“Very well-written … but dead screaming wrong,” my critic wrote in an email that a friend forwarded to me. “Judis has managed to write about the Tea Party movement without referring to its profound racism.” This sums up the chief complaint that I received about the article I wrote on the Tea Party movement. It is also a common interpretation of the Tea Parties, especially on the political left. NYU historian Greg Grandin, Salon editor Joan Walsh, and actress and comedienne Janeane Garafolo—to name just three—all believe that racism is at the very heart of Tea Party-ism.
This isn’t a particularly new way of looking at popular right-wing movements. Once upon a time, left-wing thinkers used to blame the opposition to liberalism on capitalist rapaciousness. But since the sixties, it has become more common to depict conservative movements, which invariably include some racists, as pure and simple expressions of the color divide. Typically, Bob Fertik of Democrats.com described the right-wing opposition to Bill Clinton in the 1990s as a product of “racist rage” that “lasted six full years and fueled Clinton’s impeachment … and let George W. Bush get close enough to steal the election in Florida.”
Now what about the Tea Partiers? Clearly, there are people in the Tea Parties who are racist, and who are in the movement because of that. At the April rally in Washington, I met one Tea Party enthusiast from Sarasota who was eager for me to take his picture along with the rubber mask he had constructed of very dark brown, simian-like Obama, perched in front of a teleprompter with the word “liar” on it. He told me that what got him involved with the Tea Party was Barack Obama’s association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Someone else was dressed up in a costume suggesting that Obama was a pimp. And there were the usual “Go Back to Africa” signs. But several nuts and a handful of egregious signs (some of which were probably written by Lyndon Larouche supporters, who have glommed onto the Tea Party) don’t prove that a political movement is being driven by racism. Let me make some distinctions.
There have been organizations in America fueled primarily or entirely by racism—by hostility to blacks as blacks or by opposition to, and rejection of, racial equality. These include, obviously, the White Citizens Councils, which were formed in response to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and the Ku Klux Klan. Then, there have been covertly racist movements like those around the presidential candidacy of Alabama Governor George Wallace. Leaders of these movements may insist they are not really racists, but are merely worried about “states' rights,” or the power of “pointy-headed bureaucrats.” In fact, they are trying to deflect criticism from what is widely understood to be the point of their movement or candidacy.
Then, there is a third category that is more difficult to assess. It consists of movements that include overt racists, but that do not make explicitly racial appeals and whose leaders, as well as many of its members, strongly deny that they are motivated by race. Still, there are undertones in concerns about “law and order” or “welfare queens.” And the movements themselves are primarily or even exclusively white. Psychologists have speculated that within such movements you would find a disproportionate number of people who harbor racial resentments.
There is some reason to believe that the Tea Party could be this third kind of movement. The New York Times/CBS and the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality have both run polls that include questions that are intended to draw out racial resentment. Both polls are flawed in how they define Tea Party members. They survey people who “support” rather than (as other polls do) “participate in” or are “part of” the Tea Party movement. That elicits a sample that is different from the people who show up at rallies or meetings. And the University of Washington poll is limited to seven states, several of which are likely to house more than the usual share of racists. Still, in the absence of any more accurate measure, these polls suggest that the people who “support” the Tea Party are more likely than the average American to harbor racial resentments.
When the New York Times/CBS poll asks whether the policies of the Obama administration favor whites over blacks, blacks over whites, or both groups the same, only 11 percent of the national sample, compared to 25 percent of the Tea Party supporters, said the administration favored blacks over whites. Only 28 percent of the national sample compared to 52 percent of the Tea Party supporters said “too much has been made of the problems facing black people.” In the University of Washington results, 73 percent of those who “strongly support” compared to 33 percent who “strongly oppose” the Tea Party movement agree with the statement that “blacks would be as well off as whites if they just tried harder.”
Do these results demonstrate that the Tea Party movement is racist? Let’s start with the finding that Tea Party members exhibit more racial resentment than the average voter. Yes, that appears to be true, but what is also the case is that 65 percent of those who supported the Tea Party in the New York Times/CBS poll thought the Obama administration treated whites and blacks the same. That suggests that for two-thirds of Tea Party supporters, race is irrelevant to their condemnation of the Obama administration. You wouldn’t have gotten this kind of result if you polled members of the White Citizens Council or Wallace voters in 1968 about the federal government. Like other movements in America, the Tea Parties seem to be informed, but not defined by, racial conflict.
