The Tea Party in Historical Perspective
A Conservative Response to a Crisis of Political Economy
San Francisco State University
On February 19, 2009, Rick Santelli, an entertainer and financial commentator on CNBC cable news unleashed his now famous scream against the Obama administration's economic policies. In the months leading up to this episode, presidents Bush and Obama had provided hundreds of billions of dollars under the Troubled Asset Relief Program to the Bank of America, Citibank, and other giants of American finance. But what pushed Santelli over the edge was word that the Obama administration might provide mortgage relief to distressed homeowners. Fox News proceeded to explain what had happened: The Association ofCommunity Organizationsfor Reform Now (ACORN) had conned the American taxpayers into subsidizing mortgages for people that Santelli defined as "losers," that is, mainly new homeowners that managed their money badly and did not deserve to own a home in the first place. ACORN, with the aid of its liberal supporters in Congress, had brought the American economy to its knees. Fox News and its viewers had had enough. The Tea Party movement burst onto the national stage on Tax Day 2009.
In the midst of the most severe financial and economic crisis in over seventy years, the Tea Party has been able to tap deep veins of resentment and anger over potential shifts in the post-World War II political economy. Since the Second World War, mainly white homeowners-beneficiaries of federal subsidies for mortgages and suburban development-had counted on rising home values to anchor their economic security. As home values tumbled in 2008 and 2009, the federal government contemplated coming to the aid of distressed homeowners, including African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities historically excluded from the web of federal support. Although such aid was never forthcoming, the mere suggestion provoked a storm of opposition. The ensuing debates about health care reform poured gasoline on the fire. At a time of declining retirement portfolios, rising health care costs, and fears about the viability of Social Security and Medicare, the administration's efforts to extend a health safety net to the forty million Americans without protection appeared as a bitter betrayal of those who already had such protections.
Santelli's scream also provides clues as to the historical context of the Tea Party. It sounded an alarm with deep resonance in conservative politics in America, and especially with the far right that has been locked in a trial of strength for the control of the Republican Party since the 1940s. The Tea Party has tapped into fear and anger over potential shifts in political economy to form a grassroots movement following in the historical traditions of the anti-New Deal American Liberty League, Joseph McCarthy and the witch hunts, Robert Welch and the John Birch Society, and Barry Goldwater and the right-wing Republicans of the early Cold War.
Since the Tea Party emerged on the national scene, its members have made great efforts to maintain the public appearance of being a movement without leaders, without a defined ideology, and without history.i Much of this effort has an instrumental value in terms of Republican Party politics. And much of it has been facilitated by the media's treating the Tea Party phenomenon as an enigma best explained by the term populism. Indeed, much of the print, online, and televised media has discovered that the country has entered a season of "populist" discontent, where angry folk wielding sharpened pitchforks threaten to storm the gates of power. A striking example of this commentary is the cover of Newsweek from March 2009. Under the title, "The Thinking Man's Guide to Populist Rage," the cover is a photo of an angry mob brandishing torches. The photo, of course, is not of populists, but comes from the 1931 movie Frankenstein.ii
In reality, the depiction of populism as an out-of-control or Frankenstein mob is a crude caricature of the original Populists. According to today's pundits, the Populists represented the reactive, unthinking politics of blind rage, the politics of the gut instead of the head. But this has no connection to the historical Populism of the 1890s, a vast movement of rural education; nor to the process whereby millions of Populist men and women, as C. Vann Woodward put it, started to "think as well as to throb"iii; nor to the central Populist premise that if ordinary citizens gained knowledge of the workings of political economy, they could shape a more equitable and just society.iv
Numerous commentators have presented the Tea Party as the latest incarnation or twist in the evolution of American populism.v The key idea here is taken from the work of Richard Hofstadter. Over fifty years ago in his extraordinarily influential work, The Age of Reform, Hofstadter suggested that the right-wing and intolerant followers of Joseph McCarthy were the historical heirs of the farmer and labor Populists of the 1890s. Presumably, Populism represented an irrational and highly malleable ideology that had gone sour and turned into bitter and paranoid right-wing extremism.vi
The problem in Hofstadter's analysis is that it did not happen. The political scientist Michael Rogin tested Hofstadter's theory in his 1967 work The Intellectuals and McCarthy. What Rogin confirmed was that, yes, there were Populists in Wisconsin in the 1890s. And, yes, there were followers of Joseph McCarthy in Wisconsin in the 1950s. But beyond the fact that they were both in Wisconsin, there were few ideological, political, sociological, or demographic connections between Populism and McCarthyism.vii Walter Nugent, C. Vann Woodward, and other scholars confirmed much the same thing.viii Nonetheless, the notion stuck, and Hofstadter's thesis continues to cast a shadow over the national discussion about the Tea Party and its historical meaning. Perhaps it is a losing proposition to protest the indiscriminate use of the word populism. But the present employment of the term obscures more than it clarifies about the historical roots of the Tea Party.
The purpose of this distinction is not to idealize the original farmer Populists. To paraphrase Linda Gordon's question about the Progressive movement, if the Populists were advising us today, should we listen?ix Populism of the 1890s was a democratic movement for economic justice. But there were also currents within the Populist movement that were authoritarian, exploitative, patriarchal, and white nationalist. From that perspective, it makes sense that a spectrum of political phenomena has been described as left- or right-wing populism. But the Tea Party suggests the limits of the usefulness of the term. In this time of crisis of political economy, where is the populism in a movement that demands hard money and to revert to the gold standard? That seeks to repeal the Sixteenth Amendment and the graduated income tax? That seeks to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment and the direct election of senators? That seeks to remove funding from public education? That seeks to lift regulations on bank and corporate giants? In short, where is the populism in a movement that seeks to repeal everything that the original Populists stood for?
