I do not give Tea Partiers undue credit by saying so—that is, that they are people, too—, but I want them treated with something other and better than the usual disdain, disrespect, and dismissal which commentators like MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry reserve for them, all the while expressing empathy for the plight of minorities or women in America. Tea Partiers have their problems, too, and I think that it serves no one’s interests to regard them as unworthy of empathetic attention.
It is one thing to criticize Tea Partiers’ public, stated or implied, attitudes, beliefs, conduct, principles, and values, as I have done repeatedly and relentlessly. Many have decried their pervasive and persistent racism and sexism; their radically flawed understanding of American history and the Constitution; their disruptive tactics at town meetings; their undemocratic efforts to demonize opponents and restrict the franchise; and their new-fangled and confused ideas, among many others, about economics, evolution, abortion, and marriage.
It is another thing, because of strenuous criticism, to treat Tea Partiers as people undeserving of the same respect and regard readily given others, especially minorities or women, as I have not. Critics may disagree with their policies and disapprove of their performance, but they should recognize their rights to be wrong, as they see it: racist, sexist, confused or ignorant, loud and obnoxious, anti-democratic in legislation, and dogmatic about social issues. Tea Partiers have the same rights to be as traditionally American in these ways as those Americans who established these traditions or have since conformed to them. They have the same rights as others to seek to redress grievances against government for what they see as its abuses.
Take racism, the predominant characteristic of Tea Partiers. It is as American as apple pie, though not all Americans are racist any more than all Americans eat apple pie. Racism goes back to be beginnings and continues to the present. The first slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, one year before the first Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock. Slavery resulted from economic exploitation justified by imputations of the moral inferiority of blacks. Although the Declaration of Independence declared, “all men are created equal,” few Americans believed that blacks were the political, much less the moral, equals of whites. Despite heated debate, the Constitution did not give blacks the vote, defined them as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of the census and the federal franchise, and ended only trade in slaves by 1807, not the institution of slavery itself.
From the beginning until the Civil War 250 years later, the Southern way of life assumed white superiority. After the war, three contemporary civil rights amendments, and the demise of King Cotton, racism in government and society continued. With the complicity of city, county, and state governments, racism flourished legally in Jim Crow laws and illegally in Ku Klux Klan violence. Despite the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts a century later, this race-based culture has motivated recurrent political efforts to restrict the franchise and obstruct voting.
So racism is undeniably American, was a basis of non-federal governments at all levels, and remains at least a theoretical alternative to an egalitarian polity and society. America struggles with conflicting ideals: an asserted ideal of democratic equality and an assumed ideal of white supremacy. Tea Partiers deny their racism because avowal would flout real, nominal, or hypocritical support of equality. They submit to the power of political correctness to stifle discussion in the public square. So they find non-racist proxies which cover their racist prejudices, like various social welfare programs, their share of federal or state budgets, and vivid instances of waste, fraud, and abuse, almost all atypical, some contrived (remember the Chicago “welfare queen” of Reagan-speak?).
In about 1960, at Cornell University, Dwight Eisenhower notoriously declared, “the future is yet to come.” For racists, it has been arriving for some time. Efforts to end segregation became efforts to ensure integration—all resented and resisted. Remedies addressing minority under-education and under-employment became race-based—that is, affirmative action—programs in education and employment—all protested as unfair, in appearance, if not in actuality. The election and, perhaps even more, the re-election of Barack Hussein Obama, a man half black, half white, mark the convergence of democratic principles and demographic projections which, far more than wars and laws, threaten the short-term impotency and the long-term demise of American racism.
For racists, the arrival of this dreaded future has been appalling, even apocalyptic. Some of it looks like a net loss: a white plurality will not be able to dominate American democracy in the future as a white majority did in the past. Racists cannot maintain of a robust sense of superiority if whites lack political power. And much of the future looks like a zero-sum game; in an economy in which lower- and middle-class income has been stagnating, many social programs seem to take from whites and give to minorities, who do disproportionately benefit from them. The operative word is “seem.” In reality, the “redistribution” is much less from whites to minorities than from the lower and middle to the upper classes. Unfortunately, “seem” works; their racism blinds Tea Partiers to the facts of financial redistribution counter to their self-interests.
Psychologically and socially, educationally and vocationally, racists fear their future subordination and marginalization—that is, in their eyes, demotion to second-class status. To them, such prospects are not only bleak and doubtful, but also black (or brown) and dreadful. An angry response, even a self-destructive one, is hardly surprising. If they cannot keep what they have, they refuse to give it away, or have it taken away and given, to those whom they regard as their inferiors. They refuse to simply and quietly accept their losses; or, worse, to be expected to simply and quietly accept the humiliation of what they perceive as a surrender of the American way of life.
So we cannot properly appreciate Tea Partiers if we do not understand that, as they perceive their situation and the future, they are not conservatives, but reactionaries. Conservatives do not say “no” to change; they say “slow.” They know that circumstances change and that they must modify their stances to maintain their viability in a changing world. Conservatives are realists. Reactionaries are illusionists. They reject and resist the changes which conservatives accommodate. From their across-the-board opposition to Obama—the man, the president, his policies and appointments—best seen in repeated, doomed efforts in the House of Representatives to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), Tea Partiers (as well as other Republicans) have been trying to repeal the legislative framework of American economic and social policy which has nevertheless had sometimes more, sometimes less, bipartisan support for 80 years. In fact, their originalist constitutionalism approved of only the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and attacked most of the amendments ratified during and after the Civil war, especially the Fourteenth, which guarantees the vote to all males of age. So the common cognomen “Party of ‘No’” awarded to the Tea Party fits. But Tea Partiers have been trying to repeal or reject much more: the modern world. The trajectory of change may bend toward justice; it certainly bends toward more change of the same kinds, all for the worse, in their eyes. For racists, there can be no “slow,” only “no,” and its return to the past and a restoration of white predominance.
I mean no mockery: I feel their pain. If I thought my country heading slowly and inexorably toward a totalitarian dictatorship, with the barbaric practices for which such dictatorships are known, I would feel almost exactly as Tea Partiers feel. Anyone empathetic to those who suffer in any of the ways in which people can suffer, without regard to race or sex or the rest of the long catalog of categories which divide us—are you listening, Melissa?—would also be empathetic to those fearing the loss of economic standing, political power, and self-respect as well as those suffering from discrimination, unemployment, under-employment, or poor prospects; poor education; poor nutrition; and poor health.
Enlightened and empathetic leaders would address “We the People” problems. They would find and urge ways to bring people together in shared enterprises, end personal discrimination of all kinds, means test everything, and tout the successes of all who avail themselves of the opportunities which a free, generous, and helpful society provides its citizens. In presidential campaigns, Democratic candidates would speak with and listen to people in rural areas of “red states,” by visiting cities like Danville, VA; Wichita, KS; and Coeur d’Alene, ID. The first step is to empathize with—certainly, neither fear nor pity—Tea Partiers. Racist or not, they as much as others need respect as people and regard for their cares and insecurities. They need assurance of a valued place in a pluralistic society, and encouragement to abandon “no” for “slow.” That would be progress indeed.