The Tea Party of No

Arun Gupta Oct 25, 2010

CREDIT: MIKE NIEMIECKentucky’s Rand Paul gained instant infamy when he argued the federal government has no business enforcing integration in private businesses. Nevada’s Sharron Angle has said, “We need to phase Medicare and Social Security out in favor of something privatized.” New York’s Carl Paladino says he’ll “clean out Albany with a baseball bat.” Ohio’s Steve Stivers suggests eliminating “the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy and others to return to a constitutionally pure government.” Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell favors a complete ban on abortion, and, of course, thinks masturbation is equivalent to adultery.

That these and other Tea Party-backed candidates in the 2010 elections are against all sorts of progressive legislation and even government itself is unsettling, but easy to dismiss as aberrations. This would be a mistake. The new crop of candidates may be clumsy in their presentation, but many will ride the Republican tide to victory this November. And far from being an aberration, the Tea Party is just the latest incarnation of a Republican Party that thrives on being the “Party of No.”

For decades, the right has opposed any legislation or policy involving social, economic or political progress: civil rights, school desegregation, women’s rights, labor organizing, the minimum wage, Social Security, LGBTQ rights, welfare, immigrant rights, public education, reproductive rights, Medicare and Medicaid. And through the years the right invoked hysterical rhetoric in opposition, predicting such policies would result in the end-of-family-free-enterprise-God-America on the one hand, and the imposition of atheism-socialism-Nazism on the other.

Republicans are obstructionist for one simple reason: It’s a winning strategy. Opposing progressive policies allows the right to actualize the ideals that both motivate and define its base. Rightist ideologies are not without sophistication, but right-wing politicians and media figures distill them to a crude Manichean dualism to mobilize supporters based on group difference: good vs. evil, us vs. them. By demonizing and scapegoating politically marginal groups — Blacks, Muslims, gays, immigrants — the right is able to define “real Americans,” who are good, versus those defined as parasites, illegitimate and internal threats, who are evil.

There is a critical paradox at work. The Republicans have deftly turned being the “Party of No” into a positive stance: They signal to their base they are working to defeat an alien ideology by defending real Americans and traditional values and institutions.

Ideologues and opinion-makers spin any redistributive policy as a zero-sum game; progressive policies give to undeserving groups by taking wealth from or denying rights to deserving Americans and institutions. Since Obama took office, the rise of the Tea Party has made the Republicans even more strident in their opposition. The GOP has fought against every Democratic policy — including the stimulus bill, jobs programs, aid to local governments, court appointees, labor rights, healthcare, financial regulation, Net neutrality, unemployment benefits, expanded access to food stamps and Head Start, action on global warming and immigrant rights — because it claims that some sort of theft of money or rights is involved.

Sara Diamond neatly summarizes the politics behind the right’s obstructionism in her book, Roads To Dominion. She writes, “To be right-wing means to support the state in its capacity as enforcer of order and to oppose the state as distributor of wealth and power downward and more equitably in society” (emphasis in original). These principles, in turn, flow from four interrelated political philosophies that animate the modern right: militarism, neoliberalism, traditionalism and white supremacism.


The heart of the right’s agenda is neoliberalism, which is the rule of the “free market” above all else. It demands that everything be a commodity, all actions be judged according to cost-benefit analysis, every realm be opened to capital’s predations, all human needs subjugated to those of finance. Yet, left unchecked, neoliberalism would result in market anarchy and the dissolution of social solidarities, David Harvey argues in A Brief History of Neoliberalism. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher summed up the neoliberal worldview: “There is no such thing as society, but only individuals.”

Faced with market nihilism, “some degree of coercion appears necessary to restore order,” writes Harvey. Enter the neoconservatives, who play a crucial role resolving the contradictions between neoliberalism and traditionalism through militarism. Harvey explains that they “emphasize militarization as an antidote to the chaos of individual interests. For this reason, they are far more likely to highlight threats, real or imagined, both at home and abroad, to the integrity and stability of the nation.”