The political theorist Margaret Canovan observes that populism takes different forms and shapes in different times and countries. In the late nineteenth-century United States, for example, the farmer-labor People's Party, otherwise known as the Populist Party, emerged soon after the formation of the Narodnikmovement among Russian intellectuals. As Canovan aptly points out, the most important connection between the two was the quite accidental translation of the Russian word narodnik into the English populism. Although they may have shared a common name, the American and Russian variants of populist were distinct and incompatible species. The American form, according to Canovan, was a variety of farmer-labor redistributive politics that had some relation to social democracy. The Eastern European form often appeared as peasant traditionalism. And in Western Europe today, we have right-wing movements driven by xenophobia that are often described as populist. So in that sense, populism is an elastic term that covers a wide array of phenomena.x
In the U.S. historical context, the Populism of the 1890s was the ancestor of forces that would influence American politics deep into the twentieth century. Populism tilled the soil of rural socialism in Kansas, Oklahoma, and other rural bases of the Socialist Party in the new century's first decades.xi As Elizabeth Sanders has persuasively demonstrated, the Populist farm and labor movements led to the emergence of the reform or progressive wings of both the Democratic and Republican parties that would enact the reforms of the Progressive Era, and whose influence would reverberate through the New Deal.xii Huey Long's campaign to "Share the Wealth" also reflected the Populist tradition, despite Long's autocratic methods of running Louisiana as his private fiefdom.xiii In the postwar period, Lyndon Baines Johnson pursued his vision of the Great Society, a vision that he inherited from his grandfather, Sam Johnson, who was a bona fide Populist politician among the cotton farmers of central Texas.xiv Perhaps George Wallace also inherited something of the Populist tradition in that, along with his racist demagogy, he also accepted elements of redistributive social justice (at least among white people) that the Populists had introduced into Alabama politics.
It is difficult, however, to trace Populist ancestry in the Tea Party because it belongs to a different branch on the tree of life of American politics. While pundits and media analysts may describe the tea parties as populist, the Tea Partiers call themselves conservatives. And to examine their historical roots, we have to look at the traditions of the conservative movement. Since the 1990s, Alan Brinkley, Heather Thompson, Leo Ribuffo, and other historians have challenged their colleagues to take more seriously the study of the conservative movement. A great deal has been learned, and that historiography has the greatest bearing on the Tea Party phenomenon.xv
The Conservative Tradition
In the 1930s, America's business leaders sharply divided over Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Some corporate executives expressed gratitude to Roosevelt for what he had done to save capitalism and accepted the advent of the New Deal political economy. But a critical group of business leaders vehemently rejected the new order. They viewed the administration's efforts towards the legalization of industrial trade unions and the initiation of a federal social safety net as grave threats to American freedom. They called Roosevelt a socialist, a fascist, a dictator, and a tyrant. In 1934, led by the DuPont brothers of the DuPont chemical company, business and political elites organized the American Liberty League with the stated aim of restoring constitutional government and reversing the power grab of the New Deal. The Liberty League boasted that it was entirely nonpartisan since it was led by Republicans as well as disaffected Democrats such as one-time presidential candidate Al Smith. The Liberty League also understood the political necessity of presenting itself as an organization of ordinary citizens motivated by their commitment to constitutional principles. Roosevelt, nonetheless, successfully attacked the Liberty League and similar opponents as "economic royalists" seeking to protect the power and wealth of the few. And the Liberty League failed to gain political traction.xvi
In the 1940s and '50s, the right wing of the Republican Party, led by Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, took up where the Liberty League left off. Much of their wrath was directed at New York Governor Thomas Dewey, California Governor Earl Warren, and other moderates who reflected the reform traditions of an earlier Republican Progressivism, and who accepted much of the New Deal order. Taft sought the recriminalization of trade union activism, a goal that was partly realized with the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. And McCarthy made dark charges of treason against both the Democratic administration of Harry Truman and the administration of the moderate Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
In 1958, business executives from the National Association of Manufacturers came together to form the John Birch Society (JBS). Led by the candy manufacturer Robert Welch, the JBS sought to liberate America from the slavery of trade unions, labor regulations, minimum wages, the Social Security Act, and other instruments of "collectivism" and "socialist tyranny." The JBS attacked the civil rights movement as part of the "communist conspiracy." And Welch branded President Eisenhower, who had served as the commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II, as a communist dupe in a plot to subjugate America under "one-world government." The JBS took its paranoia to extremes, as when it famously uncovered the hand of the communist menace in municipal plans to fluoridate public water supplies.
