After a year of fast-paced growth and increasing influence, the Tea Partiers suffered their first ever political defeat on Sunday when the House of Representatives passed health care reform. Remember, it was the Tea Partiers’ protests at town hall meetings last August that slowed the legislative drive toward reform and effectively took the single-payer option out of the Democratic Party’s playbook. Tea Partiers started to push “independents” away from the Democrats, and they pushed the Republican establishment into becoming the party of no-compromise opposition. Now a simple up or down vote has thrown the first roadblock in front of the Tea Partiers, and the question emerges: how will they respond over the next five months?
Already there are some clues. Tea Party Patriots has announced a “Repeal the Bill” petition on its website and has gathered about 20,000 signatures at the time this article was written. They claim they want 100,000 names. Once they amass those names and email addresses, however, they will be faced once again with the question of what to do. Some Tea Partiers gathered at the capitol in Atlanta, hoping Georgia state legislators would pass a constitutional amendment allowing them to opt out of federal healthcare mandates. And across the country a similar scenario can be expected to unfold as states rights’ advocates enlist Tea Party activists in a common attempt to annul the effect of federal statutes.
The nastier side of these protests has already shown itself multiple times, and the racist and homophobic name calling and spitting at Democratic congressmen as they walked through the Longworth Building on Saturday may also augur a different type of tactic. While the incidents themselves have been reported, less well known is the Tea Partiers’ response to these reports. At the Tea Party Express, one of the networks most closely allied with Republican Party operatives, Amy Kremer claimed that people in her movement “won’t tolerate” racist slurs. A few Tea Party Nation activists similarly decided that name-calling was bad public relations and that the offending parties should be “identified and ran out.” However, the majority of bloggers in this particular website discussion claimed that there was no evidence beyond the word of the offended congressmen that anything untoward had happened–and therefore they decided that nothing did happen. And besides, one respondent argued, he was a libertarian and believed in free speech. “I could care less what some crackpot with an “I’m an Official Tea Party Member” T-shirt on has to say about anything,” he wrote. Racist name-calling apparently did not bother him.
For their part, Republican congressman have promised lawsuits and court actions designed to prevent health care reform from being implemented. Obviously they would need a favorable decision from an (activist) judge. But for these politicians, the ultimate remedy is in the November elections, and they have started working overtime to keep Tea Party activists stumping for Republican candidates over the next five months. The danger for these Republicans is that the Tea Partiers will run in primaries against establishment politicians or be drawn away from electoral politics altogether and in ever more radical directions. And that too is about to happen.
Consider the call over the internet last Friday by an Alabama militia devotee: “To all modern Sons of Liberty,” he wrote, “This is your time. Break their windows. Break them now.” Sure enough, the windows of several Democratic representatives who had voted for health care, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ office in Tucson, were broken out with bricks over the weekend. There is no evidence that any Tea Partiers were involved in these crimes, but as their frustration grows over the next months, the choice between Republican Party electioneering, racist sloganeering, and militia-style brick throwing may be difficult for them to make.
Leonard Zeskind, author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, is president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.
This story was cross-posted to Talking Points Memo.