Huffington Post); “Can the Right and Left Work Together to Oppose War and Empire?” (the answer was a “yes” for Kevin Zeese on Antiwar.com). At the outer margins of wildly wishful thinking, the Washington-based antiwar activist Kevin Zeese called in the summer of 2010 for progressives to recruit “traditional conservative” Tea Party activists – described as “confused” by Zeese – to join a “left-right antiwar coalition” to demand “the end” of “the American empire” and form “a broad-based anti-war movement not limited to the ‘left.’”
There were two fundamental mistakes in this early discourse. The first error was to think that many if not most of the Tea Party supporters came largely from the working class progressive base that had been abandoned by the corporatist Democrats and whose legitimate populist anger against the financial and corporate elite (what became known this year as the 1%) had been hijacked and misdirected by Glenn Beck and his ilk. Many, perhaps most of the “Tea Partiers,” this mistaken (and some might say desperate) line ran, were working class people “we [the left] should be organizing.”
It is absolutely true that the corporatist and imperial Democrats in the Age of Obama have continued their long neoliberal betrayal and demobilization of the working (and lower) class voters they claim to represent. But the demographics of the Tea Party’s support base have not been remotely working class. As numerous surveys and now two books (Crashing the Tea Party by this writer and Anthony DiMaggio and Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson’s new The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism), that base is distinctly petit-bourgeois, relatively comfortable, comparatively educated. It includes a particularly large number and outsized percentage of solidly middle class professionals (I met a remarkable number of dentists and insurance agents in my research) and small business owners (particularly in the construction industry, by Skocpol and Williamson’s findings) along with an outsized component of reasonably well off retired folks. But what most set it apart from the rest of the population was its older (predominantly middle aged and senior) composition, its disproportionately rural, exurban, and suburban residence, its extreme whiteness, and its extremely “conservative” (right wing) and partisan Republicanism.
The second and related error was to think that “the Tea Party” was loaded with potential Ron Paulian enemies of empire. It never was. This was my early sense, based in 2010 on personal observation but without any systematic survey data on Tea Partiers’ foreign policy views. The high approval that most Tea Partiers gave to the openly messianic-militaristic George W. Bush presidency and to the militaristic Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck (founder of a “9/12 movement” that sought to “return America to the sense of unity it felt on the day after 9/11”) in an April 2010 CBS-New York Times survey suggested that the Tea Party was far more pro-war than antiwar. So did the comparatively weak support that Tea Partiers gave in that poll to the openly antiwar Tea Party-inspirer Ron Paul and the fact that Palin, Beck, and other leading militaristic Republicans were repeatedly featured at Tea Party rallies.
As was clear by the spring of 2010, antiwar libertarian voices had quickly been pushed to the margins as leading traditional Republicans asserted control of the originally more eclectic Tea Party phenomenon. In March 2010, the antiwar conservative activist Allison Gibbs told Antiwar.com’s Kelley Vlahos that Tea Party “people boo when you bring up the fiscal irresponsibility of the two-front war overseas.” Right-libertarian author Tom Mullen told Vlahos that he was invited to speak in 2009 at a Tea Party rally in Montgomery, Alabama, and “took note of the overriding pro-war theme.” By Vlahos’ account in March of 2010, “The current liberty/Tea Party movement—which started off, if not as a third-party libertarian endeavor, but as an alternative to the prevailing political status quo – is being co-opted by Republicans and right-wing conservatives who in the end cannot and will not accept libertarian positions against the war, the military-industrial complex, the war on drugs, and the growing police state.” Despite the Tea Party’s declared top concern with reducing the deficit and shrinking the size of government, speakers at Tea Parties rallies DiMaggio and I attended in 2010 ignored the massive deficit-expanding military budget — more than $1 trillion each year, paying for half the world’s military spending and maintaining more than 800 military bases across more than 100 nations worldwide — or the expensive U.S. wars abroad as drains on the American taxpayer and American society. Tellingly enough, in the spring of 2010, there were three Tea Party challengers of Ron Paul in the Republican primary. Among their criticisms of Paul was that he opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As DiMaggio and I concluded in Crashing the Tea Party, “Prospects for renewing the antiwar movement through a left alliance with the Tea Party are dim indeed.” 