However weird its claims, it would be a mistake to underestimate the historical role of the John Birch Society. In its heyday, the JBS was a broad grassroots movement. It probably had over 100,000 members, but those were the relatively dedicated activists who formed the semisecret cells of the JBS organization. Its influence spread further. The JBS organized in local chambers of commerce, parent-teacher associations, churches, and within the Republican Party. In conservative middle-class suburbs, housewives organized luncheons to do their part to free America from "socialist tyranny" and "one-world government." Indeed, the mobilization of women activists within conservative networks represented a signal success of the JBS. By the early 1960s, the JBS had its greatest strength in such Sunbelt states as Texas, California, and Arizona. It had sufficient grassroots support on a national scale to help secure the nomination of Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) as the Republican candidate for president in 1964. In his famous acceptance speech at the Republican convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, when Goldwater declared that "[e]xtremism in defense of liberty is no vice," he was paying tribute to the JBS foot soldiers who had made his nomination possible.xvii
At the time, commentators on the national television networks and other media painted John Birch Society members as "extremists." Governor Nelson Rockefeller and other moderate Republican leaders agreed. Significantly, William Buckley, Jr., the dean of the rising conservative movement viewed Robert Welch as a liability to their common cause. In Buckley's estimation, when Welch painted moderates and liberals such as Eisenhower and Kennedy as "communists," he only undermined the anticommunist struggle.xviii Buckley and his allies demanded Welch's excommunication from the conservative flock, and the JBS faded from its prominent place in public life.xix
But the John Birch Society is in the midst of a revival. In 2008, Ron Paul, a Texas congressperson who is a Tea Party favorite (and a campaigner for the Republican nomination for president in 2012), delivered the keynote address at the society's fiftieth anniversary celebration.xx In 2010, the JBS cosponsored the CPAC conference, a national gathering of conservatives.xxi On September 16, 2010, Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate in Nevada for the U.S. Senate, took time out from her campaign to address a "United Freedom Rally" in Salt Lake City, sponsored nationally by the John Birch Society and the National Center for Constitutional Studies. The event also had the support of local Birch societies and 9/12 groups inspired by the radio and television host Glenn Beck.xxii The National Center for Constitutional Studies was founded by the late Cleon Skousen, a close political ally of Welch who was if anything yet more paranoid and extreme in his views. Glenn Beck, who many Tea Partiers consider their intellectual guide, promotes the books of Cleon Skousen on his radio and television shows, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and other Tea Party politicians are devotees of Skousen's work, and local Tea Party study groups have made Skousen's book The 5000 Year Leap required reading.xxiii
The disciples of Welch, Skousen, and other far right conservatives are hard at work within the Tea Party movement. Whether this is through direct organizing efforts, or through a more diffuse influence by way of conservative media and conservative corporate advocacy, this Cold War era right-wing tradition has shaped the ideology of the Tea Party. The slogans, the ideological frameworks, and the style of the Tea Party echo the earlier movements. The denunciation of a moderate sitting president as a socialist tyrant; the warnings of government treachery in the face of America's enemies (today's Islamic radicalism as yesterday's Soviet Union); the fetishism about restoring the Constitution (read highly selectively); the equation of graduated tax rates, estate taxes, and similar redistributive measures with communism; the demonization of inflation and the demand to dissolve the Federal Reserve and return to the gold standard; and the appeal to resist "one-world government"-all of these were characteristic of far right politics in the midst of the Cold War passions of the past. And today they are given play by Glenn Beck, Fox News, and on Tea Party websites and placards. The same demands and rhetoric have also made their way into the speeches of Republican politicians and into Republican state platforms from Maine to Texas.xxiv
The extent to which this reflects the organizational revival of the JBS and related movements is unclear. Moreover, it must be stressed that other traditions and influences are at work within the Tea Party movement. This includes varieties of Christian conservatism and apocalyptic fears of sexual perversion and moral decline. It includes nativism and xenophobia, as expressed in "birther" fears of Obama as Manchurian candidate, Islamaphobic fears of "jihadi mosques," and anti-immigrant fears of "anchor babies." And it includes white nationalism and racial fears of ACORN, the New Black Panther Party, and other bogeymen.
Yet, despite its heterogeneity, the Tea Party movement has maintained a degree of political coherence. It has done so by focusing on the corporate conservative agenda of fighting the "socialist" takeover: defeating health care reform, lowering taxes on the wealthy, lifting corporate regulations, and restricting union rights. Partly, this focus can be explained by the role that corporate advocacy organizations such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity (AFP) play in the training of Tea Party activists and in the financing of their operations. And partly, it is due to the fact that much of the Tea Party movement has embraced an ideological framework that has its ancestry in the John Birch Society and related elements of the Cold War far right. Indeed, these two explanations are not mutually exclusive. The AFP, for example, is funded by the brothers David and Charles Koch. Multibillionaire owners of the petrochemical conglomerate Koch Industries, the brothers aggressively pursue the conservative vision of their father, who was a founding member the John Birch Society.xxv
The Problem of Elites
Observers often emphasize the role of resentment toward elites in fueling the rage of the Tea Party. But this is not nearly as straightforward as it is usually presented. The first problem is that at least since the Jeffersonian "revolution" of 1800, and the extension of the white male franchise, political groups seeking to make their way into power by winning votes have done so in the name of the people overturning the misrule of whoever is on top. In the nineteenth century, this meant that a requirement of a successful election campaign was a claim-often false -of being a common "man of the plain people," and preferably one who was born in a log cabin. In the twentieth century, political candidates perfected appeals to "the forgotten man" or "the middle class." President Nixon spoke in the name of "the silent majority," and his Vice President Spiro Agnew savaged Nixon's antiwar critics as "an effete corps of impudent snobs." The Tea Party has unleashed its own arsenal of insults in this grand tradition of American political combat.
