A tea-party insurgency?

May 19, 2010

The Tea Partiers claim to be "grassroots"--but there's no grass or roots about them.

YESTERDAY'S PRIMARY elections across the country were another occasion for one of the media's favorite pastimes: Spend hours of airtime and acres of newsprint drawing attention to every person or event remotely connected to the right-wing Tea Partiers--and then devote hours more to speculating about how the "remarkable prominence" of the Tea Party "movement" shows that we live in a "Tea Party nation."

The spotlight election on Tuesday for Republicans was the primary to select the GOP nominee for a U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky. Rand Paul, the son of Texas libertarian Republican Ron Paul, ran against a candidate handpicked by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and supported by figures from the GOP establishment like Dick Cheney. Paul's Tea Party-fueled campaign won by a comfortable margin.

Paul had his sound bite ready for media commentators waiting to pontificate about how the Tea Partiers were shaking up the national political scene. "We've come to take our government back," Paul said. "This Tea Party movement is a message to Washington that we're unhappy and that we want things done differently."

Rand Paul speaks to supporters in Northern Kentucky during the campaign
Rand Paul speaks to supporters in Northern Kentucky during the campaign (Greg Skidmore)

Another obvious explanation for Paul's decisive win is the fact that incumbents and establishment-backed candidates are having a tough time everywhere in Election 2010.

That was clear from the marquee race on the Democratic side, where Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Spector--the 80-year-old (more than a third of those 80 years spent in the Senate) Republican-turned-Democrat, with national Democratic Party leaders like Bill Clinton shilling for votes for him--got beaten by challenger Joe Sestak, who defied the party machinery.

Even when they acknowledged the anti-incumbent trend, though, the media still let Paul and his supporters get away with claiming to be right-wing rebels, challenging the powers that be in Washington in the name of ordinary Americans.

During the campaign, Paul told a crowd of supporters: "[S]ome people say, 'When you win the primary, you'll have to run away from the Tea Party.' I think the Tea Party represents a very mainstream message."

"Mainstream" isn't the word we'd use. Taking much of his platform from the Tea Party's "Contract from America," Paul favors raising the age for retirees to receive Social Security and getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education so state governments can decide how to spend education funds.

But there's no doubt that the Tea Party crackpots are making their presence felt within the Republican Party.

At a state GOP convention in Utah earlier this month, incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett--a conservative stalwart, anti-abortion, pro-oil drilling, anti-immigrant, anti-civil liberties--all but pleaded for the nomination to run again, but came in third to two Tea Partiers. Also this month in Maine, state Republicans adopted a new platform that includes abolishing the Federal Reserve, denouncing global warming as a "myth," sealing the U.S. border and fighting "efforts to create a one-world government."

The Republican Party establishment is caught between opposing the Tea Partiers in places like Kentucky, but appeasing them elsewhere to build electoral support. For example, in Arizona, Sen. John McCain, known as a mainstream figure within the GOP and long at odds with the right wing, is begging for Tea Party votes by beating the drums about immigrants causing crime as part of his re-election campaign.

Here's what the former coauthor, with Sen. Ted Kennedy, of immigration reform legislation had to say in a campaign ad where he strolls the U.S.-Mexico border with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu:

McCain: Drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder...

Babeu: We're outmanned. Of all the illegals that come to America, almost half come through Arizona.

McCain: Have we got the right plan?

Babeu: The plan's perfect, you bring troops, state, county and local law enforcement together.

McCain: And complete the danged fence.

Babeu: It'll work this time. Senator, you're one of us.

Yeah, "one of us"--and "us" includes Babeu's friend, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the anti-immigrant fanatic who Babeu worked with last summer conducting raids throughout the area, with hundreds of detainees held in tent cities. "I'm proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with Sheriff Joe," Babeu told a local newspaper at the time. "It's much more complex, and we have to talk about this without being called racist."