Militarism is just the means, however. To mobilize support for repressive methods, the right stokes the passions and fears of its base by posing traditional values as under attack: the family, God, marriage, America, private property, law and order and freedom itself. These values are often linked to neoliberalism and contrasted with “collectivism,” which is presented as a looming danger to both property and God. This also bridges the ideological gap between the religious right and the free-market right.

For example, the Bible can easily be read as a socialist document. But the role of money-driven ministries and televangelism among evangelicals is expressed in the doctrine known as “prosperity gospel” — “the belief that God rewards signs of faith with wealth, health and happiness.” As many evangelicals are actual or would-be entrepreneurs, this idea is readily accepted. It’s a small step to convince them that unions promote secular collectivism that threatens private religious values, thus creating a theological rationale for neoliberal policies.

Now, I use “the right” instead of “Republican” or even “conservative” to describe the movement and its ideas. Until recent years, there was a breed of socially liberal, fiscally conservative Republican that retained a foothold in the GOP. These Republicans provided critical support for civil rights and other progressive legislation. But starting in the sixties, socially liberal Republicans began to drift toward the Democratic Party, while Jim Crow-loving Democrats shifted to the GOP. So while the right may now overlap significantly with the Republican Party, it wasn’t always so. More important, as shown by the Christian Right and the Tea Party, the right will try to purge those Republicans deemed not sufficiently orthodox, making the party more and more extreme.

While the Tea Party is a genuine mass movement, much of its funding comes from right-wing foundations through front groups, and its politics are anti-government, anti-labor, pro-corporate and often socially conservative, which is the same agenda the right has been pushing for more than 30 years.


The roots of right-wing obstruction are represented by three pivotal historical figures: William F. Buckley, Jr., Barry Goldwater and George Wallace.

“The father of modern conservatism,” Buckley proclaimed his intention to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop!’” in founding National Review in 1955. He knit together traditionalism, free-market ideology and anti-Communism in opposing the distribution of power and wealth and supporting the imposition of social order. In the 1950s, he dismissed civil rights legislation because Southern whites were “the advanced race.” He inveighed against the 1965 Voting Rights Act as threatening “chaos” and “mobcratic rule.” While opposing basic freedoms for all people because it threatened the traditional order, he was for using force to impose gulag-like policies such as quarantining drug addicts and tattooing people with AIDS on their buttocks. He suggested “relocating chronic welfare cases” to “rehabilitation centers.”

Buckley was not alone in believing progressive policies eroded traditional mores and institutions. Barry Goldwater, who was trounced as the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, calling it “unconstitutional.” He fought school desegregation and the desegregation of public accommodations, claiming it “tampers with the rights of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of property.” He railed against federal aid to schools, the minimum wage, Medicare and the entire welfare state because “socialism can be achieved through welfarism.” He opposed the progressive income tax because it artificially “enforce[ed] equality among unequal men.” One of Goldwater’s informal advisers in 1964 was economist Milton Friedman, who saw nothing wrong with racial discrimination in employment because it was a matter of “taste.” Many campaign volunteers came from the conspiratorial John Birch Society, which labeled integration a Communist plot. Within Goldwater’s campaign one can see how various segments of the right united in opposing racial equality, but each for different reasons.

In contrast to Buckley, Goldwater was no religious traditionalist, but he did combine libertarianism and anti-Communism. He hewed to a secular traditionalism forged from patriotism, the Constitution and frontier mythology, and was far more open-minded on social issues, making clear his contempt for the Christian Right when it began to take over the Republican Party in the 1980s.

A contemporary of Goldwater, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace swept the Deep South in the 1968 presidential election running on a segregationist platform. He represented yet another form of traditionalism, one that stoked fears that “blacks were moving beyond their safely encapsulated ghettos into ‘our’ streets, ‘our’ schools, ‘our’ neighborhoods,” according to Dan Carter, author of From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution.