Michael Kazin has described this pattern of appealing to the common people against various elites as a "populist persuasion," a flexible rhetorical mode with deep historical roots in pre-Civil War "producerism."xxvi According to this concept, nineteenth-century farmer, labor, and other movements viewed those engaged in productive labor as standing on higher moral ground than either the unproductive poor or the unproductive wealthy elites. As useful as this concept might be to describe the rhetorical strategies of a number of labor and reform movements in American history, its explanatory power has its limits for historical analysis. The Populists of the 1890s, for example, at times employed such rhetorical strategies, but they were much more deeply invested in the "business politics" of economic interest than in the "moral politics" of "producerism."xxvii Chip Berlet's use of producerism (Chapter 2 in this volume) is problematic in that the Tea Party sends only occasional barbs toward the corporate executives, bankers, and lobbyists, who in the past were the systematic targets of "producerist" movements. Instead, today's Tea Party usually celebrates the corporate elites as heroes of the market. At the same time, Tea Party views about the poor and poverty follow in a different historical tradition, echoing the arguments of William Graham Sumner and other academic and corporate Social Darwinists of the late nineteenth century, who believed that any social policy to protect the poor or address the gaping social inequalities of the Gilded Age violated the allegedly natural order of laissez-faire economics.xxviii
The Tea Party's moral center is the market and the supposed freedom of the marketplace, and the movement has shown relatively little interest in producerist-related questions of work or the moral value of labor. Americans for Tax Reform, directed by conservative power broker and Tea Party hero Grover Norquist, has a special project called the Alliance for Worker Freedom. The project is devoted to outlawing public-sector unions, expanding antiunion right-to-work laws, and gutting regulations that protect the pay, benefits, and safety of construction workers, airline employees, and other workers.xxix New Tea Party governors and legislatures in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere have vigorously pursued much of this agenda at the state level. This is a version of worker freedom that harkens back to the nineteenth-century corporate notions of freedom of contract, whereby employees had the freedom to enter into individual contracts with their employers without the interference of government regulation of the workday or trade union contracts. In other words, this conservative corporate vision places no particular value on labor beyond what the market dictates.
Here it must be underscored that Norquist and the Tea Party only oppose some types of government intervention in the labor market. Their support for right-to-work laws and bans on public-sector collective bargaining are part of a wider web of federal and state laws and regulations that restrict the rights of workers to take collective action in the face of the collective action of their employers. In this regard, the conservative movement has consistently supported state intervention in the market. More broadly, although the Tea Partiers deify the free market, that does not mean that they want corporations to be free of governmental support. Except for some hesitation on the libertarian edge of their movement, conservatives embrace the system of federal and state contracts, subsidies, and regulations that make corporations-from military suppliers to drug companies-so profitable.
However, there are features of the Tea Party that pertain to elites and elitism that deserve a closer look. One way to make sense of the complex relationship that the Tea Party has to the elite centers of power in this country is to recognize that they pick and choose whom to like or not like. They may denounce experts (mainly scientists toiling in university and government agency laboratories) who claim that human activity is responsible for global warming, but they embrace the climate change skeptics of the highly elite corporate advocacy groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or Americans for Prosperity.
The Tea Partiers may denounce academic elites, but at their back they have the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and a host of corporate think tanks and foundations that provide right-wing opinion makers with resources and access to power, the likes of which few academics can even dream. They may denounce what they call the elite "lamestream" media, such as The New York Times, while Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation-the most powerful media corporation on the planet, which owns The Wall Street Journal, the largest circulation newspaper in the United States (and read closely by corporate elites), as well as Fox News-serve as essential vehicles of Tea Party advocacy. They may denounce Washington insiders, but Dick Armey, the former house majority leader, directs FreedomWorks, a powerful corporate lobby that provides invaluable service to the Tea Party.xxx Or how about the courts? Here, too, the same pattern applies, with the interesting twist that they even have Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, directing Liberty Central, another corporate Tea Party lobby.xxxi In short, the Tea Partiers resent elites with whom they disagree, and like elites with whom they agree and who sustain their cause.
This reality complicates the idea of the Tea Party representing middle-class sectors fearing elites above and the poor below. Over half a century ago, Richard Hofstadter wrote that the status anxiety of the squeezed middle was the source of Populism and other "softheaded" and irrational movements.xxxii And this notion remains current in the social sciences. But Hofstadter was wrong about the Populists, who mobilized on the basis of pressing and real economic interests rather than on the flights of irrationality suggested by the status anxiety concept. Similarly, the Tea Party members are no less hardheaded and realistic about pursuing economic goals. And, although the majority of Tea Party supporters belong to the middle class, for a variety of reasons they have calculated that their interests lie with the multimillionaires and billionaires. In that sense, when Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher told then presidential candidate Obama that he feared that restoring taxes on the wealthy was "kind of" socialistic and at odds with the American dream, he anticipated broader concerns of the Tea Party.xxxiii According to the type of market fundamentalism advocated by the Tea Party, what is good for Koch Industries is what is good for America. And that is why, for example, Tea Party activists view any shifts in the tax structure or energy policy that may not be favorable to the oil, gas, and coal billionaires as a threat to their own prosperity and well-being.
For Tea Party activists, the market faces lurking danger from the political arena, where voting majorities may seek to mediate corporate power or otherwise infringe on the sanctity of the marketplace. This sheds light on another dimension of the problem of elites and elitism. One of the most esoteric of the Tea Party demands is the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. In the 1890s, the Populists issued the demand for the direct election of senators because they viewed the state legislatures as dens of corruption, and they considered the system whereby legislative bosses chose U.S. senators to be a violation of democratic principles. The adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 placed the selection of senators in the hands of voters. But this has not sat well with conservatives. For Robert Welch and his acolytes, expanded democracy was what was wrong with America. The John Birch Society continues to stress that the United States is "a republic," where the properly suited represent the people, and is not "a democracy," subject to the undue influence of the populace.xxxiv According to Cleon Skousen, the Seventeenth Amendment left senators vulnerable to the "popular pressure" of the voting public.xxxv The Tea Party politicians now advocating Seventeenth Amendment repeal are doing so for the same reasons. Texas Governor Rick Perry explains that the Seventeenth Amendment, enacted in "a fit of populist rage," is one of the key Progressive Era changes that put the country on the wrong path by violating the principle that "better senators" are produced when they are "the elect of the elected."xxxvi Not surprisingly, taking voting rights from voters has not translated well on the campaign trail. Alaska Tea Party candidate Joe Miller, for example, decided to play down his support for scrapping the Seventeenth Amendment while out appealing to voters to elect him to the U.S. Senate.xxxvii Nonetheless, resentments and fears of the voting mob are very much alive within the Tea Party movement.
