From the belly of the beast: What is the 'Tea Party'?

The “Tea Party” has had a big play in the capitalist media recently, as rallies were held across the country leading up to April 15, the day when income taxes are due. The rallies were organised by a section of the Republican Party establishment, and featured Sarah Palin, the former candidate for vice president.

The Tea Party calls itself that to try to link with the Boston Tea Party that helped initiate the US war of independence from Britain in the late 18th century. At the real Tea Party in December 1773, tea from British ships was tossed into Boston harbour in protest against British taxes levied on the colonists. But the new Tea Party is really like the American Tories of the late 18th century, who sided with the British colonial authorities. It is a conservative, even reactionary, movement. It does not want to create a new third party, and it overwhelmingly supports the Republicans. It wants the Republicans to be more right-wing, and 37% of Tea Party activists identify themselves as “very conservative”, according to a New York Times poll.

The poll found that 18% of US residents identify with the Tea Party; 75% of those are over 45 years old. Fifty-nine per cent are men. Eighty-nine per cent are white, and only 1% are African American. Seventy-six per cent say the federal government should focus on reducing the deficit (by which they mean cutting social programs, from education to unemployment payments) rather than spend money to create jobs. They want taxes cut accordingly.


It is no accident that the Tea Party emerged after the first African-American president took office. Most racists do not admit to being such when asked by pollsters. Even so, 52% of Tea Party supporters agreed that “in recent years too much has been made of problems facing blacks” and 25% say the Obama administration favours blacks over whites.

During the debate on reform of the health insurance industry, a crowd of screaming Tea Party supporters demonstrated outside the Capitol building in Washington, egged on by Republican leaders on an overlooking balcony. When black members of Congress went past the crowd to enter the building, protected by police shoving back against the protesters, they were greeted by shouts of “nigger”. No one in the mob expressed any concern.

One of those verbally attacked was John Lewis, who was one of the foremost leaders of the civil rights movement before he mellowed into a Democrat. In the famous demonstration for black voting rights in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, which was violently attacked and dispersed by state police and National Guard, Lewis was severely beaten and suffered a skull fracture. It should be noted that when whites call blacks “nigger”, it is a direct threat of imminent violence. The day after the ugly incident, some Republican leaders called Lewis a liar, saying that he made it up, and demanded he produce a tape recording. The same crowd shouted “faggot” at openly gay Congressman Barney Frank. Some of the 99% white Tea Party rallies have included a black entertainer to put on a minstrel show. This to refute the racist label!

‘Big government’ and ‘socialism’

One element of the Tea Party, although the poll didn’t ask about it, is the “birthers”. They claim that Obama is not a US citizen by birth and therefore prohibited by the constitution from holding the office of president. They say he was born in Africa when in fact he was born in Hawaii. The “birthers” are not just a few weirdos. There is a bill in the Arizona state legislature, already adopted in one chamber, demanding that Obama produce his birth certificate if he runs for re-election in 2012, or he will be barred from the ballot.

Most Tea Partyers say they are against “big government”. They don’t mean that the bloated US military should be cut. They don’t want their own Social Security or Medicare benefits cut. (Medicare helps those over 65 to cover medical bills, in part.) The campaign against “big government” began some decades ago as part of the capitalist rulers’ offensive to reverse some of the gains of the radicalisation of the 1960s. It is an appeal to whites resentful of the dismantling of the Jim Crow system of racial apartheid in the US south and other gains for African Americans won by the massive civil rights movement of blacks in the 1950s-70s. It is an appeal to men who are nervous about the greater rights women won. It plays upon anti-abortion sentiment resulting from the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling legalising this right of women to control their own bodies.

Obama is the chief executive of the most powerful capitalist regime on Earth, so it may come as a surprise that a bit over half of all US citizens think he is a socialist, according to the New York Times. Among the Tea Party, 92% say he is moving the country toward “socialism”. One person interviewed by the Times for its poll said, “I just feel he’s getting away from what America is. He’s a socialist. And to tell you the truth, I think he is a Muslim and trying to head us in that direction, I don’t care what he says. He’s been in office over a year and can’t find a church to go to. That doesn’t say much for him.”

The Times found that what Tea Party supporters perceive as “socialism” is that the Obama administration “favours the poor over the rich and middle class”. They are angry about the Democrats’ recently passed (phoney) health insurance reform because they don’t want to pay for covering the 47 million uninsured US residents. During the wrangling in Congress over the reform, I saw a couple interviewed on TV, in front of their spacious lawn and nice home. They put it bluntly: “Who is going to pay to cover those people? Us?”

