Anti-State Nationalism and the Tea Party
A Review Essay by
Steven L. Gardiner
Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, edited by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost,
297 pages. University of California Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-520-27423-5.
Steep is a data-rich collection of essays from the UC Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies summing the key scholarly approaches and controversies for Tea Party phenomena. This is the scholarship possible when a new social or political movement has been around long enough to merit study, but not quite long enough for historical or ethnographic treatments. Its empirical evidence consists primarily of re-analysis of broad-based survey research on the one hand, and close readings of Tea Party texts, from press releases and mission statement to social media commentary and hand-lettered signs, on the other. While the different authors in the collection consider different data, there seems to be broad agreement regarding the basic movement demographics; the essays are a valuable contribution to defining the subject in broad quantitative terms.
Theoretical and qualitative understanding of the Tea Party, however, remains contested. This is reflected in the differing and even contradictory interpretations advanced by the various authors. Such controversies are to be expected, the more so when emergent phenomena are treated by scholars working from divergent and sometimes rival interpretive traditions. For outsiders these differences may seem tea pot tempests. However esoteric the theoretical differences also are, what is at stake is not simply consensus bragging rights in a relatively cozy corner of the scholarly world—the study of right-wing social movements—but a basic understanding of the changing political landscape of the American Right and how progressives, liberals and moderates can and should respond to it.
The collection is divided into three sections, each of which adumbrates an aspect of how best to understand the Tea Party (-ies):
Part One– What Manner of Movement? While all of the authors included understand the Tea Party as “right wing,” the extent to which the movement should be understood as “populist,” “social Darwinist,” or “nationalist”—or some combination of the three— is disputed. Also addressed is the question of “astroturf” verses “grass roots.”
Part Two – “The Real Americans”: Motivation and Identity. In this section the authors provide mostly complementary accounts of Tea Partier motivations, looking from slightly divergent angles at race and gender.
Part Three – New on the Bloc: Political Impact. In this final section the authors consider the future of the Tea Party and its place in the Republican Party, and provide historical comparison with the Christian Right.
Part One features essays by San Francisco State University historian Charles Postel, Chip Berlet, author (with Matt Lyons) of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (South End Press, 2000), IREHR’s own Devin Burghart, co-author (with Leonard Zeskind) of Tea Party Nationalism: A Critical Examination of Tea Party Nationalism and the Size, Strength and Focus of its national Factions(NAACP/IREHR, 2010), and University of Missouri at Columbia political scientist Clarence Lo.
Postel fires the opening shot in his essay “The Tea Party in Historical Perspective: A Conservative Response to a Crisis of Political Economy,” in which he traces the historical lineage of Tea Party ideology to late nineteenth century Social Darwinists in the mode of William Graham Sumner, “who believed that any social policy to protect the poor or address the gaping social inequalities of the Gilded Age violated the allegedly natural order of laissez-faire economics” (33). In doing so he specifically takes issue with Berlet’s categorization of the Tea Party movement as a variety of right-wing populism, specifically “producerism.”
Producerism is a rhetorical position described by historian Michael Kazin as recurrent in American social movements in which coalitions of those who produce economic goods—farmers, workers, artisans, and small manufacturers—decry the parasitism of both the shiftless poor and the extractive elites, seeking in the materiality of their work an identity. For Postel, Berlet’s description of the Tea Party as grounded in the ethos of producerism “…is problematic in that the Tea Party sends only occasional barbs toward the corporate executives, bankers, and lobbyists, who in the past were the systematic targets of ‘producerist’ movements. Instead, today’s Tea Party usually celebrates the corporate elites as heroes of the market” (33).
Berlet responds directly to Postel in his contribution to the volume, “Reframing Populist Resentments in the Tea Party Movement.” He writes:
Postel’s observations on the attitude of Tea Partiers toward corporate power… miss a good part of the story… In fact, grassroots Tea Party activists routinely condemn the financial manipulators, “banksters,” and treacherous liberal collectivists led by President Obama, who they claim are plotting to subvert the “free market.” At the same time as they praise the “productive” corporate elites, they condemn the “parasitic” corporate elites—a hallmark of right-wing populist producerism (58).
Thus we are left with divergent accounts, one (Berlet’s) in which Tea Partiers routinely target parasitic elites, even while celebrating productive elites, the other (Postel’s) in which Tea Party animus is directed mainly at the poor.
In terms of which is more accurate, this would seem to be an empirical question—a simple matter, were it not quite such a vexed undertaking to quantify factors such as degree of emotional attachment, connection between rhetoric and action, and intra-group influence. Berlet is quite correct in noting that Tea Partiers have expressed considerable vitriol at parasitic elites, meanwhile Postel’s claim that such rhetoric is not particularly significant for this movement is still quite plausible.
One might operationalize the dispute and ask questions such as (1) on what policy initiatives have the Tea Party groups spent the most money? (2) For what activities have they been the most cited in the press? (3) What issues do ordinary Tea Party supporters say they are most concerned about? The first two criteria suggested above are not addressed in detail, but the third question—what actually moves Tea Party supporters according to self-reports—is taken up by a number of the authors.