In this regard, the Tea Party slogan "Take back our country!" is not merely metaphorical. It has the practical meaning that people within the Tea Party view the election of 2008 as illegitimate. Here, too, Fox News has provided the essential narrative: Voters who lacked the education and intelligence to know better were led to the polls like sheep to vote for the demagogue and false savior Obama. Community organizations like ACORN and the New Black Panther Party facilitated voter fraud and voter intimidation in America's inner cities, where felons, aliens, and racialist thugs tipped the scales of the elections. It does not matter that such claims about voter fraud and voter intimidation amount to fantasy, because they reflect morbid fears of what many within the Tea Party perceive as racially dangerous populations. Meanwhile, in practical terms, the Tea Party influence in more than a dozen states has resulted in legislation to rescind motor voter laws, expand felony disqualification lists, add new residency and identification requirements, and impose other hurdles that make it more difficult to vote. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that as many as five million eligible voters, mainly among minorities, the young, and the poor, could find it significantly harder to cast ballots as a result of these new laws.xxxviii At the same time, many within the Tea Party are demanding a revision of the Fourteenth Amendment, which established birthright citizenship for all people born in the United States, with the aim of barring citizenship and voting rights from a section of immigrant Americans.xxxix At the end of the nineteenth century, the conservative backlash against the Populist revolt produced poll taxes, literacy tests, and widespread disfranchisement of black as well as a section of poor white voters. Today, it is Tea Party anger that, in the same spirit if not with the same thoroughness, is directed at restricting the franchise and democracy.
The Problem of Government
Making sense of Tea Party anger against government is similarly fraught with complexity. The rage against "big government" is usually directed at the federal branch of government, and posed in terms of the violated rights of the states. When Tea Partiers refer to constitutional principles, usually at the top of their list stands the Tenth Amendment, which they read as providing states with the right to ignore or "nullify" federal legislation. Tea Party political figures from Mississippi to Alaska make declarations about "nullification" in regard to the new health care legislation and other measures taken in Washington with which they disagree.xl Historically, the banner of states' rights has most often been raised by those on the conservative side of American political conflict: from the defenders of slavery and white supremacy in the nineteenth century, to the opponents of labor rights and civil rights in the twentieth century. But this history also shows that states' rights cut multiple ways and are more instrumental than the usual generalizations about these matters allow.
In the political crisis of the 1850s, the federal government was in the hands of people that the southern slave owners viewed as reliable friends. That is why the southern defenders of slavery, who are most closely associated in memory with states' rights, had no objection when the Fugitive Slave Act expanded federal power over the states for the purpose of the capture and return of escaped slaves. Similarly, when the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision of 1857 ruled that African Americans had no rights under the Constitution and that the territories could not restrict slavery, southern slave owners nodded in agreement with the ruling. But in the free states, Dred Scott provoked fears of expanding federal powers in support of slavery. Abraham Lincoln, in his 1858 "House Divided" speech, famously warned that the next Supreme Court ruling could make Illinois a slave state.The election of Lincoln in 1860, however, raised the fury about states' rights to full throttle. The source of the anger in the slave-owning South was that Lincoln and the Republicans now controlled a federal power that had the potential ability to interfere with the institution of slavery. Of course, Lincoln denied any such intention. But the fear and rage that he might and could in the future is what drove the South into secession and the Civil War.xli
Today's conservatives often support expanded federal power on their side of the equation. Most Tea Party activists would welcome a strengthened federal hand in the restriction of abortion, for example, or in the prohibition of homosexual marriages. After 9/11, when the George W. Bush administration expanded federal police powers, only a few libertarians in the conservative camp protested federal overreach. The same goes for the Bush administration's attempts to override California's climate change law, or the medical marijuana laws several states adopted. But with the election of Barack Obama, the angry banner of states' rights flies again. A self-identified African American sits in the Oval Office, and Obama might or could alter the framework of federal policy to address the gaping social inequities that afflict national minorities and other constituencies that helped get him elected. So far, the Obama administration has lived up to its promise of cautious and moderate change. But federal health care legislation only confirmed the worst fears about "redistribution" that has fueled the conservative rage against the federal government on Fox News and conservative websites.
In reality, despite simplistic rhetoric, Tea Partiers often express a complex approach to the federal government. This approach might be best summed up by the slogan "Keep the Government Out of My Medicare" that appeared in rallies against health care reform. Although this slogan was the butt of jokes on late-night television, it is a good expression of what is at stake in the antigovernment anger of the Tea Party. Because Social Security and Medicare violate conservative ideology, activists within the Tea Party call for dismantling these government programs. And this demand has made it into the Republican state platforms in Texas and elsewhere.xlii
But older Americans, who also happen to make up an essential Tea Party constituency, tend to support Social Security and Medicare. Therefore, politically, the defense of these government programs has been a key element in Tea Party mobilization. The logic works like this: Obama is expanding federal health protections to new constituencies, many of them nonwhite and younger. This, the Tea Partiers argue, undermines federal protections for those who already have them. As argued by Representative Michele Bachman (R-MN), a leader of the Tea Party caucus in Congress, health care reform threatens to take money from Medicare for seniors "to pay for younger people."xliii The budget proposed by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and embraced by the Tea Party and the Republicans in Congress reflects this same logic. Starting in 2022, the Ryan budget would provide only vouchers for private insurance to new beneficiaries, but would protect traditional Medicare for people who already have it.
