Skip to main content

On July 28, 2012, IREHR’s Devin Burghart gave a keynote speech at the Western States Center’s annual training and skills conference, AMP, an event that drew over 400 activists and organizers from states across the west. Devin used the occasion to remind the attendees of lessons past and to talk about the tasks everyone faces today. This speech is a most powerful indictment of the Tea Party movement, and a call for people of good will—no matter what their principal issue of concern—to understand that the Tea Party movement must be actively opposed by us all.

Taking On The Tea Party: It’s Our Time Now

I want to start by thanking the incredible Western States Center staff for their warm hospitality and for the opportunity to speak with you today. As the Western States Center Celebrates its remarkable 25th anniversary, it is a bit of a milestone for me. It was 20 years ago that a researcher and organizer from the Coalition for Human Dignity, a person from right here in Portland, spoke at a college class of mine and changed my life.

In the past two decades, I’ve researched and written on virtually every aspect of the radical right. I’ve helped organize innovative new responses to emerging threats, and I’ve had some amazing experiences – from being able to share a byline with the late Steig Larsson, a lifelong anti-fascist who you all probably know about from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to having a certain Congressman threaten me to a fight…but that’s a whole other story…

Picking up on the opening remarks during last night’s brilliant “War on Women” panel, we could easily be calling this talk “Culture War 2.0: from the margins to the mainstream.” When I started doing this work in the early 1990s, what we used to refer to as the “radical right” was segregated into numerous different political tributaries.

IREHR’s Devin Burghart speaking at AMP 2012.

There was the Christian Right, with groups like the Oregon Citizens Alliance pushing attacks on women’s reproductive health and LGBTQ rights with efforts like Measure 9, that the Rural Organizing Project stepped up to challenge and beat back.

There were anti-environmental property rights fanatics of the so-called “wise use” movement that sought to harass environmentalists and roll back environmental protections. The Western States Center’s Wise Use Exposure project help isolate them from the mainstream.

There was the militia movement surging across the region, posing a far more serious threat than the conspiracies about the UN and black helicopters conveyed, with their attacks on citizenship and democracy. Before Chris Kaufmann and Ken Toole went on to become state legislators and Marlene Hines went off to become a staggeringly effective teacher, the Montana Human Rights Network faced the fear and stood down the racist vigilantes.

There was a small but growing anti-immigrant movement that picked up steam after the passage of the draconian Proposition 187 in California in 1994. Groups like CAUSA reminded us all of the necessity to speak out for the rights and dignity of immigrants.

And there was the ever-present threat of white supremacist groups bent upon turning the Northwest into an Aryan Homeland. Thanks to the voice of leaders like Bill Wassmuth of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment and the timely research and analysis by folks like Jon Mozzochi, Steve Gardiner, and so many more at the Coalition for Human Dignity that the Northwest Territorial Imperative and many of the groups supporting it were sent packing.

These many different movements seldom had obvious overlaps and as a result it was a challenge to get others to see the bigger picture. But thanks to the fine work of so many working in local communities across the region to build barriers against bigotry, for many years together we were able to keep the margins from intruding into the mainstream. To some it felt as though we’d won and could pack up and move on to other things. Many of those movements seemed to go into abeyance or disappear from view.

Fast forward to 2008 and the election of Barack Obama; the election of the first African-American President sent seismic shockwaves across the Right. It set off a tectonic shift in the political landscape, reinvigorating many of those movements that seemed to have disappeared. The election also sent those different political tributaries flowing together in an angry wave, to crash well into the mainstream.

Today that force has a name: it’s called the Tea Party. Before we lose the forest for the trees, let me just state unequivocally that the Tea Party threat goes far beyond its supposed mantra of debt and taxes. It seeks to undermine the gains made by progressives over the last century, including eroding key pillars of civil rights and democracy. In fact, as we wrote in Tea Party Nationalism with the NAACP, it is not economic insecurity that animates Tea Party animus; rather it is the larger questions around race, culture, and national identity at the core. In short, in their efforts to “take America back” the Tea Party have taken up the question of who and what we are as a nation—defining America as a white Christian, heterosexual nation.

Now there are those people who have been arguing since 2010 that the Tea Party’s days are numbered. Just look around, after all, they say, there aren’t nearly as many Tea Partiers marching on the streets. To our friends who still cling to this argument, I would point to a couple of things:

First, if you’re looking for boots on the streets, you’re looking in the wrong place. That sort of thinking is so 2009. Tea Partiers themselves will tell you that 2009 was the year of the streets, 2010 was the year of the ballot box, 2011 was taking it to the states, and this year is all about taking the Senate. If you’re not looking at these locations, you’re doing it wrong.