Abramowitz’s analysis of the American National Election Study (ANES) data is perhaps the most telling. He found that, among an array of variables applied to the category of white voters in the study including age, gender, income, education or even party affiliation, the three strongest predictors of Tea Party support were conservative ideology, racial resentment, and dislike of President Obama. Tea Party supporters are both more conservative—culturally and fiscally—than other voters, including Republicans. They are far more likely to believe that blacks are not the victims of bigotry, and to resent any state-sponsored attempts to redress persistent inequalities.
From another point of view (mine), the Tea Party could therefore be said to coalesce around a practice of anti-statist nationalism, driven largely by what I want to call collective narcissism. Both practice and drive require a bit of explanation.
By anti-statist nationalism I mean a practice, largely but not completely rhetorical, which attacks the state while claiming to speak for the authentic nation, or “real Americans.” This practice is both in keeping with the development of post-war conservatism—an imaginary line from Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority through Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” and Lee Atwater’s “Willie Horton” ad points directly to the Tea Party—and a significant transformation thereof. As argued by Joseph Lowndes in his contribution to Steep, American conservatism has increasingly sought and claimed a “populist” appeal grounded above all in racialized class politics. Lowndes writes, “As the state itself became more tightly linked to people of color in this political logic, it became less identified with hegemonic views of national identity. State was thus increasingly split from nation in this politics, allowing Reagan himself to be iconographic of (white) America, even while he continually disparaged the state” (155).
This splitting of nation from state is the basis of Tea Party “populism”—though to term it populism involves some romantic longing. Lowndes himself uses the right-wing populist tag, but he is quick to point out that in so doing, analysts have fallen for the movement’s rhetoric. For example Pollsters Scott Rasmussen and Douglas Schoen write, “For the first time in history, the majority of Americans qualify as populists. And make no mistake: their anger is real. We have seen it.” In Lowndes’ assessment, with which I substantially concur, “such portrayals participate in the populist romance they claim to describe, overstate the popular influence of the Tea Party movement, and deny its ideological and affective link to contemporary conservatism” (p. 153).
Arguably Berlet’s very specific definition of a right-wing producerist populism avoids such a romanticizing tendency, but it does so by over-emphasizing the producerist rhetoric of the Tea Party, or at best, by obscuring the extent to which the movement’s claims are based not on pitting deracinated “producers” against equally deracinated “parasites” high and low, but on a claim to authentic American national identity made in opposition to a state which has been racialized and which in many particulars, has come to stand-in for the racial other in the opposition between “ordinary independent people”—read white people of all classes self-identifying as merely human—and “dependents of the state.”
This formula—racialized anti-state nationalism—has allowed libertarians and fiscal conservatives to get a free pass on issues of racism, in some cases moving “beyond color blindness” to repurpose the Civil Rights Movement itself as conservative—for example when Glenn Beck claimed the mantle of Martin Luther King, Jr. Now, it is clear enough and exhaustively documented in the IREHR reports Tea Party Nationalism: A Critical Examination of the Size, Scope and Focus of the Tea Party Movement and Its National Factions (2010)and Beyond Fair: The Decline of the Established Anti-Immigrant Organizations and the Rise of Tea Party Nationalism (2012) that the Tea Party, particularly the 1776 Tea Party (aka TeaParty.org), has been attractive to ideological white nationalists and anti-immigrant nativists. Yet at the same time various Tea Party leaders, particularly those associated with the so-called libertarian and fiscal conservative wing of the movement, have denounced racism and even eschewed engaging with “cultural” issues that have historically been racially coded, e.g. crime, immigration, and affirmative action.
Yet if a conservative political operative as astute as Richard Armey, the founder of Freedom Works, one of the primary institutional facilitators of the Tea Party movement, is willing to deviate from what had previously been the mainstream of Republican strategy—racial coding and the promotion of white fear—it is because the context has changed. As Leonard Zeskind has noted, the Tea Party is not simply a repeat or extension of the Jim Crow politics of the pre-Civil Rights era or the status quo ante politics of the Republican “Southern Strategy.” It is rhetorically libertarian and no doubt aspires to “populist” as opposed to “elitist” identifications, but the actual form of political practice is nationalist, imagining a nation of deserving, independent, autonomous persons set upon not by the racial bogeymen of yesteryear—dark-skinned criminals preying on white innocence—but by a predatory, oppressive state that prefers dependent clients.
The unsavory underbelly of these libertarian cum populist claims is that the independent, autonomous individuals it claims to represent are little more than a figment of Ayn Rand’s imagination and the fantasy lives of her followers. This is clear enough even in the distribution of attitudes within the Tea Party orbit, where the small government ideological purity dissolves into considerable support for specific “welfare” programs—precisely those programs conceptualized as universal, but which in fact have strong historical associations with a default American identity that was historically white, and which have always been rhetorically constructed as “earned”—Social Security and Medicare.
