Letter from the US: What’s behind the Tea Party’s rise?

A Tea Party protester with a Confederate flag. Photo from ThinkProgress.org.

The bid by Republicans to defeat President Barack Obama’s health care program by shutting down the government and threatening to cause a default ended in failure.

The result opened fissures within the Republican Party between its “moderate” right wing and the further right-wing Tea Party. The difference is not over “Obamacare”, which the whole Republican Party is against, but over the Tea Party’s tactics.

The Tea Party drove the failed effort to force its way. So what does the Tea Party represent?

It takes its name from an incident in 1773, when a group of revolutionary-minded citizens in Boston boarded a British ship carrying tea from India and threw the cargo into the harbor. This event, which became known as the Boston Tea Party, directly led to the American Revolution of 1775-1783 against British domination.

The modern Tea Party pretends to hark back to those revolutionary days. But nothing could be further from the truth.

A more accurate analogy would be to bracket them with the pro-British American Tories, conservatives who opposed the Boston Tea Party and subsequent revolution.

The present Tea Party emerged on the scene after Obama’s election in 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession. While it has new features, it also has deep roots in US history.

Origins in slavery

These roots, like so much that characterises US politics, partly go back to slavery and the aftermath of racial oppression of African Americans that continues to this day.

The full bourgeois democratic revolution in the US took place over two revolutions 70 years apart. The first was the War of Independence and the adoption of political democracy. But this left the institution of slavery intact in the Southern states.

The second revolution was the Civil War and its aftermath in Radical Reconstruction, which abolished slavery and broke the power of the slave-owning class.

This entailed the political overthrow of the slavocracy’s governments in the South, as well as a social revolution that abolished the mode of production based on slavery.

It took both stages of the bourgeois democratic revolution to unfetter capitalist development throughout the country.

Like all bourgeois democratic revolutions, it fell short of its promise. In particular, the freed slaves were denied land. One of the historical tasks of bourgeois democratic revolutions tends to be land reform.

A period of Radical Reconstruction, imposed on the South by federal troops after the South’s military defeat, extended democratic rights to African Americans in the South. But it was followed by a counterrevolution that led to the establishment racial apartheid, or segregation, in Southern states.

This was accomplished through legal means, backed by illegal terror carried out by the Ku Klux Klan.

The newly triumphant capitalist class, ruling the whole country as well as the South, was behind this counterrevolution.

Jim Crow

The apartheid system was characterised by extreme oppression and exploitation of Blacks. It became known as the Jim Crow system, and was enforced by ongoing legal and extralegal terror, including lynchings and mass murders known as “race riots”.

Racism, the view that Blacks are inferior beings, was first developed as a justification for slavery and then for Jim Crow. Racism affected the whole country, and other peoples of colour, and has marked the US to this day.

The centre of racial oppression was the South, but its poison extended throughout the country. African Americans suffered racial oppression and super-exploitation in the North and west, too, but without the legal codification of the Jim Crow laws in the South.

The Jim Crow system existed up until the 1960s, when it was overthrown by the mass civil rights and Black liberation movements. This included mass non-violent action, Black armed self-defense, and urban rebellions in the Black communities throughout the country.

This great awakening had the support of democratic-minded whites, including millions caught up in the youth radicalisation of the 1960s and ‘70s who were inspired by the Black struggle.

A key factor was the interracial communist and socialist parties. These helped lead the labour upsurge of the 1930s, grew in “The 60s” and won important sections of the white working class to the anti-racist struggle.

The overthrow of Jim Crow in the South spurred big changes and new opportunities for Blacks in the rest of the country.

Jim Crow lasted more than eight decades. Its political expression in the South was the one-party rule of the “Dixiecrats”, a wing of the Democratic Party nationally. (“Dixie” was an affectionate nickname for the Confederacy).

This is why the national Democratic Party did not counter the Jim Crow South until the mid-1960s, when confronted by a powerful mass movement.

It was the former leader of the segregationist (Dixiecrat) bloc in the Senate, Lyndon Johnson, led the Democrats as president to pass laws against the Jim Crow legal system.

Switch to Republicans

The “betrayal” by the national Democratic Party of its Dixiecrat wing led to a re-alignment in capitalist party politics. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but essentially the Dixiecrats became Republicans.

The Republicans embarked on a “Southern strategy” to win over racist whites in the South. This was successful and also found echoes among racist whites in especially, but not only, rural areas.

Republican Ronald Reagan won his 1980 presidential election on the basis of the “solid South” and winning over what became known as “Reagan Democrats”.

This “Southern Strategy” was geared to white resentment against the role of “big government” in ending Jim Crow, and, in the wake of the 60s radicalization, pushing some measures of affirmative action and other steps forward.

There is also resentment of other gains won in that radicalisation, including by women, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and other peoples of color.

It is undoubtedly true that without the Black and youth radicalisation of the 60s, it would have been impossible for an African American to be elected president. But Obama’s 2008 victory also enraged a significant minority already disgruntled with the progressive gains.

This minority comprises about 25% of the population. For them, it is not that Obama’s foreign and domestic policies are different in any significant way from Bush’s — because they are not.

They simply do not think that any Black person even has the right to be president. No sooner was Obama elected than a hue and cry went up on far-right talk radio and right-wing meetings that he wasn’t a real American. They claimed he was really Kenyan, like his father, a secret Muslim, had no birth certificate, was actually from a “socialist” country, among other allegations.

This found expression in the rise of the Tea Party, which has its roots in the right wing of the Dixiecrats. It is revealing that at a recent Tea Party demonstration against Obamacare, a Confederate flag was unfurled.

Class contradictions

Well-financed by a section of the ruling class, including the fascist-minded billionaire Koch brothers, the professional politicians in the Republican Party who style themselves Tea Party nonetheless have a mass base.

Many in this almost purely white base are not themselves well off. They have suffered in the Great Recession and its aftermath. They are open to rightist demagoguery about “big government” from this angle, too.

Along with most Americans, they watched Congress, the “establishment” Republicans and the Democratic administration pour billions of dollars into bailing out big banks while doing almost nothing to help the “little guy”.

Tea Party leaders try to give the impression they are opposed to the banks, but this is just demagoguery and is never couched in a direct way.

The Tea Party demagogues play upon racist fears of its base that anything that helps those worse off than they are will come at their expense. They are thus open to campaigns against extending health care to the uninsured, raising the minimal wage, and so forth.

Now that the Democrats and Republicans (including the Tea Party) have begun negotiations about cutting back the “entitlements” of Social Security and Medicare, which are popular among the elderly, it remains to be seen if older Tea Party supporters begin to balk.

The Republicans and their donors got behind the Tea Party candidates in the 2010 elections, most of whom won. This is how the Republicans became hitched to their Tea Party wing, and beholden to it, as the recent debacle in Congress revealed.

The US does not have even a mini-mass workers’ party, even a reformist one. In the US, what passes for a liberal left, the Democrats, is actually to the right of the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

The Democratic Party “left” has failed dismally to address the needs of working people of all races in the ongoing crisis. In this atmosphere, the far right racist Tea Party has developed.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]


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