Tea parties and the white working class

Tea parties and the white working class

A document forming the beginning of a discussion about the nature of the US "Tea Party" movement and its makeup.

Tea Parties & The White Working Class
Populism, Race & Class: Beginning a Discussion about "Tea Parties"
by Andrew Epstein

In the wake of America’s first black president, the capitalist financial crisis and the perceived threat of socialist economic reform, a “grassroots” movement of mostly white, mostly working class Americans has emerged around the loose coalition known as Tea Parties. Though small in number relative to the massive outpouring of popular anger against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, this “movement” has captured the media limelight, emerging as the most public opposition to Obama’s agenda. The Left – if such an entity currently exists in the United States – has mostly consigned the Tea Party movement to, at best, misguided populism and at worst, white nationalist backlash against a black president (and not without cause). Others tell us to ignore the Tea Party entirely and focus on the bigger enemies of corporations and their government executors, another argument I’m not wholly unsympathetic to.

I believe, however, that this frame for understanding (or choosing to ignore) the Tea Party movement prohibits an understanding of the dynamics of class and race that contribute to populist movements and ultimately cedes large swaths of the American working class to the racial chauvinism that has historically served to limit its transformative power. This is by no means an exhaustive analysis, but rather hopes to raise a few questions toward further discussion of how we – those of us who see capitalism and racism as the most dangerous enemies of freedom today – can build a broader movement.

A recent article in The New York Times entitled “Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on the Right” chronicles the story of a woman from Idaho named Pam Stout, a retired social worker who spent her career helping low-income families receive federal housing assistance, job training and education. “But all that was before the Great Recession and the bank bailouts, before Barack Obama took the White House by promising sweeping change on multiple fronts, before her son lost his job and his house. Mrs. Stout said she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated — even manufactured — by both parties to grab power,” writes The Times. Stout now organizes with the Sandpoint Tea Party Patriots and Friends for Liberty, a coalition including members from Glenn Beck’s 9/12 project and the racist John Birch Society, working against the very same federal assistance programs she once saw as a means of social uplift.

What happened here? The New York Times, itself so muddled in ruling class ideology, presents the transition as if it were a natural occurrence: of course someone foreclosed on by a big bank would embrace a conservative ideology which ultimately favors the power of the banks. Ignored by the one-sentence pop history The Times offers as its basis for Stout’s transformation is the smashing of labor unions by Reagan, the free trade policies of Clinton, and the dawn of neoliberalism which deepened income disparity, making whatever was left of American democracy an even more cruel joke. The economic crisis and its impacts on her family was a moment of radical dislocation for Stout, when she realized that politicians didn’t serve her best interests, that the American Dream was mostly a sham. This is exactly the moment where a social movement of the Left should step in. Instead, a woman like Pam Stout finds a well-funded “populist” organization, ready to channel her outrage into nativism and paranoia.

A major contributing factor is a failure of liberal organizations to understand how working class people interact with taxation. It has become gospel among liberal public intellectuals that taxation, in principle, is a noble system, where people contribute what they can afford to the public good: roads, bridges, health care, education, etc. But ours is no principled world. For a person working food service, for instance, the income tax represents hours of their lives scrubbing half-chewed food off dirty dishes for a federal government which has little positive impact on their lives. Schools, failing to provide any needed skills for the real world, resemble prisons or factories. Roads in poor neighborhoods resemble a war zone. “Public” universities are unaffordable. So why should they pay taxes?

Liberals dismiss the issue of taxation among the Tea Partiers as a front for the more nefarious goals of white supremacy at the heart of the movement. They aren’t entirely wrong; the protests in D.C. during the final days of the health-care debates resembled a Klan rally, with demonstrators hurling racist and homophobic epithets at members of congress. Most of the white working class understands itself as white before working-class with often deadly results for people of color. But that doesn’t mean the issues of taxation, financial bailouts, or anti-elitism can be ignored entirely, or that all of the Tea Party members subscribe to the same ideology. The working class in the United States takes different shape depending on the levels of class consciousness at a given moment in history. With the destruction of the social movements in the United States, a void has opened up – racist backlash is often quick to fill in.

There are also class contradictions within the Tea Party movement that shouldn’t be ignored. Like the Democratic and Republican Party, the Tea Party organizations are headed by well-paid members of the Washington political circles while the rank-and-file are middle-class and below. The brilliance of figures like Obama is convincing working-people that someone who received more Wall Street money than any candidate in American history is looking out for them and not his benefactors. Similarly, the “grassroots” Tea Party movement recently held a conference where tickets started at $349 and Sarah Palin received nearly $100,000 for delivering the keynote address. Meanwhile, local members like Pam Stout are getting foreclosed on.

A budding social movement which seeks to overturn the economic order – not in favor of some libertarian fantasy but based on human equality and justice – would seek to further these fissures in the Tea Party as well as the two business parties, exposing the leadership as purveyors of the same predation that drove ordinary people to political activism in the first place. It would constantly have to educate and engage working people on the role white supremacy has played in hampering movements for real social justice. And it would abandon the liberal arrogance of assuming that the tax system in a capitalist system has much to offer the poor or that fear and hatred of elites is unfounded.

As I mentioned at the top, this is by no means a complete assessment of the Tea Party movement and its relationship to class, race and power in the United States. But I hope a conversation can began, lest we see attendance at local Tea Party chapters continue to outnumber union meetings.

Posted By

Apr 3 2010 21:12


Attached files


Apr 4 2010 08:06

This article, among many on the web, gives the standard run-down of the Tea-Party base.


Tea Party supporters are likely to be older, white and male. Forty percent are age 55 and over, compared with 32 percent of all poll respondents; just 22 percent are under the age of 35, 79 percent are white, and 61 percent are men. Many are also Christian fundamentalists, with 44 percent identifying themselves as “born-again,” compared with 33 percent of all respondents.

This was from a poll of folks considering themselves Tea-Party supports or having given money to the Tea-Party.

It seems to be no more a working class movement than any mass movement in the US. It certain has swept up some angry working people but still. Remember, it was started by a financial news commentator.

It also doesn't seem like a failing that the American left in general hasn't addressed the anger of those suffering the current recession/depression. It's how whatever passes for the Left works in the US operates. Those ostensible radicals with any influence would rather lose immediate hold on power than mobilize anything like a threat to capitalist power. They are a faction of capital - there just isn't a riddle here.

Apr 5 2010 09:13

thanks for the link.