Wallace pioneered the race-based appeals that still excite the populist right today. But he was also a deft cultural warrior who, writes Carter, “knew that a substantial percentage of the American electorate despised the civil rights agitators and antiwar demonstrators as symptoms of a fundamental decline in the traditional cultural compass of God, family and country, a decline reflected in rising crime rates, the legalization of abortion, the rise in out-of-wedlock pregnancies, the increase in divorce rates, and the proliferation of ‘obscene’ literature and films.” Add gay marriage, Islamophobia and immigration, and you pretty much have the right’s culture-war agenda of today.

The right’s need for enemies is coded in its political DNA. Without enemies to defeat, vanquish and even destroy, the right would suffer an existential crisis. For Goldwater it was the Communist menace; for Wallace, integrationists and intellectuals; for Nixon, liberals, antiwar activists and black radicals; for Reagan, labor, welfare queens and the Evil Empire; for Gingrich and his cohorts it was gays, feminists, welfare mothers and the Democrats; during the Bush years, it was Islam, immigrants, gays and abortionists; for the Tea Party, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, it’s all of the above.

There is one final step in how the right mobilizes grassroots support behind an obstructionist agenda. Few people ponder theory when making political decisions. That’s why mobilizing group resentment and solidarity simultaneously is so effective. It gives people a way to see both enemies and allies in their daily lives. In the case of immigrants, the narrative is about “illegals” stealing jobs and social services from taxpayers. In the case of the Obama administration, the story is that taxes are being stolen from hard-working Americans to support parasites ranging from welfare recipients to Wall Street bankers.

Chip Berlet, a scholar at Political Research Associates, describes this as “producerism.” He defines it as “a worldview in which people in the middle class feel they are being squeezed from above by crippling taxes, government bureaucracies and financial elites while simultaneously being pushed around, robbed, and shoved aside by an underclass of ‘lazy, sinful and subversive freeloaders.’ The idea is that unproductive parasites above and below are bleeding the productive middle class dry.”

Segments of the right use producerism differently, explains Berlet. “Economic libertarians blast the government for high taxes and too much regulation of business. Anti-immigrant xenophobes blast the government for letting ‘illegals’ steal their jobs and increase their taxes. Christian fundamentalists blast the government for allowing the lazy, sinful and subversive elements to ruin society.” In recent history, Wallace and Nixon used producerist rhetoric to mobilize white working-class resentment against blacks.

Producerism is premised on other techniques. First, argues Berlet, a group of people are dehumanized so they are seen as objects, and then they are demonized as evil. Next, the group is scapegoated irrationally for specific problems. Lou Dobbs mastered this process in defining undocumented immigrants as “illegal,” then spouting dubious claims about immigrants being responsible for crime waves and disease outbreaks, and finally blaming them for stealing jobs and social services. FOX News used the same process in its hit job on ACORN.

Within the Tea Party movement, much of the anger is directed at immigrants, African-Americans, social welfare and equality in general. Among Tea Partiers, 73 percent think “Blacks would be as well off as whites if they just tried harder”; 73 percent believe “providing government benefits to poor people encourages them to remain poor”; 60 percent believe “we have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country”; 56 percent think “immigrants take jobs from Americans”; 92 percent want a smaller government with “fewer services”; 92 percent think Obama’s policies are moving the country toward socialism; only 7 percent approve of Obama’s performance as president; and a combined 5 percent identify themselves as black, Asian or of Hispanic origin.

One survey found that identifying as a conservative or a Tea Party supporter was an accurate predictor of racial resentment. Additionally, only one-third were opposed to the government tapping people’s telephones and racial or religious profiling, and barely half opposed indefinite detention without trial. This is a movement that thrives on opposing the distribution of power and wealth more equitably in society and imposing a repressive social order.

With nearly 60 percent of Tea Partiers believing Obama is foreign-born or saying they are not sure, it becomes clear why so many on the right have adopted violent and revolutionary rhetoric. The thinking is he’s a foreigner or a Muslim or stole the election, so he is alien and illegitimate. As such, it makes sense he is pushing an alien idea like socialism that may be part of some grand conspiracy like the New World Order, the North American Union, the Bilderberg Group or Satan. (In a poll last September in New Jersey, not known as a hotbed of right-wing radicalism, 29 percent of Republicans thought Obama was the Antichrist or were unsure.)

