Friday, June 20, 2014

The Tea Party and race

This morning, amidst the news of the spread of religious war in Iraq, the New York Times ran a story about Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who may well lose a run-off against his Tea Party opponent in his bid for Senate re-election.  Like so many southern politicians going back to Mendel Rivers, Strom Thurmond, and Jesse Helms, Cochran has successfully combined mainstream white southern views with a healthy concern for the economic well-being of his constituents, bringing them streams of federal dollars for highways, military bases, and other purposes.  Now however, the Times reports, he is threatened by his success.  His opponent, Chris McDaniel, is attacking Cochran for promoting federal spending on the grounds that it proves he is part of the wicked Washington establishment.  And suddenly, as I read this story, a light bulb went on in my head.

The story of which this is a part goes back to the 1930s and the New Deal.  No region was hit harder by the Depression than the South, and Roosevelt probably saved thousands from starvation.    His relief and agricultural programs, as well as the construction of infrastructure including the Tennessee Valley Authority, benefited millions.  White Southern politicians tried to keep the benefits out of the hands of blacks, but they cold not entirely do so.  Until 1937, FDR's economic help trumped his wife's open sympathy for the civil rights movement. But the 1936 elections threatened the South with a terrifying prospect.  For the first time in about a century, as a I learned writing my last book, the Democratic Party won majorities in Congress that did not depend on southerners.  The Negro vote (as it was then called) already played an important role in northern states, and the southerners feared that FDR's activism might draw on these majorities to overturn their social order.  In 1937 they immediately joined the decimated Republicans to block FDR's court packing plan, and that signaled the end of Roosevelt's legislative juggernaut.  A coalition of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans was strong enough to block effective civil rights legislation for a quarter of a century.

Meanwhile, however, the federal government undertook the massive effort necessary to victory in the Second World War, and, subsequently, the construction of the permanent Cold War military establishment.  Because its warm weather, the South was a preferred territory for military bases, and by the 1950s, the South was a large net gainer from its relationship to the federal government, a situation that persists today.  In response to the Civil Rights movement southern politicians routinely adopted anti-government and anti-spending rhetoric, but this did not prevent them from taking more than their share of federal largesse.  Politicians might rail against welfare queens and wasteful bureaucrats, but they knew how to exploit the system as well as anyone. Jesse Helms, perhaps the last overt racist in the Senate, even interceded with David Stockman to prevent cuts in the Rural Electrification Agency, whose work had been finished decades earlier, in the early Reagan years. Their constituents, who had turned decisively against the federal government when it integrated southern schools, understood this game.

All this seems to have persisted through the George W. Bush years, only to change in 2009, when the Tea Party was founded and began to take over the Republican Party in many Red states.  Why? I can see only one reason: that a black man had been elected President of the United States.

The overwhelming majority of white southerners, as well as many white voters in other parts of the country, had long viewed the federal government as the patron of lazy, dependent, worthless minorities, but they tolerated this situation as long as they felt the government was still in friendly hands.  This may have applied even to Bill Clinton. Yes, Toni Morrison described him as "the first black President," but he hailed from Arkansas, and he did end welfare as we knew it in 1996.  But the election of "community organizer" Barack Obama meant something else.  It meant, to millions of voters, that the federal government had definitely fallen under the control of lazy, dependent, worthless minority voters, and was therefore totally unworthy of respect, support, or taxpayers' money.  Obama represented the coalition of leftist intellectuals and dependent citizens against which Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the rest had been railing for twenty years.  As Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson discovered in their research on the Tea Party, older white folks were convinced that a vicious left-wing conspiracy had found a way to sneak Obama into the White House to do their bidding.  Mitt Romney famously pandered to these sentiments when he spoke of the 47% of the population that paid no taxes (a lie, of course) and therefore was bound to vote for Barack Obama.

In support of my argument, I would note that Eric Cantor's defeat, it has widely been reported, reflected a view among Tea Party activists that any cooperation at all with the Administration on any issue now discredits even the most prominent Republicans.  In the same way, it seems, many white Mississippians view Thad Cochran's willingness to appropriate federal funds, even for themselves, represents giving money to the enemy.  Here are two quotes from Mississippi Republicans from the Times story:

 “Everybody’s got their hand out like these damn people at the food stamp office,” Mr. Harris, 67, said between sips of coffee on Thursday at a local barbecue restaurant. “They’ve got to put an end to all of this spending.”  Others, like Jane Buehl Coln of Olive Branch, suspect that whatever benefits have come to Mississippi have come at a steep price. “There’s no telling what kinds of liberal things he had to vote for to get those kinds of things for Mississippi — what kind of trading he had to do,” she said.

