Last week, the NAACP called on Tea Party groups to repudiate the racism within its ranks. Dave Weigel, writing at The Daily Dish, dismissed the idea as foolish, while elsewhere at the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote several good posts explaining why the NAACP was right to raise their concerns about some of the racially charged things that have been seen and heard at Tea Party rallies.
What this exchange reminded me of was a post from a couple of weeks ago from Weigel’s former colleague at Reason Magazine, Radley Balko, at his personal blog The Agitator:
Ask Joe Arpaio to be your keynote speaker, and you’ve lost me.
He’s a power-mad thug with a badge, the walking, mouth-breathing antithesis of the phrase “limited government.”
Yes, this is but one state chapter in your movement. So distance yourself from them.
It’s one thing to have a few idiots and nutjobs show up at your rallies.
It’s quite another to invite one to speak.
John Cole has written a few times about the effort among the staff at Reason to continually dismiss the idea that there’s racism in the Tea Party movement. Balko’s post above should be a clue that what the Tea Partiers are about isn’t quite what the folks at Reason imagine them to be about. Polls on Tea Party members illustrate this:
While big government is a favorite tea party target, several bloggers were surprised by the results of the poll question about whether the benefits of government programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs to taxpayers. Sixty-two percent of tea party supporters said yes. In follow-up interviews, they favored a focus on “waste” instead of slashing the programs.
“Some defended being on Social Security while fighting big government by saying that since they had paid into the system, they deserved the benefits. Others could not explain the contradiction,” the Times reported.
The Tea Party movement isn’t a movement about limited government and it never has been. They may make signs and shout slogans against “socialism”, but as surveys like that one show, they have no problem with things like Medicare or Social Security, or tightly regulating Wall Street. When they talk about socialism, they’re talking about something else. They’re expressing their anxieties about multiculturalism. They’re expressing a belief that our increasingly diverse society is becoming an economic burden to what they perceive as “real Americans”. To them, socialism is the idea that America is becoming more and more inundated with those who will mooch off the rest of us. And their reaction to that is to decry the kinds of government expenditures that many of them continue to rely on:
Liberal pundits like Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen seized on a comment by Jodine White, 62, of Rocklin, Calif., as evidence that tea partiers are “a confused group of misled people.”
“Maybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security. I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I’ve changed my mind,” White told the Times.
“These folks claim to be motivated by concerns over taxes, but tea partiers tend not to know anything about the subject. … They claim to hate expensive government programs, except for all the expensive government programs that benefit them and their families,” Benen charged.
The staff at Reason have had a natural desire to believe that the Tea Party folks are their fellow travelers – intellectually consistent free-market libertarians whose opposition to big government comes from a firm understanding of the writings of Bastiat and Hayek. But that’s just not who most of the Tea Partiers are.
They’re more often than not folks who think that Barack Obama is cynically trying to steal their money and give it to people who refuse to work hard and who don’t care about America as much as them. They’re more often than not willing to believe that illegal immigrants are coming here because our government entices them to come with endless giveaways, rather than because of free market forces of supply and demand in the labor markets. And this is why they’re demanding to hear from big government authoritarian thugs like Joe Arpaio at their meetings and not from Reason staff members.
Even a politician like Rand Paul, who’s considered a free-market libertarian, knows that he can’t keep Tea Party support without rejecting that philosophy when it comes to illegal immigration. Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate for Senate in Nevada, once expressed support for the reinstatement of alcohol prohibition. This only happens because the Tea Partiers are far more concerned about the culture war than about economic philosophy. They’re for limited government when it comes to things they perceive as encouraging our multicultural society and they’re for big government when it comes to things they perceive as threats from that multicultural society.
Racism has changed a bit since the 1960s. Racism was overt back then – a belief in the necessity of segregation and for preserving separate sets of rules for people of different groups. Today, racism is somewhat different and more subtle. It’s a belief that certain groups of people are an economic burden on society due to our cultural differences. It’s a belief that it’s wasteful when government does things to improve the lot of poor minority groups or to help immigrants assimilate into American society, but not wasteful when it does things that benefit the more privileged classes. Media charlatans like Glenn Beck are masterful at transforming these types of nationalistic impulses into economic theories with fully-developed alternate American histories to go along with them. And it’s foolish to believe that the Tea Party movement isn’t being driven in a significant way by this sleight of hand.