Secondly, I’d point them to the data we’ve collected at Tea Party support remains dangerously strong, no matter what level you’re looking at. An ABC News Washington Post Poll in April 2012 indicated, for instance, that 42% of the American public was sympathetic towards the Tea Party. Other polls show a strong 25-28% swath of public support for the Tea Party—those figures have leveled off but have stayed relatively constant. At the next level, we estimate 4-6 million people actively supporting the Tea Party (giving money to candidates, attending rallies, purchasing literature, etc).

And at the core, there are over 450,000 active members of the six different national factions—up over 170% since 2010—along with over 3,000 local chapters. They’re strong in this region, too. Montana ranks 2nd in per capita membership, Idaho 4th, Oregon 9th, and Washington State 14th overall.

These national factions have names like the 1776 Tea Party, FreedomWorks, Patriot Action Network, Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation, and Tea Party Patriots. You’ll find full dossiers of each faction in the Tea Party Nationalism report. Less important for our purposes today are the specific details; what’s more important is that all of these national factions have abandoned the Tea Party mantra of “Constitutionally limited government, lower taxes, and free markets,” in favor of a far-reaching social agenda designed to re-define the American nation.

The Tea Party has become the driving force against many of the things we care for so deeply. For instance:

Let me hear you if you’re concerned about protecting voting rights. The Tea Party has become a leading voice pushing voter suppression efforts and voter ID laws in the country. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, since 2011, 14 states have adopted new voter restrictions, which have the potential to disenfranchise as many as 5 million eligible voters. The Tea Party has pushed for those laws, and is also engaging in trainings to create an army of angry activists to challenge voters at the polls.

Let me hear it if you care about immigrant rights. The Tea Party is coming for you. As we documented in the special report Beyond FAIR, the old anti-immigrant movement continues to recede, replaced by a surge in Tea Party nativism. In fact, 1 in 6 leaders from the old anti-immigrant movement are now in the Tea Party—one national faction is even run by leaders of the Minutemen. National Tea Party factions supported Arizona’s SB 1070, rallied for similar legislation in Alabama, and came within one vote in Mississippi. Look for this to continue in 2013 and beyond.

Speaking of Immigration, do we have any DREAMERs in the house? The Tea Party is working hard to deny your dreams. In fact, in 2012, their opposition was a main obstacle in the attempts to pass the DREAM Act federally, and they’re working to overturn it in states like Kansas.

Let me hear it from you if you care about the environment. From climate change denial, to the obliterating environmental legislation, to gagging scientists, to intervening in issues between tribes and the federal government, to promotion of the Agenda 21 conspiracies, the Tea Party anti-environmental agenda is strong.

How many of you care about public schools? Look no further than to states like Pennsylvania and South Carolina where the Tea Party is rolling out pilot projects to essentially defund public education in the name of “school choice.” If successful there, you’ll see it in the region very soon. They’ve also gone after the rights of teachers to collectively bargain in a number of states.

If you care about unions make some noise. In states like Wisconsin and Indiana, we’ve already seen the Tea Party agenda in action. Given the sheer number of anti-union bills in 2012, we anticipate this trend continuing.

Let me hear it if you care about the Constitution. For all their self-proclaimed love of the Constitution, Tea Partiers are dead set on ripping out huge chunks to make the country less democratic. They’ve advocated a repeal of the 17th Amendment’s direct election of Senators. And we anticipate a major push on the birthright citizenship protections of the 14th Amendment within the next few years.

How many of you are concerned about the War on Women? Denying funding and access to contraception, women’s reproductive health, abortion, and more became Tea Party issues in 2012. The prohibition against “social issues” has vanished as Christian nationalism has found a home in some Tea Party circles.

Let me hear you if you care about LGBTQ rights. That Christian nationalism has pushed Tea Partiers to oppose hate crimes legislation, lash out against the repeal of DADT, vocalize support for ant-gay bullying, and organize campaigns to support anti-gay businesses like Chik-Fil-A. It doesn’t stop with Tea Party homophobia. That same Christian nationalism has also lead to expressions of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

We could go on like this all day. In short, the Tea Party has become a one-stop-shop for numerous forms of bigotry and threats to democracy. This poses a unique challenge for us today. It also poses tremendous opportunities for us. Out of necessity, now facing the same Tea Party opposition, we can now break down the old issue silos that have separated progressives for too long. As Dr. King once wrote, “We may have all gotten here on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” We can face the fear together, and stop allowing the Tea Party to control the narrative through intimidation and bullying. And we can remember to be bold—to share with the world our vision of what we think this country should be like and re-define who we are as a nation. We can’t wait for a leader, or a party, or anyone else to do it for us.

It’s our time now.

Devin Burghart

Author Devin Burghart

is vice president of IREHR. He coordinates our Seattle office, directs our research efforts, and manages our online communications. He has researched, written, and organized on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism since 1992, and is internationally recognized for this effort. Devin is frequently quoted as an expert by print, broadcast, and online media outlets. In 2007, he was awarded a Petra Foundation fellowship. more...

More posts by Devin Burghart