“In the late summer of 2009, as the recession-ravaged economy bled half a million jobs a month, the country seemed to lose its mind,” The New York Times says, kicking off its tenth anniversary retrospective of the Tea Party movement. As you can imagine, the rest of the article continues in this vein, portraying conservatives who organized against Obamacare as a bunch of vulgar radicals.
Yet even this revisionism wasn’t enough for most contemporary leftists, who see everything through the prism of race.
“A fundamental flaw in this analysis is there is no mention of race and how much racism drove the Tea Party movement,” ABC’s Matthew Dowd claimed. “You can’t talk about the rage politics and leave out race.”
“This @jwpetersNYT retrospective on the Tea Party’s ‘summer of rage’ ten years ago makes not a single, solitary reference to race or racism,” Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith said. “Nor does it acknowledge the reality that a good deal of it involved opposing President Obama because he was black.”
“How do you write a 10 years later piece on the Tea Party and not mention – not once, not even in passing – the fact that it was essentially a hysterical grassroots tantrum about the fact that a black guy was president?” asked non-biased Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, calling it journalistic “malpractice.”
Well, you get the idea.
In the first draft of this piece, I joked that The New York Times might add a line about Tea Party “racism” before the day was over to placate the Twitter mob. They did it before I could even publish. But it doesn’t change the fact that there’s no evidence that a “good deal”—or any substantial deal, for that matter—of the Tea Party’s popularity was propelled by racism.
The wealthy white leader of Congress at the time was just as unpopular among Tea Partiers as the black president. And, as we’ve seen, if Hillary Clinton had won the 2008 election, she would have generated no less anger among conservatives.
It was Barack Obama’s leftist rhetoric and unprecedented unilateralism—he had, after all, promised “fundamental change”—that ignited what amounts to a renewed Reaganism; a fusing of idealistic constitutionalism and economic libertarianism. (These days, there’s an excellent chance that progs see both those -isms as inherently racist, as well.)
Tea Party protesters not only felt like they were under assault from Democrats but that they had been abandoned by the GOP establishment. That is why so many primaried white Republicans. If you really wanted to hear them “rage,” you could always bring up the former Caucasian and Republican president, George W. Bush, who had “abandoned free market principles to save the free market system.”
As with any spontaneous political movement, some bad actors glommed onto protests. The New York Times article, for instance, informs us that “one demonstrator at a rally in Maryland hanged a member of Congress in effigy” and that a “popular bumper sticker was ‘Honk if I’m Paying Your Mortgage’” – as if we’re supposed to be offended by the latter.
Most accusations of Tea Party racism are based on John Lewis’s accusation—dutifully repeated by most of the media without any skepticism—that someone had called him ugly names and spit on him when he and Nancy Pelosi strolled through protesters in front of the Capitol. Although there were cameras everywhere that historic day, no one was ever able to find any evidence to back up his claim.
None of this stopped Frank Rich, then a New York Times columnist, from boring into the collective soul of the movement, accusing it of engaging in “small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht.” Joe Biden reportedly accused them of acting “like terrorists.” Tom Friedman referred to them as the “Hezbollah faction” of the GOP. It was, as one Democratic Party memo explained, “not really all about average citizens,” but an astroturf movement paid for by corporate lobbyists and populated by “neo-Nazis, militias, secessionists and racists.”
All of this rhetoric sounds very familiar.
Left-wing protesters, no matter how puerile, hateful, or bigoted, are typically depicted as righteous agents of change. Conservatives and libertarians, on the other hand, “rage.” The “summer of rage” typically refers to the riots that swept a number of American cities in 1967. The Tea Party protests never turned violent. There were no riots. No broken Starbucks windows. It was the most peaceful “rage” you’re ever going to see.
I reported on the first of numerous Tea Party protests on April 16, 2010. What I saw were some silly people, and many others who were idealistic neophytes peacefully organizing around founding principles. Most had very specific policy goals in mind. None of them were about race. Most of them supported free markets. Many of them were still quite mainstream.
A CBS/New York Times poll at time found that the average Tea Party activist was more educated than the average American, and their concerns mirrored the mainstream. Although a majority were more socially conservative than the average voter—particularly on abortion—8 in 10 of them wanted their burgeoning movement to focus on economic issues rather than social ones.
Hardly the anarchists depicted in the media, the poll found that a majority of Tea Partiers wanted to reduce the size of government rather than focus on cutting budget deficits or even lowering taxes. A majority, in fact, believed that Social Security and Medicare were worthy taxpayer burdens. Not even clamping down on illegal immigration, often the impetus for charges of racism these days, was a big topic among these activists.
The Tea Party had three main grievances: Obamacare, government spending, and “a feeling that their opinions are not represented in Washington.” The protests were fueled by Democrats’ unprecedented action on a health care policy. A decade later, the Tea Party’s suspicion that the health-care law was merely an incremental way to move towards more socialistic policies turned out to be correct, as most of the Democratic Party presidential field can attest.
The Tea Party, whether some of their champions later turned out to be hypocrites or not, didn’t want to change the Republican Party as much as they wanted to force conservative politicians to keep their promises. The movement initially backed a number of terrible candidates, but it learned.
In the end, the Tea Party successfully re-energized Republicans, who went on to win two wave elections and stifle Obama’s presidency for six years. Whether the movement was a long-term failure, as the Times argues, is a debatable contention.
One things is true, though: the majority of Tea Partiers were white. You know what that means, right? And, as those of us who covered the Obama administration remember, no matter how historically detailed or ideologically anchored your position might be, the very act of opposing a black president was going to be depicted as act of bigotry.
This cheap and destructive rhetoric now dominates virtually every contemporary debate, most of which have absolutely nothing, even tangentially, to do with race. It’s a kind of rhetoric, in fact, that now retroactively dominates our debates, as well.