Q. E. D.

The same kind of hatred is being expressed much more openly towards immigrants.  Ann Coulter bluntly argues that the Republican Party must oppose a path to citizenship for illegal aliens because they will vote Democratic.  It's easy to dismiss Coulter, but it's wrong: her endorsement may have won David Brat his victory over Eric Cantor.  Among the tiny minority of Americans who can win a Republican primary for the House-or even for the Senate--she and Limbaugh are powerful names to conjure with.

For the record, I still do not think that any of this would have been much different had Hillary Clinton, rather than Barack Obama, won the White House in 2008.  To conservatives, she simply represents another element of the coalition of communistic intellectuals, licentious feminists, and dependent minorities that have been the enemy at least since the time of Ronald Reagan. Looking ahead, she will clearly face an even dirtier campaign than Obama did in 2016, and I do not think she can rally all of the coalition that elected him.  To be quite honest, I think the Democratic Party would have its best chance not only of winning again, but of governing successfully, if their candidate were a white male.  That's not bigotry on my part, it's the political realism I grew up with.  "Let's get a woman on the ticket," Richard Nixon said to William Safire just before its death. "It hurts the Democrats, but it would help us."  That's the kind of realism Democrats need--but they have no realistic white male candidate on the horizon.  


Bozon said...


Great take on recent domestic politics.

I confess I only follow this very casually, in recent decades.

All the best

ed boyle said...

is this an age thing? Will these people die out? or is this like in Europe, a cyclical matter where people in a certain region when they lose jobs and immigration comes are predisposed to right wing radical nationalism. In Europe this is in parts justified by separatist elements who want regional autonomy as in Scotland, Catalonian, Northern Italy, West and East Ukraine. These people have separate cultural histories.

America is a strange case. One announces a land as a melting pot where immigration from all countries is welcome and English language and constitution is binding element. The natural tensions here are obvious. The so-called whites are different enough from one another and the blacks form all over Africa with various traditions. It must take thousands of years of a stable system, without mass immigration, before a homogeneous type population exists as in Japan or most European countries pre-WWII. This is a sort of internal war in USA between ethnic groups as in India or similar multinational states which is always present under the surface and only breaks out into the open in crisis and forces a break as in formation of A Pakistan and Bangladesh or the US civil war. This is completely natural historically that peoples want to remain among themselves ethnically and go to war for this purpose. The liberal open state concept is like in Roman empire, very rare and imposed only from above. The southern USA separate but equal society pre-1950s and South African type Apartheid were solutions to this as caste system in India after invasions from northern peoples subjugating "natives". One wonders how North American system ends up culturally and ethnically in next centuries.

wmmbb said...

I struggle to understand Tea Party grievances.

I know they get their history wrong. As a foreigner and an alien, I know, for example, the colonists were protesting the East India Company's tea monopoly and that they dressed as First Nation people.

I know that scapegoating is a effective election strategy. Is it simply that the racial hierarchy has broken down and with it racial privilege? I recall the Crackers and the poor whites.

Are the Tea Party adherents like the petite bourgeoisie in turn smug and angry? Proud of their identity on one hand but unwilling to recognize they are losers when subject to more powerful economic players.

In that light it is possible to have empathy,although the scapegoating of others is often vicious and usually violent. Secondly, somebody should tell them they need the government to fairly regulate the economy.

Jim Rush said...

Good Morning:

I simply must respond, and I do so respectfully, to the historical inaccuracy by Mr. Wmmbb.

I don't mean to criticize, but the use of American Indian costumes in the Boston Tea Party was not a case of scapegoating. No one was pretending to blame someone else for the tea dumping.

Everyone knew that some colonialist were dressed up as American Indians because they knew the English authorities would be out in force trying to arrest the responsible parties and charge them with criminal activities. No one was trying to blame someone else.

The English authorities were not fooled and no one expected them to be. The colonists simply wanted to say that they had no idea who did it, just a bunch of Indians.

when you scapegoat, you are trying to put the blame for something on someone other than the perpetrator. In this case the authorities were effectively stymied and unable to focus blame. They certainly knew what group had done the deed and they probably knew at least some of the people involved. But they could prove nothing.



Anonymous said...

This wouldn't be you - but
another commiecrat? Correct?

Married US Naval War College
professor put on leave after nude
photo he allegedly sent to woman
was posted on Twitter

wmmbb said...

I am more that happy to be corrected, Jim, especially on matters of historical accuracy,but it seems to me the modern version of the Tea Party should honor their inspiration. They should in that spirit at least dress as the Colonists originally did.

My sympathies have always been with the rebels. "No taxation without representation" is deeply embedded as a fundamental concept. If the modern Tea Party were aspiring to deepen the democratic process then I would morally support them. I doubt that is their aspiration, rather the contrary.

"Welfare Queens" and the other dog whistles operate as a subconscious level. The Republican playbook has been copied elsewhere. Apparently, this explains why some choose to vote against their interests.But there is more to it that, isn't there?