Four things my side gets wrong about the tea party

3) “The Tea Party is racist.” I dealt with this argument at some length before, and I am not going to repeat what I wrote. But an extensive new study put out by the NAACP and the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights has appeared, and it requires a response. There is some new information about the Tea Parties in this study, but the basic thrust of it is to stigmatize the movement as incurably racist by associating it with people like David Duke. Now, I am not denying that there are “anti-Semites, racists, and bigots” in the Tea Party movement. Nor would I deny that there were people in the anti-Iraq War left who thought that the U.S. had it coming on September 11. But it is a mistake to reduce the Tea Party to a racist movement—the way one could justifiably reduce something like the White Citizens’ Councils of the 1950s (which claimed only to be for “states’ rights”) to a racist movement.

The Tea Party is an accretion of various movements of the past decades, including the Christian right and, as Wilentz shows, the older anti-Communist Right. But it fits above all into the framework of American populism, which has always had right-wing and left-wing variants, and which is rooted in a middle class cri de coeur—that we who do the work and play by the rules are being exploited by parasitic bankers and speculators and/or by shiftless, idle white trash, negroes, illegal immigrants, fill in the blank here. What’s important is that these movements, which gather strength in the face of adversity, can go either right or left. During the 1930s, they tended left rather than right. During Obama’s first term, they have gone primarily to the right. There are many reasons for this, but at least one has to do with how the White House has blamed Main Street and Wall Street equally for the financial crisis.

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