US: What the Tea Party Really Represents

Jesse Lessinger, Socialist Alternative (CWI USA)

A recent political television ad starts by attacking Obama for wasteful government spending by mainly pointing to the stimulus program. It then moves on the Obama efforts to cut Medicare. The conclusion: Obama wants big government and cuts to Medicare. This is a Tea Party-sponsored ad promoting a number of Republican candidates who are Tea Party supporters.

To the average person who is well aware that Medicare is a government program, this type of hypocritical nonsense can be quite frustrating. But this is part and parcel of the Tea Party phenomenon, a bundle of contradictions which has emerged in media spotlight in the last year.

Most recently the Republican primaries have become a battleground between this self-proclaimed insurgent grassroots revolt and the mainstream leadership of the GOP ["Grand Old Party" – a nickname for the Republican Party]. In several Senate, House and gubernatorial primaries throughout the country Tea Party candidates have upset the GOP leadership pick.

Their anti-establishment rhetoric tapped into conservative anger and has drawn support by railing against entrenched Washington insiders. Some of these politicians have unabashedly put forward ultra-conservative, extremist, and in some cases, racist and anti-immigrant views. In Kentucky, Tea Partier Rand Paul, the son of prominent libertarian Republican Congressman Ron Paul, stated that he believed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an “overreach” of Government power. Fox News’, Glen Beck, an outspoken promoter of the Tea Party, organized the August 28 “Restoring Honor” Rally in DC, called on the same day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech 47 years ago. It was another insult to black people and everyone in this country that cares about civil rights.

Most ordinary working people see the rise of the Tea Party movement as a threat. But to combat the Tea Party and the right we have to understand what it’s really about. It’s not enough to dismiss them as “lunatics”, as some on the left want to do. Dan Maes was a long shot in Colorado’s Republican Primary but he defeated the health care executive Rick Scott who had his own millions to spend. Maes was apparently able to capture the Republican vote with statements such as his claim that the Denver bike-sharing program was nothing less than a “socialist plot by the United Nations”!

But do these successes of the Tea Party really mean that there is a massive shift to the right in the US? This is not supported by the evidence. Based on result from its Oct 3rd poll, the Washington Post concluded: “Although Republicans, and many Democrats, have tried to demonize Washington, most major governments programs remain enormously popular.” The poll shows majorities wanting the government to be involved in schools and helping reduce poverty. In fact it found that support for government on a broad number of issues remains ‘high, in some cases where it was a decade ago.”

Perhaps a small section of the population has moved to the right. But the vast majority wants nothing to do with the right-wing Tea Party. In fact, a recent Gallup poll sited around 30 percent of people in the US viewed socialism as more favorable than capitalism and among youth 18-30 that figure went up to 43 percent!

But if the Tea Party crowd in reality represents only a very limited cross-section of society being mostly composed of older white males, why are they getting all the headlines? The truth is that underneath the veil of dissent and anti-establishment rage are powerful corporations and leaders of the Republican Party, i.e. the very ‘establishment’ forces that this “movement” supposedly has in its cross-hairs.

Bailout Anger

In the fall of 2008 the unprecedented $787 billion bank bailouts sparked an explosion of anger amongst wide-sections of the population, left and right. A month after Obama was in office, Rick Santelli of CNBC called for “tea parties” to protest Obama’s spending program. But this wasn’t to oppose the hundreds of billions going to Wall Street and the big banks whose reckless behavior played the decisive role in the worst economic crisis since the 1930’s.

The real target was a $75 billion program to prevent home foreclosures. Why? Well, because tax dollars shouldn’t go to pay “someone else’s” mortgage? The underlying theme from CNBC was that it would go towards those most affected by the sub-prime crisis, which were disproportionately working-class black families. In this fashion, genuine rage that existed against Wall Street and the big banks, was captured by the corporate media, and redirected at sections of working-class and middle-class America.

Most of the Tea Party events have since been sponsored by “FreedomWorks”, chaired by Dick Armey, the former House Majority Leader for the Republican Party. Other important members include billionaire Steve Forbes and Matt Kibbe, former Republican National Committee senior economist. Another organization behind the scenes of the Tea Party is “Americans for Prosperity” which is funded by billionaire David Koch of Koch Industries which among other things deals in trading and financial services. And of course we can’t forget those “fair and balanced” folks at Fox News.

Controlled by big business

The big business interest in all this has been primarily to block any kind of reform by the Obama administration, most importantly health care and financial regulation. They’ve exploited populist anger, turning it into a battering ram aimed against the interests of working class and middle class people who have suffered the most from this crisis.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the Republicans and a wing of corporate America turned part of its voting base so directly against their own interests. As Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone Magazine described in an article titled Tea & Crackers, this contradiction was on clear display in “a hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet [Sarah Palin] hand-picked by the GOP establishment.”

