White Tea

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On the New York Times online, I pitched in yesterday to a panel debate over the results of this week’s big national tea-party poll. You can check out what I had to say—and also what folks like Rick Perlstein, David Gergen, Alan Brinkley, Susan Estrich and the clueless Amity Shlaes came up with—in full here.

The results of this first serious study of tea-partiers’ views and identities were hardly of the knock-your-socks-off variety. You mean these folks are almost uniformly white, angry, anxious and middle-class? They prefer Glenn Beck to Ron Paul? They vote overwhelmingly Republican, whether or not they call themselves “independent”? Who knew?

But the poll did shake out some noteworthy insights—especially when you add up these folks’ feelings about their great bugaboo, President Obama. As I wrote:

“Tea Party spokespeople and ground troops have always pooh-poohed the visible evidence that there are very few non-Caucasians drawn to their rallies. But it’s impossible to shrug off the collective impressions left by the data. Why, exactly, do 73 percent of Tea Partiers say that the president does not understand ‘the needs and problems of people like yourself’?

“Obama’s American-ness is highly questionable in tea party circles. Just 41 percent of the surveyed Tea Partiers think the president is a ‘natural-born’ U.S. citizen. Fully one-quarter of the Tea Partiers say that Obama ‘favors blacks over whites.’ In a larger context, a majority thinks too much has been made of black people’s problems. Most Tea Partiers also appear to believe in at least one form of colorblindness: Nearly three-fourths say that black and white people have an ‘equal’ chance of ‘getting ahead in today’s society.’ If that’s not colorblindness, it’s certainly some kind of blindness.”

It’s hardly a coincidence that the tea party’s rise to political prominence comes at a moment when white nationalist and racist hate groups are experiencing an ugly renaissance in Texas and America. Fueled by economic anxiety and racial resentments—fear of a Latino America, most of all—even the sorry old Klan is making a comeback in many places.

The tea party wing of the Republican Party—and we can now call it that with hard numbers to back it up—plays its role as the relatively polite political expression of this new burst of white nationalism. Having long ago learned their lessons from George Wallace and the Republican Southern strategists he inspired, the tea partiers cloak the racial foundations of their politics in small-government and free-market talk. They toss around the “S” word—socialism—the way Richard Nixon used to talk about “crime” and Reagan about “welfare”—using it as code. Why is Obama a “socialist”? Because he is liberal, yes. But also because he is black and therefore too threatening to apply the mere “L” word to.

The takeaway: Most tea partiers believe that white people have already done enough to make things fair for non-whites—and then some. And when your America is a model of racial equality, obviously, you’re off the hook as a white person. Why question your reflexive revulsion toward Barack Obama? Why consider the greater good rather than bitch about your tax rates? Why see government as a necessary instrument for evening the playing field, when you’ve swallowed the GOP and Fox News propaganda about the playing field being already level and fair and colorblind?

What the tea-partiers’ political proclivities shows, above all else, is that they’re the perfect audience for politicians like Rick Perry—politicians who know how to play on folks’ prejudices while simultaneously congratulating them on their patriotism. At his famous tea-party debut on Tax Day 2009, Perry famously pandered to white supremacy by chanting “states’ rights! States’ rights! States’ rights!” But before he did, he made sure to flatter the folks, telling them that they were the “true patriots.”

“I Am We the People,” reads one of the more popular slogans on shirts and signs at tea-party rallies. At first glance, it sounds like a proud and patriotic thing to proclaim. But what it really means is something restrictive and profoundly un-American: It means that, to these folks, there is only one kind of American who deserves the name. And that’s the white, anti-government, self-obsessed and paranoid kind.