And while the early occupational exclusions that kept most blacks and many women from receiving benefits under these programs have long since been repealed, the orientation of the tax code to benefit those with more wealth along with the history of promoting white folk into the middle class, e.g. via the vast post-WWII G.I. Bill, means that the purported “independence” of libertarian Tea Partiers is a society-denying myth. As Lisa Disch puts it in her chapter, “The Tea Party: A “White Citizenship” Movement?” the racial entitlement that these twists and turns of policy provide is invisible to many Americans. “It is constituted by an independence that feels earned when it is, in fact, publicly subsidized!”
The fact that the publicly subsidized “independence” of many Tea Partiers is invisible as such, and mythical in essence, is fueled by a variety of collective narcissism. By collective narcissism I mean an exaggerated identification with and regard for an in-group, as well as a perception, real or not, that belonging in said group confers significant, if not always obvious benefits and privileges. Only in this light is the illusionary “independence” touted by Tea Partiers or the pseudo-populism of some of its anti-state nationalist leaders really understandable.
To be clear, I am not suggesting a clinical disorder on the part of individual Tea Partiers, but that the anti-statist national ideology of the movement is strategically bent to avoid seeing the ways in which policies favor people “like them.” The current incarnation of this form of “color-blind” race politics dates to California’s 1978 Proposition 13, the property tax limitation measure. As with libertarian-oriented Tea Party slogans, nothing could seem less about race and belonging than property taxes, but as argued by Dale Maharidge in The Coming White Minority, it was no accident that this tax backlash had its origins in the very state where the taken-for-granted white majority first began to dissolve under the twin pressures of immigration and white flight.
Demographics alone do not lead to a particular politics—rather, it is the mobilization of particular interests and identities. In the case of the Tea Party, the identity in question (with many notable exceptions) is neither backward-looking, Jim Crow-style white supremacy nor its explicit white nationalist descendent, but a sense of American middle-class normality supported by a largely invisible public support for various entitlements that by no means provide much in the way of benefit to every single (white) person. They are a statistical tendency, an aspiration, and an identification with “independence” and a collective stigmatization of “dependency” that is also rhetorically racialized.
. Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (New York: Basic Books, 1995). Note that whatever else might be said regarding Kazin’s characterization of historic “producerist” ideologies (or rhetorics) in the United States, none of the movements in his account extended the label to large-scale manufacturers or corporate elites, though at times it did extend to small businesses and owner-managed farms of any size. Only in the ideological environment reshaped by the Cold War on the one hand and Libertarian/Randian rhetorics on the other, could the Koch brothers—or Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc., pick your flavor—be included under the producerist label.
.The various surveys either targeting or including Tea Partiers tend to ask three basic types of questions: 1) basic demographic indicators, 2) self-reported opinion and classification, and 3) derived ideological indicators. The first category includes things like age, gender, and religious affiliation. The second category asks survey respondents what they think is important (or not so important) or how often they do a thing. The third category uses some combination of proxy questions to approximate the degree to which respondents are motivated by biases and prejudices, for example, racial resentment.
The main reason to construct composite scales such as those found in the third type of questions indicated above is that they are interested in characteristics that are either not immediately or intuitively obvious to respondents, and/or that respondents might be reluctant to self-report because of negative connotations. Thus if asked directly “to what extent is your political activity primarily motivated by racial resentment,” relatively few people are likely to answer that this is a strong motivating factor. But when asked more indirect questions about their attitudes toward persons of a particular race, or a variety of races, respondents taken as a group, may show statistically significant tendencies as compared to other groupings.
So, for example, the American National Election Study (ANES) survey, 2010 version, relied on by Alan Abramowitz in his contribution to the volume—“Grand Old Tea Party: Partisan Polarization and the Rise of the Tea Party Movement”—uses a four item “racial resentment” scale. Participants are asked to respond using a standardized five-point scale— agree strongly,  agree somewhat,  neither agree nor disagree,  disagree somewhat,  disagree strongly—to the following statements:
- Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
- Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
- Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.
- It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.
And then bundles of answers, matched with various primary variables (e.g. self-report of support for the Tea Party, voting Republican, or gender), are combined in specified ways to arrive at a scale labeled racial resentment.
The problem with such composite scales is that it is easy to forget that what they actually measure is how people, taken as a group, tend to respond to the specific questions on the survey. The label associated with the scale, e.g. “racial resentment,” researchers hope reflects a natural language understanding of that phenomenon, but its “external validity”—the degree to which it accurately conveys “the truth” about the connection between “real world” racial resentment and a particular group—cannot be established by the survey itself. Nonetheless, in the above example, even a cursory glance at the questions will leave little doubt that most people who both agree strongly with the first and last item, and disagree strongly with the two middle questions, are probably demonstrating something like what might in ordinary language be called racial resentment toward blacks.
The same sorts of limitations and procedures apply to any composite scale—whether labeled happiness, conservatism, altruism, or industriousness—though the more politically contested the label, the more it deserves a hard look.
. Scott Rasmussen and Douglas Schoen from Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System, (New York: HarperCollins, 2010, italics in original) as cited by Lowndes, p. 153.
. Lisa Disch, “The Tea Party: A White Citizenship Movement?” Pp. 133-151. In Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party,edited by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), pp. 139-142.
. Joseph Lowndes, “The Past and Future of Race in the Tea Party Movement,” Pp. 152-170. In Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party,edited by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), Pp. 160-161.