A recent New York Time/CBS poll confirmed the obvious. Tea Party activists are overwhelmingly white, male, conservative, lower income, and GOP leaning. Nearly all passionately believe that President Obama is shoving the country to socialism. All lambaste the federal government for giving the company store away to the poor. The poor in this case are blacks. That race lurks perilously just beneath the surface with Tea Party activists is beyond dispute. To many the equation is government programs equal hand outs to undeserving blacks and the poor and that in turn equals money snatched from the pockets of hard working whites.
This is nothing new. It's just a recycle of the media buzz depiction of the angry white male. The term was coined by political analyst and then GOP strategist Kevin Phillips during Nixon's presidential campaign in 1968. Nixon stoked the fury of blue collar, white ethnics, rural voters with his slam of the Democrats for coddling criminals, welfare cheats, and fostering a culture of anything goes permissiveness, and of course, big government Great Society pandering to the poor. The crude thinly disguised code words and racial cues worked. Nixon eked out a narrow victory over Democratic presidential opponent Hubert Humphrey. The tag of law and order and permissiveness became a staple in the GOP attack play book for the next four decades. With tweaks and refinements, Reagan, Bush Sr. and W. Bush used it to ease their path to the White House. In the mid 1990s, Newt Gingrich and ultra conservatives recycled the strategy to seize Congress, and pound out an agenda that made big government, tax and spend Democrats, and soft on crime liberals the fall guys for everything wrong with America. It touched the familiar nerve with white males.
The volatile mix of big government and economics that can whip frustrated, rebellious, angry whites (and more than a few non-whites) into a tizzy far better than crude race baiting, magnificently for a reason that goes beyond race alone. Many blue-collar white males were losing ground to minorities and women in the workplace, schools, and in society. The trend toward white male poverty and alienation became more evident in the early 1980s when nearly 10 million Americans were added to the poverty rolls, more than half from white, male-headed families. Two decades later, the number of white men in poverty has continued to expand.
Hate groups, anti-Obama Web sites and bloggers, and radio talk jocks can craft this as the prime reason for the anger and alienation that many white males feel toward health care and, by extension, Obama while convincing themselves and the public that this has nothing to do with race. This translates to even more fear, rage and distrust of big government. The vintage blends of anti-government politics and calls defending personal freedom were the neo-libertarian war cries heard at the Conservative Political Action Conference and the tea party convention. Protests over big government dwarfed the subtle and overt race-baiting appeals that were seen and heard at both conventions.
Tea party activists hammer Obama, the Democrats, big government, the elites, and Wall Street. Yet, they also grouse about abortion, family values, gay rights, and tax cuts -- not race.
Rightwing populism, with its mix of xenophobia, loath of government as too liberal, too tax-and-spend, and too permissive, and a killer of personal freedom has been the engine that powered Reagan and Bush White House wins. Scores of GOP governors, senators and members of congress have used wedge issues to win office and maintain political dominance. The GOP grassroots brand of populism has stirred millions operating outside the confines of the mainstream Republican Party. In 2008, many of these voters stayed home. Even Sarah Palin wasn't enough to budge them. Their defection was more a personal and visceral reaction to the bumbles of George W. Bush than a radical and permanent sea change in overall white voter sentiment. They were ripe for the tea party movement -- or any movement that keyed their anger and frustration into action.
The supposed proof that the tea party movement is loaded with bigots and driven by race frenzy is that tea party leaders won't denounce the racists in their ranks. That won't happen. One the movement would have to be structured, layered, and regimented with a unitary agenda and program for that to be the case. It's the disparate, disjointed and scrambled headless amoeba that makes the tea party movement potent, appealing and dangerous. But it won't happen because the for more than foru decade history of politics the dangerous blend of big government, undeserving, crime prone, poor and minorities, and put upon whites has been so deeply encoded in the political thinking of millions of whites, that it's the government not race that matters, true or not.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press).