The inconsistency here is not the point, any more than the inconsistencies in the use and misuse of states' rights. But it confirms the value of Lisa Disch's (Chapter 5 in this volume) insight about the Tea Party operating within the framework of rights and privileges defined by the New Deal. Mainly older and whiter Americans provide the Tea Party with its strongest base of support.xliv This is the same demographic that gained the most during the post-World War II decades when "affirmative action was white," and the Federal Housing Administration and the GI Bill used taxpayer funds to put millions of white Americans through college and into homes in segregated suburbs.xlv The Tea Party hit a nerve among this older and whiter population at a moment when the threat of new racial politics and new stakeholders in line for federal support compounded the stress of shrinking retirement portfolios and a collapsing housing market.
This is not the first time that threatened changes in the rules of government support have stoked antigovernment anger. The Sagebrush Rebellion that fueled anti-Washington fires during the Reagan years represents a key precedent. For decades, the federal government has provided the extractive industries in the mainly western states with extensive subsidies and services, making states such as Arizona and Alaska the hands-down winners in the high-stakes game of federal largesse. Yet, in the 1980s, ranchers, loggers, miners, and other entrepreneurs in the western states launched bitter and angry protests against the Bureau of Land Management, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal institutions. Enraged Sagebrush rebels loudly challenged federal authority, and in Alaska, they even burned an airplane owned by the National Park Service. And some conservative Alaskans, including Todd Palin, joined the Alaskan Independence Party that periodically threatens secession from the United States.xlvi
The underlying logic of the rebellion, however, was driven by the dependency of ranchers, loggers, miners, and oil drillers on Washington and its bureaucratic agencies. The federal government owns the lands they exploit; maintains the roads, water projects, and other services that make exploitation profitable; and provides the farm subsidies and other bureaucratic support that keep many ranches and rural businesses in business. Indeed, at the height of their antigovernment fever, Sagebrush rebels continued to lobby for expanded federal water projects and other subsidies. What aroused the wrath of the rebels was that other stakeholders-environmentalists, and tourist and recreation industries, as well as Indians-were also shaping federal policy.xlvii In other words, this was not a conflict over the pros and cons of federal power, but over who would gain most from federal support and protection. Significantly, today's anti-Washington agitation has the most strength in those states that receive the most in federal expenditures, including the extractive West where the old Sagebrush rebels have found a comfortable place in the new Tea Party.
The Problem of Race
Finally, to understand the present Tea Party rage, it needs to be kept in mind that racial and ethnic resentments have repeatedly served to fan the flames of antigovernment passions. In the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, federal support for African American civil rights provoked a fierce response from southern segregationists. To protest Truman's order to integrate the armed forces, Strom Thurmond broke with the Democratic Party and in 1948 ran for president as the candidate of the avowedly segregationist States' Rights Party. In 1963, in the face of federal civil rights enforcement, Alabama Governor George Wallace "tossed the gauntlet" at the feet of government tyranny and vowed "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Meanwhile, Robert Welch, Barry Goldwater, and other conservative leaders launched their own parallel attack on federal civil rights action that they viewed as the tyrannical expansion of federal power. Although Welch denied being motivated by racial animus, the JBS received wide support among segregationists for its campaign to impeach Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Similarly, in his 1964 campaign, Goldwater received the support of Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and the other segregationist leaders. The white supremacist bigots and the Cold War era conservatives distrusted and often disliked each other. Yet, in the name of a common battle against federal tyranny, they joined together to ride the wave of white resistance to racial equality.xlviii
Today, the racial and cultural fears and resentments of many Americans focus on immigrants and especially Muslims. This makes President Obama a large target as the son of an immigrant with a Muslim name. Tea Party leaders, much like Welch and Goldwater in the past, claim to eschew racism. Yet, again much in the Welch-Goldwater mold, they hope to ride the racist tide by exploiting fears about the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" or stoking xenophobic speculations about Obama's birth certificate. Nonetheless, in the ideological world of the Tea Party, such matters pale in significance as compared to the larger questions that they group under the rubric of "redistribution of wealth" and "reparations." Many Tea Partiers fear that the Obama administration-with a president self-identifying as an African American and with voting constituencies of poor people of color-represents at its core the politics of "reparations." Whether it is health care or taxes, they see Obama as redistributing wealth at the expense of older and whiter Americans.
Rick Santelli's scream that launched the Tea Party carried this implicit message. And Dinesh D'Souza spelled it out explicitly in a widely distributed article in Forbes magazine titled, "How Obama Thinks." A conservative commentator, D'Souza has been a sharp critic of affirmative action, which he sees as a form of discrimination against white people. He has linked this critique into a wider thesis that white people face the imminent threat of having their property stolen in the name of redress of past racial wrongs. In that light, according to D'Souza, the president is far worse than a mere socialist; he is an anticolonialist seeking a global system of reparations by punishing the white nations and shifting wealth and power to the former colonies. When it comes to health care, for example, Obama is not interested in socializing health care but in "decolonizing" it, using mandatory medical insurance as a means of payback against the perceived wrongs of the past.xlix For D'Souza, as with much of the Tea Party movement, the very possibility that Obama might have the desire and ability to pursue a redistributive policy at the expense of white Americans is what makes him such an odious threat.
