The Tea Party isn’t racist, except when it is
Shorter John Judis: “There are no racists in America”:
It’s possible, as Damon Linker has suggested, that Rand Paul’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not based on racial resentment, but on a radical libertarianism. (Although, recalling Jamie Kirchick’s study of Ron Paul’s racist newsletters, if his father shaped Rand Paul’s view on civil rights, it might be more accurate to say that his opinions reflect both libertarianism and racial resentment.) Equally, it may be that some Tea Party members’ rage against “moochers” looking for government handouts to pay for houses they couldn’t afford is an expression of American individualism rather than racism. Racial resentment is one impulse among many. It is not necessarily an overpowering Id that defines conservative politics, and the opposition to Obama.
I’ve heard this argument before, and I find it oddly disconnected from the actual history of the conservative movement and it’s cousins in the hard-right. Racial resentment was an integral part of the conservative movement from the very beginning; it animated some of its earliest crusaders – William F. Buckley — and provided it with its first firm electoral footing (there’s a reason Goldwater did very well in the former Confederacy). As Amanda Marcotte has repeatedly and convincingly noted, this Tea Party flavor of libertarianism — defined largely by rabid opposition to any kind of social spending — has its roots in the backlash against civil rights gains. Indeed, it’s incredibly naive of Judis to argue that the Tea Party’s rage against “moochers” doesn’t have racial roots, especially since it’s long been the case that those inveighing against “moochers” (or “welfare queens”) are mostly just railing against black people. The Tea Party might not be about racism, but as Bruce Bartlett observed a few days ago, there’s no denying that racial animus fuels the movement’s momentum.
That said, if there’s anything particularly annoying about Judis’ piece, it’s his shallow and restrictive definition of racism:
What I am suggesting is that it’s very possible to believe that the Tea Party is not the latest manifestation of the Ku Klux Klan or White Citizens’ Councils—while still believing that it is a terrible menace, nonetheless.
You see this a lot in mainstream discussions of racism; accusations of racism are the worst things imaginable, and outside of Zombie Bull Connor and the Klan, there are no actual racists in America. If you accuse someone of racist acts, they’ll respond with chagrin, deny the charge, and then have friends and relatives defend their character, “He’s such a kind person,” “He loves black people,” “He has no hate in his heart.” Likewise, the Tea Party can’t possibly be racist! After all, these are just kindly old right-wing extremists, not skinheads or neo-Confederates!
Listen, no one is arguing that the Tea Party is the latest heir to the White Citizens’ Councils, but given everything we know about the movement, as well as what we know about the relationship between ethnocentrism and policy beliefs, racial resentment seems like the best way of explaining the Tea Party’s rapid rise and intensity. Or put another way, when the Tea Party’s national leader calls President Obama an “Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug,” you can safely assume that race might have something to do with their grievances.