However irrational this position may be, the logical consequences are not: Anything Obama and the Democrats do must be opposed because it is a life-and-death struggle. In opposing the healthcare plan, the right is not just trying to deny services to the undeserving, it is affirming and protecting free choice, family, the sanctity of life, the market, God, country, the Constitution — all arguments trotted out in the last year.

At the same time, the Obama administration has helped build the Tea Party by aiding Wall Street rather than Main Street. The Republicans have exploited legitimate anxieties over high unemployment, a shrinking economy and onerous taxes by scapegoating the weak and marginal for policies that are structural and historical in nature.

The lesson for Obama and Democrats is not that they went too far to the “left,” it’s that they went too far to the right. Obama had the political capital to push for a “Green New Deal” that could have restructured the transportation and energy sectors and created millions of new jobs. Slashing the bloated military budget while fighting for single-payer healthcare — instead of subsidizing for-profit healthcare with tax dollars — budget deficits could have been constrained while reducing the financial burden of medical bills for most U.S. households. Implementing such an agenda could have created a mass constituency that would fight for a progressive vision and against the right’s repressive politics.

The right has well-thought-out ideologies, a specific agenda and clearly defined enemies and ruthlessly pursues power to achieve its goals. It’s fighting a Democratic White House and Party that stand for nothing — that is why being the “Party of No” will continue to be a winning strategy for Republicans.



With polls estimating self-identified supporters at 11–30 percent of the general population, the Tea Party is clearly a mass movement. Data indicates the base is made up of older white Christian conservatives, and many have above-average incomes.

At the same time, corporate and Republican operatives, money and pundits — from those in the spotlight, such as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, to those in the shadows, like Sal Russo and the Koch brothers — have shaped and directed the movement. Here are a few prominent players.

SAL RUSSO — A Republican consultant who got his start during Ronald Reagan’s tenure as governor of California, Russo is credited with securing Christine O’Donnell’s primary victory for Delaware’s open Senate seat by using his email list of 400,000 names to generate support, volunteers and contributions for her campaign. He is also called the brains behind the Tea Party Express.

TEA PARTY EXPRESS — Formed by Sal Russo and his consulting firm, this political action committee spent $600,000 in Joe Miller’s Senate primary victory in Alaska and hundreds of thousands in ads for Scott Brown’s upset win for Massachusetts’ open Senate seat and has been funding attack ads against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. It has raised and spent more than $6.5 million in this election cycle as of Sept. 30 and has funneled some $2 million of that through Russo’s firm and an affiliate, King Media Group.

GLENN BECK — With enterprises including the online “Glenn Beck University,” Fusion Magazine, and the “9/12 Project,” Beck is “the most highly regarded individual among Tea Party supporters” with a daily audience estimated at 2 million. He raked in $32 million in 2009 peddling conspiracies of a socialist takeover of government, an abolition of U.S. borders and the collapse of the U.S. dollar, and he has mused on air about killing Michael Moore and poisoning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Beck’s violent rhetoric has inspired one fan, Byron Williams, to try to assassinate employees at the Tides Foundation, a frequent Beck target.

— Bankrolled by Charles and David H. Koch, brothers with an estimated wealth of $43 billion from oil, gas and chemical holdings, this “Astroturf” group has fought against the stimulus bill, organized more than 300 rallies against healthcare legislation and launched an anti-global-warming national tour; it is a leading trainer and organizer of Tea Party activists and chapters.

SARAH PALIN — A favorite among the Tea Party movement, Palin has successfully anointed many victors in Republican congressional primaries who beat out GOP establishment-backed candidates.

FREEDOMWORKS — Run by former House Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey, this lobby group provides nuts-and-bolts support for the Tea Party such as writing press releases, organizing local events, publishing guides on media messaging and training activists. It was a key player behind the first big Tea Party event, the April 15 Tax Day protest in 2009, and has also organized against healthcare and climate change legislation.

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