Playing on such fears has a long tradition in American politics. At the conclusion of the Civil War, a shattered country faced a crisis of reconstruction. One of the most pressing problems was addressing the humanitarian catastrophe facing the four million freed people who emerged from slavery often with little more than the rags on their backs. Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau, which among other things distributed blankets and foodstuffs to those facing exposure and hunger. This congressional action provoked a backlash of white rage, not only in the former Confederacy but also in the North. It did not matter that the Homestead Act of 1862 distributed millions of acres of federal lands to white settlers, and the great railroad corporations received federal subsidies including more millions of acres of public lands. It did not matter that the federal government reversed the small experiments it had undertaken to provide the former slaves with land.l Just the idea that Congress would provide humanitarian relief to the former slaves provoked furious opposition. Northern Democrats, whose reputation had been shaken as the opposition party during the war, seized on the popular anger by denouncing the Freedmen's Bureau as "[a]n agency to keep the Negro in idleness at the expense of the white man."li
Today, the financial and economic crisis has opened deep wounds. The crisis has hit African American and Latino communities and the urban poor with devastating force, including Depression-era levels of unemployment. Yet, the deepest wounds are left to fester, as efforts to address them are overwhelmed by the rage on the Tea Party right. Rick Santelli's scream at the very possibility that the government might aid the "losers" in this crisis has for the time being set the terms of the debate about who the winners and losers will be in shifting sands of the postwar political economy.
Over the last three decades, the United States has been conducting a remarkable experiment in market fundamentalism. Even before the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, leading politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, accepted the terms of this experiment: dismantling economic regulations, reducing taxes on corporations and the wealthiest citizens, and otherwise expanding the power of the market in the expectation that this would bring about an era of unlimited economic growth and prosperity. Not surprisingly, this experiment made wealthy Americans much wealthier, and gave hope of such wealth to many others. Meanwhile, middle-class incomes stagnated, and the ranks of the poor grew apace. By 2008, the divisions between the rich and the poor and the inequitable division of wealth matched levels unseen since before the Great Depression.lii
On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers, the financial services giant, filed bankruptcy, as the financial sector teetered on the edge of collapse. On October 23, 2008, Alan Greenspan, the former chair of the Federal Reserve and leading architect of the market fundamentalist experiment, testified on Capitol Hill that he was in "a state of shocked-disbelief" that unregulated financial institutions had failed to regulate themselves. As Greenspan bluntly put it, "the whole intellectual edifice" that had justified deregulating the financial sector, an edifice that his Federal Reserve had contributed so much to building, had now "collapsed."liii Less than two weeks after Greenspan's confession, Americans went to the polls and elected a president who promised to restore responsibility in governance and rein in the excesses of an unregulated financial market. Yet, one month after President Obama's inauguration, Rick Santelli's scream marked the beginning of a resurgence of a militant right-wing political mobilization demanding the further liberation of the market from regulation, taxes, and what remains of America's social safety net.
The rise of the Tea Party movement may appear to be historically incongruous given the causal relationship between the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression and the conservative market fundamentalist policies that preceded the meltdown. Indeed, by that measure, the right-wing rage expressed in the Tea Party is not just out of place, but downright irrational. And in that spirit, analysts and commentators have dusted off Richard Hofstadter's old guesswork about the "populist" irrationality of the distressed middle strata.
But by other measures, the Tea Party can be understood as a mobilization in the hardheaded pursuit of self-interest. It needs to be kept in mind that the experiment in market fundamentalism made millions of Americans richer, and gave hope to others that they could be part of that group. In that sense, the Tea Party can be understood as a militant defense of that experiment (no matter the destruction that it precipitated). At a deeper level, the Tea Party embodies the concerns of mainly older, white Americans, the demographic that benefited most from the New Deal state, and that feels the ground shifting underfoot. Health care reform reflects the challenges of new stakeholders. And the demographic realities of immigration and nonwhite population growth fuels dread of potential changes in the political economy-fears brought to a boil with the election of Obama.
During the Cold War, the John Birch Society and other corporate conservative groups tapped into apocalyptic fears of communism to build a mass right-wing movement. In the present moment of fear and resentment, similar corporate conservatives are hard at work. Borrowing a great deal from the Cold War far right, and with the careful nurturing of corporate foundations and Fox News, the Tea Party represents a mass conservative response to the current crisis of political economy. The speed with which the Tea Party organized, and its rapid capture of much of one of the nation's two main political parties, shows the volatility of the political environment in the wake of the Great Recession. There is no predicting the outcome here. But there are already signs of the Tea Party losing its initial momentum. And there is no reason to rule out that the same economic and political volatility that initially gave the Tea Party strength will also prove its undoing.
