What "Populist Uprising?": Part 1 -- Facts and Reflections on Race, Class, and the Tea Party "Movement"
by Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio
Monthly Review Press
Who Are the Tea Partyers?
There is much to appreciate in Chomsky and Rovics' reflections. Reflecting shared subordination to the same "unelected dictatorship of money" that controls the Republicans and much else in U.S. political culture, the corporate-neoliberal Democrats (whose current standard bearer Barack Obama was rightly anointed as "the King of Corporate subsidies" by the liberal political scientist Thomas B. Edsall last year) are deeply complicit in the state-capitalist "shafting" of the American working class. Reflexively blaming the nation's economic problems and related social disparities on the "failed policies of the Republicans," top Democrats refuse to tell the truth about the richly bipartisan nature of the policies and practices -- corporate globalization, "free trade," financial de-regulation, overwork, de-pensioning and other forms of benefits roll back, the attack on public family cash assistance, and a relentless employer assault on unions and more -- through which the economic elite has waged top-down class warfare on American workers in recent decades. The Democratic Party most certainly is, as Rovics writes, "a hopelessly corrupt institution led by people who constantly say one thing and do another."
There is a chilling and dangerous anger and activism gap on what passes for a Left in the U.S. today. There is indeed widespread legitimate popular and populist anger (what the dominant corporate media likes to disparage as backward and dysfunctional "populist rage") across the nation -- anger that needs to be understood, harnessed, and channeled in egalitarian and anti-imperial ways by genuinely progressive and democratic activists. On the right, of course, there is no shortage of high-wattage demagogues (Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sarah Palin, Bill O'Reilly, and the rest of the nation's still powerful right-wing noise machine) ready to appeal with crazy but forthright and angry answers for anxious and oppressed people with, yes, real grievances.
If the United States' "so-called progressives" (yes) can't arise from their significantly Obama-induced lethargy to build substantive anti-elitist and genuinely grassroots alternatives to the current reigning corporate managed fake democracy, then the prospects for desperately needed progressive change in the world's most powerful nation are going to be dim indeed. In a nation where the top percent owns more than a third of the nation's wealth, the bottom 50 percent owns 2.5 percent and the bipartisan power elite distributes ever more wealth and power upward while waging vastly expensive and criminal wars abroad and wrecking livable ecology the world over, the old bumper sticker adage is most certainly correct: "If You're Not Outraged, You're Not Paying Attention."
"The Left" should naturally try to influence and organize everyone it can. Converts from the right and from all classes are welcome (we could certainly use some of the super-rich's surplus capital to help build our currently weak movements). There's always a few (or more) potential allies stuck on the wrong side of the political divide.
The CBS-New York Times Findings: Privileged White Hypocrites
Still, what about the "Tea Party" people? Do they really come from particularly aggrieved and working-class backgrounds? Are we really seeing legitimately angry working-class Americans being steered into the right by clever right manipulators in accord with at least one key aspect of the famous "Tom Frank Kansas thesis"? Is the "Tea Party thing" really rooted in "the people who ought to" -- or even could -- "be organized by the Left"? Are these "Tea Party" people really motivated primarily by economic issues and problems and just slightly by concerns and sentiments of race, gender, and religion? Are their grievances really all that legitimate and potentially progressive? Last but not least, are they really coalesced into anything that deserves to be considered a "movement," much less a "populist uprising" (of any sort)?
Based on recently released national data generated by CBS and the New York Times and our own regionally specific (Midwestern) research and observation of the "Tea Party" people, our answers to each of these questions is a resounding NO. In saying this we wish to add that Chomsky (by far and away the leading thinker among all the authorities quoted above) was speaking informally and hedged his observations with two important qualifications: (i) "they [the tea-party people] are a mixed crowd" and (ii): "I haven't seen a study" of the social composition and world view(s) of the tea-party people. We note also that Chomsky suggested a far better perspective on the Tea Party crowd and its political implications in his reflections on the right-wing Republican Scott Brown"s victory over the establishment Democrat Marcia Coakley in the open seat election for the critical U.S. Senate post formerly held by Teddy Kennedy in "liberal" Massachusetts. As Chomsky observed, citing the findings of Boston Globe reporter Brian Mooney, Brown won mainly in the more affluent Massachusetts suburbs where voter turnout was quite high. In the more strongly Democratic urban areas, the turnout was much lower, reflecting Obama and the corporate Democrats success in disillusioning and therefore demobilizing the party's historical working-class and minority constituents, thereby dooming the candidacy of Democrat Martha Coakley.
That insight goes much closer to what we consider the real heart of the problem. The angry Tea Party right is actually quite affluent, suburban, white, male, older, and religious. Despite vociferous denials from its members, racism remains endemic within the group. It is not particularly working-class and does not generally represent people who have been seduced over from the Democrats' corporatism. "The Left's" slumber and quiescence is not so much causing an angry working-class exodus to FOX News, the Republican Party, and the Tea Party "movement" as it is simply depressing, discouraging, demobilizing, standing down, and wasting popular and working-class energy and thereby leaving the authoritarian sentiments of the in fact ugly and plutocratic, arch-nationalist and racist and patriarchal right dangerously unchallenged.
Who are the Tea Party people? Angry though they may be, these right-wing "populists" hardly come from disadvantaged and working-class sections of the U.S. populace. According to a recent (April 5-April 12, 2010) CBS and New York Times poll of 1,580 persons among the 18 percent of Americans who call themselves Tea Party supporters, they are "wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, and are no more or less afraid of falling into a lower socioeconomic class." The survey finds that 75 percent of them have college educations; 76 percent enjoy household incomes above $50,000 (including a fifth of them making more than $100,000); 78 percent describe their financial situations as "good" or "fairly good;" 65 percent of them identify as either middle or middle upper class; 59 percent are men; 75 percent are 45 or older; and 89 percent are white. Consistent with these relatively privileged demographics, 54 percent are open supporters of the Republican Party; 66 percent of them (compared to just 28 percent of Americans) either usually or always vote Republican; and 72 percent describe themselves as "conservative." Fully 57 percent of them (compared to just 27 percent of the U.S. populace as a whole) report having a "favorable" view of George W. Bush); 66 percent (compared to just 30 of the populace) hold a favorable view of Sarah Palin; and just 6 percent of them (compared to 39 percent of Americans) think that the Bush administration is the primary cause of the current federal budget deficit.
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