People who insist that racism is the driving force behind the Tea Party movement reduce these movements to their racial undertones. These theorists and commentators, who are primarily on the left, are wedded to a monocausal model of American conservatism—based on race rather than class. There are two obvious objections to such a model. First, there are many people in the Tea Party movement who don’t exhibit racial resentment. I can say that partly from interviewing and listening to members, and reading the numerous blogs, but it is also apparent in the New York Times/CBS poll. What do you say about the 65 percent that don’t think the administration favors blacks?
Secondly, even the opinions of people who might score high on the psychologists’ racial resentment indices are not necessarily dictated by their racial views. What about the 33 percent of respondents to the University of Washington survey who “strongly oppose the Tea Party” and also believe that “blacks would be as well off as whites if they just tried harder?” It’s probably fair to assume that this 33 percent includes a good number of liberals and people who voted for Obama in 2008, backed health care reform, and will probably vote for Obama if he seeks reelection in 2012.
In Game Change, John Heileman and Mark Halperin tell the story of a focus group that the Obama campaign conducted in October 2008:
In late October, Obama’s focus group maestro, David Binder, was conducting a session with a group of swing voters in a Cleveland suburb. A middle-aged woman let loose with a string of not-unfamiliar broadsides against Obama. He’s a Muslim. He’s soft on terrorism—because he’s a Muslim. He doesn’t put his hand on his heart during patriotic rituals. We’re not even sure he was born in this country. Binder was confused. This was supposed to be a group of undecided voters. If you think all these terrible things about Obama, he asked the woman, how can you possibly be undecided? Because if McCain dies, Palin would be president, she said.
For this woman, her prejudicial feelings and assumptions about Obama did not determine whom she was going to vote for. And that can be the case with racial resentments. Other considerations can prevail over them.
To be sure, racial resentment is not irrelevant to what citizens think about issues and candidates. As I argued during the 2008 primary campaign, if a white candidate and a black candidate take very similar positions on issues, then it is possible that racial resentments will lead a voter to favor the white candidate. And as I point out in that article, there are a host of psychological experiments to back up this supposition. But racial resentment can be, and often is, just one factor; it is not necessarily a preoccupation. And if there are other factors that dispose someone to take a different position, then racial resentment is put aside.
It’s possible, as Damon Linker has suggested, that Rand Paul’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not based on racial resentment, but on a radical libertarianism. (Although, recalling Jamie Kirchick’s study of Ron Paul’s racist newsletters, if his father shaped Rand Paul’s view on civil rights, it might be more accurate to say that his opinions reflect both libertarianism and racial resentment.) Equally, it may be that some Tea Party members’ rage against “moochers” looking for government handouts to pay for houses they couldn’t afford is an expression of American individualism rather than racism. Racial resentment is one impulse among many. It is not necessarily an overpowering Id that defines conservative politics, and the opposition to Obama.
My critic asserted that “it wasn't until a black man sat in the White House that the Tea Party came into existence,” which is an argument that I have often heard, but there was a virulent anti-government right-wing during Bill Clinton’s administration, and if Hillary Clinton had defeated Obama and won the presidency, I’d wager my mortgage that we’d have a movement very similar to the Tea Party demanding her removal. The movement behind George Wallace’s presidential candidacy would not have existed without opposition to racial equality—but it’s perfectly possible to imagine a Tea Party without birthers and people dressed up as pimps.
It’s worth noting that a movement doesn’t have to be racist in order to be dangerous. Few have done more to damage America’s foreign policy than the isolationists of the 1930s or the neoconservatives of the early 2000s, but I would not call either movement racist. Ditto the anti-tax movement of the late 1970s. Its proponents produced California’s Proposition 13, which made it virtually impossible to raise tax revenue, but not for reasons explicitly involving color.
If the Tea Party movement, with its fanatic libertarianism and selfish individualism, were to gain any measure of power, it would wreak havoc on the economy (imagine America without a Federal Reserve System), shred the social safety net, and undermine what exists of the great American community. So I am not suggesting, as Christopher Caldwell did in the Financial Times, that “the Tea Party has no explicit program beyond giving the Republican party some spine and integrity.” That’s errant nonsense unless you believe that the Republican Party really wants to be an extremist movement, but is being prevented from realizing its true nature. What I am suggesting is that it’s very possible to believe that the Tea Party is not the latest manifestation of the Ku Klux Klan or White Citizens’ Councils—while still believing that it is a terrible menace, nonetheless.
John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.