One in three Americans supports the right-wing populist Tea Party. Dissatisfaction is even growing in liberal California.
It’s shortly after noon on the fourth of July in Alamo, a town in northern California. The temperature is just over 98 degrees Fahrenheit. “The weather is always like this on Independence Day,” Jane says as she fans herself. It’s obvious St. Peter must be a conservative; at any rate, he’s distributing the sunshine and the fog according to the ideological fractures that run like tectonic plates around San Francisco, more so than anywhere else in the country. Thick fog blankets the liberal port city. Jane, who doesn’t want her name published in the newspaper, is happy: “This is where real Americans live,” she says.
This is Alamo, a bedroom community of villas crisscrossed by cleanly swept roads and freeways just an hour’s drive east of San Francisco. As in much of the East Bay area, the town of 15,000 inhabitants is a bastion of Democrats. But it’s also a stronghold of the Tea Party, the ultra-orthodox, loosely structured collection of conservatives with a penchant for Sarah Palin-style populism. Their goal, like Jane’s, is to “run the Democratic bums out of office and take back their country.”
A good two dozen Tea Party activists, almost all white and over 50, have assembled in Alamo’s Livorna Park to enjoy the East Bay Tea Party’s fourth of July barbecue get-together. And to vent their collective anger.
A Disgruntled State of Mind
There are around 50 such organizations in California and some 3,000 throughout the rest of the nation. That’s too many for the established parties to simply ignore in the run-up to the mid-term elections. According to surveys, one in three adult Americans is sympathetic to the Tea Party’s philosophy. Their principle media outlets are conservative talk radio and Fox News, particularly hosts Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. At the same time, the Tea Party isn’t a political party per se as much as it is a state of mind. Or, perhaps more properly, a state of affairs. The main unifying force in this movement of the angry is discontent with the overall situation.
The 10-year health care reform program currently underway has become what the “Flower Power” movement was to the Vietnam War in the 1960s. While some demand common humanity, the sectarians of today preach individualism at any cost, and they demand it for all. In so doing, they feel they are morally right, just like the hippies of yesteryear. “We want to give the majority a voice again,” they say. “No taxation without representation” was the battle cry during the Boston Tea Party at the end of the 18th century. Those protests heralded the split from the British empire that culminated in the founding of the United States. But the supposed heirs to this tradition neither want to pay taxes nor be represented by “big government.”
Bogeyman Barack Obama
And least of all to be represented by Barack Obama, who embodies everything Jane and her friends fear: youth, liberalism, openness and diversity. The president is a “socialist and a communist” who has been influenced by the teachings of Karl Marx, who wants to sell the United States to the Chinese. But nobody is willing to say that the president’s skin color in any way underlies the group’s façade of criticism and arrogance. Political scientist Barbara O’Connor of California State University, Sacramento, has been tracking right-wing politics since the 1970s and remarked, “the gatherings I’ve attended have always been marked by a clear racist undertone.”
More than three-fourths of Tea Party members are white, and nearly two-thirds of them are men. One of them, a stocky man in his sixties with a mustache, has made himself comfortable on a Livorna Park bench and is raking Obama over the coals: “His birth certificate is a forgery; he’s Kenyan.” When he later removes his hat, the pin he has stuck in the hatband becomes visible: “Waterboard Pelosi.” It refers to the Democratic speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Such rhetoric is not coincidental, according to Professor O’Connor: “The Tea Party plays on people’s fears and wants to polarize at all costs. They call themselves patriots, but I’m not so sure they even know what that means.” But opinion surveys reveal America’s fears, and government debt, terror and a powerful government that is out of control are all at the top of the list.
Those unwilling to hitch up to the Tea Party wagon are branded unpatriotic. That’s how the group tries to pressure representatives or candidates for office into agreeing to their policies, particularly in tax matters. Republicans aren’t even safe from attack if they’re seen as anything less than deficit hawks. It was then-President Bush who first signed the $700 billion bailout bill for stricken Wall Street in late 2008. “We believe in free markets; those who don’t work don’t deserve government help,” says Jane, adding, “we don’t want to go socialist.” But Democrats who reject government interference in private industry also get support from the Tea Party.
According to O’Connor, despite claims of bipartisanship, the Tea Party movement is far and away a Republican voting bloc. According to a July Gallup poll, eighty percent of them intend to vote Republican in the coming congressional election. According to the same poll, while only 29 percent of Americans describe themselves as conservative Republicans, nearly two-thirds of Tea Party members describe themselves as such. Officially, they reject any image as a Republican front organization. “We support politicians in both parties who represent our values,” says Sal Russo, a political advisor in Sacramento who worked for President Reagan in the eighties and still has close contacts in Washington.
Barack Obama’s inauguration was scarcely over before Russo launched the Tea Party Express, considered today to be the largest and most influential faction of the American ultraconservative movement. Russo and his Tea Party activists barnstorm through the country in their red bus giving propaganda fire support to, for the most part, Republican candidates.
Palin’s “Anti-Establishment Touch”
The idea for the Tea Party Express has its roots in Russo’s “America Deserves Better” campaign for 2008 presidential candidate John McCain. According to Tea Party members, 400,000 of them donated an average of $5 each to campaign coffers. Sarah Palin, McCain’s former running mate, also belongs to that nebulous crowd. She’s already been on the Tea Party Express tour through the U.S. three times. Russo says, “I like her. She has the anti-establishment touch.”
Chuck DeVore, Republican representative in the California capital, can’t make that claim because he’s been part of the establishment since 1986 and worked for Ronald Reagan. Today, however, he’s among the most faithful of Tea Party members in Sacramento. “We practice mutual support, even across state lines. I helped raise funds for a Republican in Texas.”
Environmental Protection Is Off the Table
DeVore had only limited help from the Tea Party himself when the Republican Party bypassed him in favor of nominating Carly Fiorina to run for Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat. Boxer, who’s been in office since 1993, chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and became a target of DeVore’s Tea Party connection during the California primaries, when the Republican had 55,000 fax bulletins sent to her office all expressing displeasure with her support of President Obama’s environmental policies. When it comes to climate change, DeVore, an Army Reservist, clings strictly to the Tea Party line: “People can’t help it if the sun suddenly changes direction.”