i Tea Party leaders have adopted as their organizational handbook a study of decentralized and amorphous networks: Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom's The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (New York: Portfolio Hardcover, 2006). See Kenneth P. Vogel, "The New Tea Party Bible," Politico, July 31, 2010. ii Newsweek, March 22, 2009. iii C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938, reprint 1970), 138. iv Charles Postel, "Knowledge and Power," in The Populist Vision (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 26-45. v David Broder, "Sarah Palin Displays Her Pitch-Perfect Populism," Washington Post, February 11, 2010; George Will, "Sarah Palin and the Mutual Loathing Society," Washington Post, February 18, 2010; and Ben McGrath, "The Movement: The Rise of Tea Party Activism," The New Yorker, February 1, 2010. vi Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (New York: Vintage, 1955), 12-22, 46-47. vii Michael P. Rogin, The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1967). viii C. Vann Woodward, "The Populist Heritage and the Intellectual," in The Burden of Southern History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,  1977), 141-66; Walter K. Nugent, The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963). ix Linda Gordon, "If the Progressives Were Advising Us Today, Should We Listen?" Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 1, no. 2 (2002): 109-21. x Margaret Canovan, Populism (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Press, 1981), 3-16. xi James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978). xii Elizabeth Sanders, Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). xiii Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York: Vintage, 1983). xiv Robert A. Caro, The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1990). xv Alan Brinkley, "The Problem of American Conservativism," American Historical Review 99, no. 2 (1994): 409-29; Heather Thompson, "Rescuing the Right," Reviews in American History 30, no. 2 (2002): 322-32; Leo P. Ribuffo, "The Discovery and Rediscovery of American Conservatism Broadly Conceived," Magazine of History 17, no. 2 (2003): 5-10. xvi Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009), 3-25. xvii Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002). xviii William F. Buckley, Jr., "Goldwater, the John Birch Society, and Me," Commentary, March 2008, 52-54. xix Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 110-19, 154-56. xx Brian Farmer, "Ron Paul Addresses John Birch Society," The New American, October 8, 2008, www.thenewamerican.com/usnews/constitution/409. xxi William E. Jasper, "CPAC: 'Conservatism' at the Crossroads," The New American, February 24, 2010, www.thenewamerican.com/index.php/usnews/politics/3013-cpac-qconservatismq-at-the-crossroads. xxii Ann Turner, "Utah's United Freedom Conference," The New American, September 20, 2010, www.thenewamerican.com/index.php/usnews/constitution/4642-utahs-freedom-conference. xxiii Jeffrey Rosen, "Radical Constitutionalism," New York Times, November 26, 2010. xxiv See www.mainegop.com/PlatformMission.aspx; www.hrc.org/documents/2010_RPT_PLATFORM.pdf. xxv Sean Wilentz, "Confounding Fathers, the Tea Party's Cold War Roots," The New Yorker, October 18, 2010; and Stacy Singer, "David Koch Intends to Cure Cancer in His Lifetime and Remake American Politics," The Palm Beach Post, February 18, 2012. xxvi Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (New York: Basic Books, 1995). xxvii Bruce Palmer, "Man Over Money": The Southern Populist Critique of American Capitalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980); Postel, "Business Politics," Populist Vision, 137-72. xxviii William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1883). xxix See www.workerfreedom.org/. xxx Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto (New York: Harper Collins, 2010). xxxi Jackie Calmes, "Activism of Thomas's Wife Could Raise Judicial Issues," New York Times, October 8, 2010. xxxii Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 93, 164. xxxiii Larry Rohter, "Plumber from Ohio Is Thrust into Spotlight," New York Times, October 15, 2008. xxxiv "John Birch," The John Birch Society, http://jbs.org/component/content/article/1006-quick-hits/6557-republics-and-democracies. xxxv W. Cleon Skousen, The Five Thousand Year Leap (Malta, Idaho: National Center for Constitutional Studies,  2009), 163. xxxvi Rick Perry, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2010), 38, 41-43. xxxvii Chris Freiberg, "Alaska U.S. Senate Candidate Joe Miller Explains His Positions at Fairbanks Town Hall Meeting," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, October 4, 2010, and "Joe Miller Responds to 17th Amendment Controversy," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, October 6, 2010. xxxviii Matt Simpson, "The REAL Voting Problem in Texas," The Liberty (blog), American Civil Liberties Union of Texas website, March 15, 2011, www.aclu.org/blog/?cat=26; and Wendy R. Weiser and Lawrence Norden, "Voting Law Changes in 2012," Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, 2012, accessed February 27, 2012, www.brennancenter.org/content/resource/voting_law_changes_in_2012/#summ. xxxix Marc Lacey, "Birthright Citizenship Looms as Next Immigration Battle," New York Times, January 4, 2011; and Simmi Auja, "Immigration Hard-Liners to Lead Judiciary?" Politico, October 26, 2011. xl A number of Tea Party groups describe themselves as "Tenthers," and have adopted names such as the "Tenth Amendment Center," the "Virginia 10th Amendment Coalition," the "10th Amendment Foundation," and so forth. xli Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010). xlii "2010 State Republican Party Platform," accessed October 8, 2011, http://tcgop.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/2010_RPT_PLATFORM.pdf. xliii Glenn Kessler, "Fact Checking the GOP Debate: $500 Billion in Cuts to Medicare?" Washington Post, June 15, 2011. xliv Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservativism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 23-26. xlv Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005). xlvi "Press Release with Corrections from the AIP Chairman, Lynette Clark," Alaskan Independence Party website, www.akip.org/090308.html. xlvii James Morton Turner, "'The Specter of Environmentalism': Wilderness, Environmental Politics, and the Evolution of the New Right," Journal of American History 96, no. 1 (2009): 123-49. xlviii Perlstein, Before the Storm, 431-32. xlix Dinesh D'Souza, "How Obama Thinks," Forbes, September 27, 2010. l Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1988). li In the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1866, the Democratic candidate ran on a platform of opposition to federal relief for the former slaves, with the campaign poster reading: "The Freedman's Bureau! An agency to keep the Negro in idleness at the expense of the white man." Broadside Collection, Library of Congress Rare Books and Special Collections. lii Congressional Budget Office, Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007 (Washington, DC: Congress of the United States, October 2011). liii Edmund L. Andrews, "Greenspan Concedes Error on Regulation," New York Times, October 23, 2008.