The press sometimes portrays the Tea Party as workers angry about the state of the US economy. There is no doubt that the workers among them are angry about the economy, but so is the rest of the working class. The trillions bestowed upon the big banks and other corporate financial institutions, the huge bonuses their executives continue to receive contrast sharply with the situation facing the great majority of people. Real unemployment remains at about 17%. Real wages are being lowered. Homes continue to be foreclosed. Uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety rule the day. The Times found that, if anything, the Tea Party people are better off than most, and better educated.

The Tea Party reflects that the right can demagogically take advantage of fears among the well-heeled of being pushed down to lower economic levels, of being reduced to the situation of the majority of blacks and Latinos. The poor become the scapegoats.

Historical fascism played on such fears and racism. Some on the left, noting this, have called the Tea Party “fascist”. This is profoundly wrong. The Tea Party doesn’t seek to replace capitalist democracy with a totalitarian state in the manner carried out under Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. It doesn’t have an organised armed militia to attack unions, blacks, gays and so forth. A tiny minority of real fascists has found a home in the Tea Party, but as a movement, the Tea Party is part of mainstream Republican politics even if it on its most conservative wing. The capitalist rulers never resort to fascism, an extremely expensive alternative for them, unless faced with the serious possibility of socialist revolution, which is obviously not on the order of the day in the US. To call the Tea Party fascist is to trivialise real fascism, which if it ever triumphs in the US, will make German Nazism look like a gentle tea party.

New attack on immigrants and Latinos

A vicious law has just been passed in Arizona, the “birther” state. It instructs all state police agencies to stop anyone they “suspect” of being an “illegal immigrant” and demand they produce papers showing that they have the legal status to be in the country. Anyone who can’t immediately produce such documents would be arrested and turned over to federal authorities for deportation. In signing the bill into law, Governor Jan Brewster, in a lame attempt to show it won’t trample on civil rights, said that race and country of origin could not be the “sole” criterion the cops use to identify suspected “illegal immigrants.” She didn’t specify what other criteria would be used.

Arizona is mostly white, with a large (30%) minority of Latinos. Does anyone think the police will pull over any white person and demand to see their papers? What could possibly be cause for suspicion other than being Latino? All Latinos will have to carry documents, even if they are citizens or have work permits, for fear of being arrested.

Brewster justified the law by blaming those “coming across our border” from Mexico for drug dealing, street crime, murder and taking away “American” jobs. In doing this, she moved from targeting people for the “crime” of not having papers to all Latinos. Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate for president in 2008, did Brewster one better, claiming on right-wing racist talk radio: “It’s the … drivers of cars with illegals in it that are intentionally causing accidents on the freeway”. He didn’t explain why people would intentionally do this to themselves.

The law would also require teachers to report any students they suspect of being “illegals” to the authorities, under pain of facing criminal penalties themselves. Medical workers and others who come into contact with the public are in the same boat.

The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has been on a campaign to round up and deport “illegals”, breaking up families, arresting workers who have held jobs in the US for decades, and even stranding children born in the US of “illegal” parents, since such children are automatically citizens. This campaign is bad enough without having Arizona cops joining in. Many Latino families have members who are “legal” as well as “illegal”. Latino drivers with papers often drive cars “with illegals in it” that McCain charges deliberately cause accidents.

Even accepting for a moment that not having papers is a crime, these words make the person illegal, not just their “crime”. At the same time, the government makes it extremely difficult for immigrants to obtain papers. It can takes years for a Mexican, for example, to get papers. Only a trickle are able to do so. Therefore immigrants must enter the country without them.

Is this situation of damned if you do and damned if you don’t illogical? Not for capitalism, which gets the labour it wants but without rights. Workers without papers live in constant fear of being deported, and the effect is to create a large group of workers who have difficulty joining unions or otherwise fighting for their rights. There are some 12 million workers in the US who do not have papers. They work in industries such as construction, factory farms, restaurants and the like for lower wages and under worse conditions than workers with papers. They are a source of super-profits for these capitalists. US capitalism therefore creates the labour market that draws immigration from poorer countries. And, in times of economic downturn, the “illegals” are convenient scapegoats, and deportations alleviate the unemployment “problem” for the government.

The Arizona law may go too far for the capitalist class as a whole, and it may be struck down eventually in the courts. But it serves its purpose to whip up anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment nationally.

[The title of this regular column, “From the belly of the beast”, was how the great Cuban fighter against US imperialism Jose Marti, signed his letters to friends back in Cuba when he was in the US.]