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In Michigan, so-called right to work legislation has been signed. As everyone knows, such legislation has nothing to do with finding and keeping a job, and everything to do with driving down the political power and membership density of unions. Just four short years ago, this measure would have been considered inconceivable in Michigan. Earlier this year, many union officials scoffed at its prospect. Now it has become law.

What has so sharply changed the balance of forces? Simply put: the Tea Party movement has radicalized a large swath of white people and made them immune to any calls for the common good.

Certainly other factors have played a role. Increased trans-national competition for capital investment, combined with a drive to increase the rate of profit and a global economic crisis have driven manufacturers away from the comity of collective bargaining. Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has also aggressively lobbied for right to work. But ALEC has been pushing such legislative proposals for years. The new force, the tipping point, has been the Tea Parties, with their large and active membership and the larger number of non-member supporters who vote.


The recent resignation of South Carolina Senator Sen. Jim DeMint and his move to take the helm of the Heritage Foundation also attests to the significance of the Tea Parties. DeMint most forthrightly acted on their behalf from his perch in the Senate. While a Senate post certainly accords its holder with the perquisites of power, a seat on the minority side of the aisle virtually guaranteed that he would be locked out of any final decision-making role. Now DeMint will have a bigger budget, new staff to hire, and occupy the commanding heights of the conservative movement. Pat Buchanan’s culture warriors of a previous time never captured such a place of prominence. DeMint’s ascension lines Heritage up with the Koch-controlled Cato Institute, leaving only the American Enterprise Institute as the largest conservative think-tank outside the Tea Parties grasp.

Nevertheless, at years end, the status of the Tea Party movement is once again being debated. As this writer has documented in a Critical Sociology article, the Tea Party has been declared dead or non-existent on multiple occasions since its first protest in 2009. This time around, it is the Tea Parties failure to un-elect President Obama that has sparked these considerations. It was, after all, the movement’s number one goal since its founding.

The presidential election was certainly a singular defeat. Anyone who believes that November resulted from a “Blue Wave,” however, can easily disabuse themselves of this notion by looking at a county-level map of the election results and noting the sea of red that blankets the interior of the country. Indeed, as IREHR has previously noted, the election rate of Tea Party-endorsed candidates to the House of Representatives was higher in 2012 than in 2010. Its arithmetic, as the saying currently goes. And many red state legislatures and governors are in thrall to Tea Party initiatives.

Those writing the Tea Party’s death certificate often cite Republican Speaker John Boehner’s new-found hostility to the obstructionism of his more radical members. Boehner wants a fiscal cliff deal, plain and simple; and he will push the Tim Huelskamp-Congressmen further into obscurity, if needs be, in order to negotiate a (short-termed) solution to the problem at hand. And if and when the deed is done, Tea Partiers are certain to squeal in anguish; another mark against their power.

Others claim that Dick Armey’s sudden departure from FreedomWorks is a sign that the proverbial rat is fleeing the sinking ship. And it is true that FreedomWorks’ remaining boss, Matt Kibbe, will find it harder to raise money without Armey’s signature, and he will miss also departing Brendan Steinhauser’s storied organizing skills. The D.C.-based FreedomWorks’ troubles, however, are not likely to transfer to the movement as a whole. Rather it is simply the case that Georgia-headquartered Tea Party Patriots will benefit from their organizational competitor’s decline.

The principal problem with this entire “is it or is it not dead” discussion is that the strength and danger emanating from the Tea Party movement cannot be measured simply be counting the standing of either Republican Party radicals or the outcomes of elections. This is a movement, autonomous from the Republican Party, with its own distinct membership, culture, ideas and dynamics. Some of it bleeds over into elections, but not all of it.

This movement has congealed an ideological stratum of white people who regard themselves—and white people generally—as the losers, the victims, in a putative zero-sum racial battle for power and privilege. The fact that such a belief is delusional renders Tea Partiers more dangerous, not less. (NB: For those who celebrate the multicultural openness of the millennials as the demographic anti-dote to this closed-minded older cohort, please let me remind you that today’s Tea Partiers were once a part of the Woodstock generation. People change their ideas over time. And demography is not destiny.)

This ideological grouping—a “class” if you will—has been growing increasingly cohesive and broadening its political purview. As IREHR documented last January, Tea Partiers are infusing new strength into the anti-immigrant movement. Given their racial fears, they are more, not less, likely to believe that a humane immigration reform policy will further stack the population cards against them. Now, they are preparing for the coming battle on immigration reform. The fact that Sen. Lindsey Graham has announced that his opening position in negotiations is to overturn birthright citizenship (and thereby gut the Fourteenth Amendment), is a sign that the Tea Partiers and the nativists still have powerful friends.

It should also be a signal for anti-racists and those who appreciate the place of the Fourteenth Amendment in American life to stand up and be heard. You should sign the petition that tells Sen. Graham that we oppose his attack on birthright citizenship and the Fourteenth Amendment. 


Do not let the inconceivable once again become a new fact on the ground.

Leonard Zeskind

Author Leonard Zeskind

is founder of IREHR. For almost four decades, he has been a leading authority on white nationalist political and social movements. He is the author of Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in May 2009. [more..]

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