Our conclusion has been richly validated in a recent and overdue Pew Center poll on the foreign policy attitudes of Tea Party Republicans. As Table 1 below demonstrates, Tea Party Republicans hold up the right-militarist, interventionist, and force-projecting end of the foreign policy opinion spectrum. They are far more likely than Democrats and the overall U.S. population and slightly to moderately more likely than their fellow Republicans to tell pollsters: that military strength and not diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace; that Pentagon spending should be increased; the decision to use force in Afghanistan was the right thing to do; and that the U.S. should keep troops in Afghanistan “until the situation is stabilized.” They are much less likely then the overall population and Democrats to agree that the U.S. should reduce its national debt by “reducing its military commitment overseas.” Consistent with the large number and percentage of Tea Partiers who call themselves evangelical Christians (for whom defense of Israel is practically a doctrinal mandate), Tea Party Republicans are significantly more likely than the overall population, Democrats, and other Republicans to say that the U.S. should side with Israel against the Palestinians and to charge the strongly pro-Israel Obama of excessively favoring the Palestinians over the Israelis (a charge shared by 68 percent of Tea Party Republicans and just 8 percent of Democrats). Consistent with the intense Nativism and significant degree of racism that is prevalent among Tea Partiers, Pew found significant particularly pronounced and distinctive support among Tea Party Republicans for the draconian and racist Arizona immigration law, for increased enforcement of immigration laws and border security, and for changing the Constitution to abolish birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.
Table 1: TEA PARTY MILITARISM AND NATIVISM
|Total||Democrats & Dem.-Leaners||All Republicans & Repub.-Leaners||Tea Party Republicans|
|“BEST WAY TO ENSURE PEACE IS…”|
|“SPENDING ON NATIONAL DEFENSE SHOULD BE….”|
|Kept the same||53||46||61||60|
|“TO REDUCE THE NATIONAL DEBT THE U.S. SHOULD REDUCE ITS MILTIARY COMMITMENT OVERSEAS”|
|IN MIDDLE EAST DISPUTES, SIDES MORE WITH ….|
|THINKS OBAMA FAVORS PALESTINANS TOO MUCH OVER ISRAEL||21||8||40||68|
|DECISION TO USE FORCE IN AFGHANISTAN WAS THE….|
|Right thing to do||57||52||68||74|
|Wrong thing to do||35||41||26||22|
|THINKS U.S. SHOULD KEEP TROOPS IN AFGHANISTAN UNTIL “SITUATION IS STABILIZIED”||39||30||52||55|
|FAVORS STRONGER ENFORCEMENT OF IMMIGRATION LAWS AND BORDER SECURITY||78||71||89||98|
|SUPPORTS ARIZONA’S IMMIGRATION LAW||61||43||84||94|
|FAVORS CHANGING CONSTITUTION TO DENY CITIZENSHIP TO THE CHILDREN OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS||39||31||48||58|
Source: Pew Research Center, “Strong on Defense and Israel, Tough on China: Tea Party and Foreign Policy” (October 7, 2011) at http://www.people-press.org/2011/10/07/strong-on-defense-and-israel-tough-on-china/?src=prc-headline
The recent Pew data reinforces my strong original sense that the Tea Partiers are not really the people that left liberals, progressives, and radicals need to be “talking to” and “working with” to advance social justice and roll back corporate power and empire at home and abroad. The Tea Party crowd is rather an enemy to be fought and defeated – an enemy that garnered outsized political influence and relevance in 2010 due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the dismal dollar Democrats’ standard but nonetheless disastrous demobilization of the nation’s hidden progressive and working class majority.
Thanks to Anthony DiMaggio for alerting me to the Pew Center poll and report (cited in note 9, below) that sparked this essay.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many books and studies, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman&Lirttlefied, 2007), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at email@example.com