Bill Berkowitz: analyzing the Tea Party movement


Richard Moore

If Tea Party activists can ferret out racists and white nationalists from their ranks – and not become a mouthpiece for Christian Right ideologues – it could become a legitimate force on the U.S. political landscape.


White Supremacists Crash Anti-Obama Tea Party
Analysis by Bill Berkowitz* 
OAKLAND, California, 22 Dec (IPS) – It began with Apr. 15 Tax Day protests as thousands rallied in a number of cities across the country. 

It continued on into the summer with raucous town hall meetings and gun-toting anti-Barack Obama demonstrators, and appeared to reach its apex with a Sep. 12 march on Washington, which drew nearly 100,000 participants.

Now, however, some in the so-called Tea Party movement are turning their attention toward becoming a force during the 2010 congressional elections. 

Several reports on the Sep. 12 event noted it was a nearly all-white crowd and some demonstrators carried an assortment of “homemade” anti-Obama posters, declaring that “The Anti-Christ Is Living in the White House”, and calling the president an “Oppressive Bloodsucking Arrogant Muslim Alien”.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t have a clear identity, and serious questions about the movement’s character remain to be answered, the Tea Party movement has been one of the most intriguing political developments of the past year.

Is it a grassroots movement, or has it been organised and funded by Washington-based conservative groups? Could it be both? Is it mainly concerned with economic issues (government spending, taxes, deficits) or are the Christian Right’s traditional social issues (abortion, same-sex marriage) of interest to tea partiers?

Are there several – possibly competing – ideological tendencies within the movement? 

While tea partiers made a lot of noise this past summer, doing their best to put the kybosh on health care reform, is there a future for the movement? 

A recent Rasmussen Poll suggests that there very well might be. 

In theoretical three-way congressional races between a Democrat, Republican and Tea Party candidate, the Tea Party candidate outpolled the Republican. Democrats attracted 36 percent of the vote; the Tea Party candidate received 23 percent, and the Republican finished third at 18 percent, with 22 percent undecided. 

(According to the Rasmussen Reports website, “survey…respondents were asked to assume that the Tea Party movement organized as a new political party. In practical terms, it is unlikely that a true third-party option would perform as well as the polling data indicates. The rules of the election process – written by Republicans and Democrats – provide substantial advantages for the two established major parties.)

Interestingly enough, in an effort to build the movement, some Tea Party organisers have taken to “studying the grassroots training methods of the late Saul Alinsky, the community organizer known for campus protests in the 1960s and who inspired the structure of Obama’s presidential campaign,” the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported. 

Tea Party groups are also using “Tea Party: The Documentary Film” as an organising tool. In a pre-premiere press release, the filmmakers claimed that the film would deal with the “allegations of racism”.

And that indeed appears to be the issue that could stymie the movement’s growth.

While Tea Party events have become a safe haven for people carrying racist anti-Obama signs, people of colour have stayed away in droves. Members of white nationalist organisations openly participate in Tea Party events and view the movement as a fertile recruiting ground. 

Questions about the overlap between tea partiers and anti-immigration activists might be answered when an immigration reform bill is taken up next year. 

Are the openly-racist elements within the Tea Party movement an aberration scorned by most Tea Party participants as John Hawkins, who runs a website called RightWingNews, insists, or are they more firmly entrenched than tea partiers would care to admit?

“The tea parties themselves are made up of a diverse bloc of different political elements, and white nationalists have chosen to make a stand inside the tea parties,” one expert, Devin Burghart, told IPS.

For the past 17 years, Burghart has researched and written on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism. He is currently vice president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, which monitors and publishes on the activities of white nationalist groups.

“The exact extent of the racist element inside the Tea Parties is difficult to quantify, because they are not a static phenomena, and it depends on who shows up,” he explained. “That said, it’s enough of a factor to attract the attention of a significant portion of the white nationalist movement.”

“It’s not a matter of how many African-American or Latino/a folks show up at these tea parties, it’s about the content and character of the arguments made at them,” Burghart added.

Not only have “tea partiers have turned up with overtly racist signs and slogans” at rallies from coast to coast, he said, but also many participants “cling to the belief that our first African-American president is not only un-American, he was not even born in the country”.

Unfortunately, Burghart noted, “There’s little evidence to indicate that tea party leaders are doing anything to address the racism in their ranks.” 

Burghart said that he was not surprised that “tea party activists would deny their racism”. After all, “racists have been denying their racism even before pro-secessionist bigots couched their arguments in bogus claims about states’ rights”.

However, he added, “To anyone with any degree of sensitivity to the issue, the tea parties have clearly shown themselves to be racist, in the lineage of George Wallace – who when he campaigned up North eschewed talk of racial segregation in favour ranting against ‘elites.'”

In an article at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights’ website, Leonard Zeskind, the organisation’s president and author of the recently published “Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream”, pointed out that the anti-Obama “opposition” contains “many different political elements”.

These include “ultra-conservative Republicans of both the Pat Buchanan and free market variety; anti-tax Tea Party libertarians from the Ron Paul camp; Christian right activists intent on re-molding the country into their kind of Kingdom; birth certificate conspiracy theorists, anti-immigrant nativists of the armed Minuteman and the policy wonk variety; third party ‘constitutionalists’; and white nationalists of both the citizens councils and the Stormfront national socialist variety.”

If Tea Party activists can ferret out racists and white nationalists from their ranks – and not become a mouthpiece for Christian Right ideologues – it could become a legitimate force on the U.S. political landscape.

Meanwhile, a host of groups, operating under assorted Tea Party banners, are working to influence the 2010 mid-term elections. 

*Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column “Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.