The tea party movement is rife with racists. It’s also, despite assertions to the contrary, a structured movement with direct ties to white nationalist groups that’s growing and here to stay. These are the findings of a 94 page report released last week by The Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, which was backed by the NAACP. The only part that’s shocking is that the report is necessary to establish such plain truths.
The report, Tea Party Nationalism: A Critical Examination of the Tea Party Movement and the Size, Scope, and Focus of Its National Factions, is the first investigation to look so deeply and broadly at the tea party’s attachment to hate groups.
According to polls, 16 percent to 18 percent of U.S. adults say they support the tea party and several million individuals attend meetings and read tea party literature. But the report’s authors, who include Leonard Zeskind, one of the country’s foremost scholars of white nationalism, focus on what they call the tea party’s core: the 250,000 people who have signed on directly with the "six national organizational networks that form the core of this movement." It’s these people, the report argues, who have connections to white supremacist groups.
Based on analysis of media coverage, site visits to tea party events and tea party literature, the report finds that the tea party itself has become a site for recruitment by white supremicists and others. And, beyond this susceptibility, some members of the leadership of the core tea party groups are connected to extremist groups or positions. Tea party leaders and core members are connected or affiliated with the Minuteman, the birther movement, antisemites, professional Islamophobes (Pamela Geller), and the Council of Conservative Citizens.
And because of the decentralized nature of some of the tea party organizations, they’ve made themselves susceptible to insidious efforts of white nationalists to grasp onto the movement’s success. The report finds that:
the two national factions with the most diffuse, locally-based organizational structures, are experiencing the fastest rate of growth. This would tend to indicate a larger movement less susceptible to central control, and more likely to attract racist and nativist elements at the local level.
The authors are clear that it would be "a mistake to claim that all tea partiers are nativist vigilantes or racists of one stripe or another, and this report manifestly does not make that claim." Some, the report says, are just concerned with the deficit and unemployment.
But these two things can’t really be separated.
The reality is that implicitly white supremacist politics are more ubiquitous now than they’ve been in a generation. This is not because of an ascendancy of organized hate groups or simply because of the tea party or the interplay between the two. It’s a result of the fact that the election of President Obama and the recession have reignited a set of racial anxieties that are always present in American politics.
It’s telling that a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 35 percent tea party supporters believed Obama was born in another country and that about the same percentage of conservative Republicans agreed.
These are the anxieties that the tea party thrives on, but they’re also at the core of the GOP’s politics. And perhaps more worrisome, they’re at the center of the relative impotence of the Democratic Party. With Democrats increasingly scared that they’ll lose white voters and intent on playing to the middle by moving to the right, they have almost entirely abandoned any commitment to presenting an alternative vision, a set of policies consistent with a progressive, or even liberal politics.
The GOP and it’s tea party affiliates are running campaigns aimed at tearing down social programs and pushing the country into some sort of small government utopia. The central way they’ve done this is to blur the lines between ideological conservatism and racism. That is, they’ve built their anti-government politics on a racial politic of fear, a frenzy about immigrants and coded allusions to lazy black people. That strategy is not new and Republicans are certainly not the only politicians to have employed it. It was, after all, Bill Clinton who ended welfare on the backs of black women. And just like Clinton, today’s Democrats are taking voters of color for granted as they acquiesce to conservative policies and racial scapegoating.
It’s precisely for this reason that it’s no surprise that the tea party is growing and spreading its reach. Instead of asserting some unifying vision that explicitly addresses the real needs of low income communities, unemployed folks, people of color, LGBT people and progressives alike, the Democrats have been close to dormant.