Although Rand Paul was shunned by the Republicans before the primaries, he was quickly accepted and brought into line by the mainstream of the party once his anti-establishment campaign had captured the Republican vote in the primaries.

Many liberal commentators argue that the Tea Party represents a threat to the GOP since the candidates who won in the Republican primaries may hold views too extreme to win the general election. This does pose a problem for Republicans, as several races that would have been a relatively easy victory against unpopular Democrats are now not so certain. However, the bigger picture is that it helps promote the big business agenda of diverting anger at crisis from Wall Street and corporate power, by blaming working people.

Fake “revolution”

In the meantime, the Tea Party candidates are parading around as if they’re a real voice of opposition. In reality they’re total fakes. Carl Paladino of upstate New York ran an insurgent campaign defeating the mainstream candidate and GOP choice in the primary for Governor claiming he would clean up the state government by “bringing a baseball bat” to the rampant corruption in Albany. In his victory speech Paladino proclaimed that “Tonight the ruling class knows. They have seen it now. There is a people’s revolution.”

A people’s revolution against the ruling class? Only slightly overlooked in this statement is that Carl Paladino is a multi-millionaire real-estate mogul from Buffalo who made his millions partly from government deals. Paladino is part of the ruling class.

Understandably, many are deeply troubled by the prospect of Paladino and other Tea Party right-wingers getting into office. The common argument which flows from this is that we therefore have to vote Democrat to keep them out, even if the Democrats like candidate Andrew Cuomo of New York have openly pledged to cut spending and attack workers.

Lesser evilism

Though this line of thinking seems to make sense it will in fact get us absolutely nowhere. The fundamental problem is that Democratic pro-corporate policies are as responsible for creating this crisis as Republican pro-corporate policies. Although the Democrats certainly don’t come out with the same right-wing garbage that spews from the mouths of some of these Tea Party politicians, they have shown no capacity to actually challenge this right-wing agenda in any real way, or to actually solve the economic problems like mass unemployment and cuts in services.

When the health care debate flared up last fall, with the Tea Party rage whipped up to a frenzy—and supported not surprisingly by the big health insurance and drug companies—the Democrats simply rolled over, dropped the “public option”, and made many other concession to the right. The financial regulation that was passed by Obama and the Democrats was defanged to the point where even Wall Street supported it!

The popular anger which provides the social base for this right-wing corporate-backed obstruction campaign is fueled by the deep economic and social crisis. For nearly two years now the Democrats have been in power in the White House, have had a majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and they have done virtually nothing to reverse the crisis.

Democrats in crisis

The main reason the Democrats have not been able to take on the right is because they don’t have anything fundamentally different to offer. They cannot expose the corporate backing of the Tea Party because they receive the same corporate dollars. They cannot attack the right for wanting to cut the deficit by slashing social programs because that’s precisely what the Democrats are already doing! On the state level Democratic and Republican administrations alike have been slashing billions from state spending while the new bipartisan budget commission set up by Obama has its sights set on cutting Social Security after the midterm elections.

Through Fox news and other corporate backers, the Tea Party has been given massive publicity. While it is a very diverse force, its message of blaming immigrants for the economic crisis and its barely veiled racism, is a warning to working people and young people of the potential threat of the right wing. As scary as the Tea Party is, the real threat at present to working people comes from Corporate America and both their parties. What we need to cut across this is our own independent political voice. We need to put blame where it should lie, on Wall Street, big business and the failing system of capitalism. Wall Street has two parties we need one of our own.

When workers organizations like unions remain tied to the Democrats they become incapable of challenging this corporate agenda. On October 2, the unions for the first time in decades mobilized for a demonstration in DC but despite the demands for jobs and education, the message from the official leadership was once again to “vote Democrat.” This poses no threat to the ruling establishment. Not everyone there was sold on the idea that voting Democrat was the answer (see an in-depth report on Oct 2). The tens of thousands that gathered in Washington DC clearly illustrated where the potential resources and energy could come from for building a movement that is not under the control of big business or the two major parties.

As tough as the task may be, we have to begin to develop independent working-class politics and struggle. The right has found an outlet for their anger and its being exploited by big business for its own ends. The vast majority of working people are completely fed up with mass unemployment and mass home foreclosures. Young people are facing cuts in education and a future of wars and environmental degradation. If a real lead is given, the enormous anger against the rich and Wall Street could also be harnessed to build a massive fight back in the clear interests of the working-class. It’s time to start campaigns and coalitions and run independent candidates (, as a first step toward a mass party of working people with a program to challenge the dictatorship of big business.

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October 2010