Of course, McCain's former running mate, Sarah Palin, is also making hay out of the Tea Party phenomenon. Freed from the drudgery of her former job of Alaska governor, Palin spent recent weeks traveling the country in support of hard-right Republican candidates--right before she collected her exorbitant speaking fees, of course.

PALIN AND the other Tea Partiers claim that they are at the front of growing movement swelling up from the "grassroots." But the plain truth is that the Tea Party activists don't speak for the majority of the American public.

First, there's very little grass or roots about the Tea Partiers. The movement has plenty of veteran Republican operatives pulling the strings--because they see in the Tea Party an effective way of tapping into the Republican base that was discouraged by the 2008 election.

As a recent article at Pollster.com about the Indiana Tea Party concluded:

The Tea Party is popular because it has provided aggrieved Republicans with a "reset" button unconnected to the past. Rather than voicing their frustrations by placing "Don't Blame Me! I Voted for McCain!" bumper stickers on their cars (which we do not expect to see soon in Indiana or elsewhere), the development of the Tea Party has operated as a convenient vehicle for Republican grievances that is unconnected to the unpopular end of the Bush era.

The media may allow the Tea Partiers to get away with claiming to be "mainstream," but they aren't. To start with, polls show that a majority of people in the U.S. support Social Security, public education and unemployment insurance--a stark contrast with the positions of the Tea Party right.

If the Tea Partiers' hardened right-wing ideas get any hearing outside the base of the Republican Party, it's because the Democratic Party has failed to offer an alternative that could marginalize the Tea Partiers.

Instead of confronting the right's racist and anti-working class positions, the Democrats have conceded the ideological ground on one issue after another. The Republican Party may be the first choice of Corporate America, but the Obama administration's fronting for the bailout of Wall Street has made it clear that the Democrats are every bit the defenders of Corporate America.

Arlen Specter wasn't the only candidate of the Democratic establishment to feel the heat yesterday. In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff election for the Democratic nomination to run for another term. One of the chief issues of the campaign was Lincoln's flip-flop on the issue of the public option during the health care debate and reneging on support for the pro-labor Employee Free Choice Act.

LINCOLN AND Specter are hardly the only Democrats who are out of touch with voters. Dissatisfaction with the status quo across the U.S. is peeling away support from the "party of the people." According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last week, more than a third of Democrats feel their party members in Congress are "more concerned about the interests of large corporations" than those of average Americans.

That sentiment is a recipe for demoralization among the Democrats' liberal base--and for supporters on the right-wing end of the party's spectrum to be pulled toward even more conservative ideas.

Thus, the right's scaremongering and scapegoating about immigration--unanswered by the Democrats and sometimes even echoed by them--can get a hearing. As a result, a Pew Research Center poll on support for Arizona's anti-immigrant law SB 1070 found that 59 percent of people say they approve of the law, and 32 percent disapprove.

But this sentiment isn't a foregone conclusion. The same Pew poll also showed that fewer than half of people under the age of 30 approved of the Arizona law, and 47 percent disapproved.

The way to challenge and push back the right isn't to concede and be more moderate, but to stand up to the bigotry and show that there is an alternative to the Tea Partiers that has an answer for the desperate concerns of working people in the U.S. That answer won't come from the Democratic Party, but from struggles and movements throughout U.S. society.

Thus, the protests, calls for boycotts and other actions against Arizona's SB 1070 will do much more than any election in giving voice to the sentiment to oppose racism and discrimination.

History is full of examples that show a similar dynamic. The efforts of activists during the civil right movement of the 1960s moved mountains with respect to Americans' views abut race and discrimination. It was the mass movement that turned the tide on Jim Crow segregation, not the politicians.

The same kind of struggle today can reverse anti-immigrant sentiment. Similar action is needed on many other issues, from demanding jobs to defending abortion rights. A bold response to Arizona's apartheid-style anti-immigrant laws can provide a fighting example for all of them.

That's why it's so important to build the national Day of Action on May 29 to protest SB 1070. By taking a stand for the rights of immigrants, we can help build the kind of movement that can push back the right.

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