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Recently Sen. Charles Schumer made a groundbreaking speech outlining a Democratic Party strategy aimed at the Tea Parties.  For the first time, a major figure in the liberal political universe sought to both explain the Tea Parties’ appeal to tens of millions of adult Americas and to project a strategy to break the Tea Party base away from its leaders—at least in the context of election campaigns.  Mr. Schumer’s was wrong in his description of the Tea Party movement, however, and his proposed strategy was little more than a campaign statement that would do little damage to the Tea Parties.  

It should be noted that Republican Party operatives such as Karl Rove had already set the Tea Parties in their sights, planning to drown them with a sea of adverse money and media during the upcoming Republican primaries. The prospects for Republican Chamber of Commerce-types beating down the Tea Party grew dimmer recently, however.  Witness the recent imbroglio over immigration reform.  Speaker John Boehner—in line with Rove’s general strategy—outlined possible points for bi-partisan agreement on immigration reform.  But the Tea Party movement and other hard right organizations pushed the whole project into the dirt.  The Tea Parties were the ones swamping Republican congressional reps with negative phone calls and emails from their constituents. As a result, immigration reform is now off any Republican legislative agenda, and the Tea Party movement can claim victory. Remember, in 2013, Tea Party groups raised more than double the funds that Rove did, according to the February 1, New York Times. Not much of a strategy for Mr. Rove.

Sen. Schumer’s talk garnered more than the usual media attention conferred on a politician’s speech at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.  The New York Times accorded it positive coverage and virtually thirteen column inches of text, plus a picture and headline.  The Wall Street Journal as well as smaller city dailies respectfully covered the senator’s talk.  The conservative and Tea Party blogosphere gave Schumer short, negative attention.  An interesting piece by Kelsey Osterman, writing on Red Alert Politics, a website describing itself as written by and for young conservatives, asserted that Schumer’s proposed strategy “isn’t going to work.”  Why? Osterman asked: “Because Schumer fundamentally misunderstands the grassroots movement.”  The young conservative has this point.

In Schumer’s case, because he broached issues that went beyond any narrow election-year Democratic Party strategy, IREHR believes his project bears further discussion. The Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR) has been closely studying the Tea party movement since 2009, and we have our own criticisms of Schumer’s understanding of that far right, anti-democratic movement. 

Indeed, Schumer does not even accord it “movement” status, referring to it instead as “the Tea Party.”  As such, he fails to acknowledge the fact that multiple national organizations, as well as state and local groups, all comprise this phenomenon. That is over half a million members, six to eight million supporters, and 22% of adult population.   Sometimes these multiple organizations act in unison, but it is more often that they have competing and conflicting goals.  Any reasonably adept opponent of the Tea Party movement would, for example, take advantage of the fact that the head of Tea Party Nation openly worries about the end of “Anglo-Saxon” hegemony, while FreedomWorks’ Matt Kibbe would consider such verbiage off-limits.  The open racism and Christian nationalism among some Tea Party leaders is at odds with the views of other Tea Party leaders.  As such, Tea Party Nation’s leader is one of the greatest weak spots in the Tea Party movement’s armor.  There are multiple such weak spots.

Sen. Schumer delineates his Tea Party into “Tea Party elites” that manipulate and mislead the “average grassroots Tea Party follower.” This formulation is misguiding on several significant points.  Consider Jenny Beth Martin, for example, a Tea Party Patriots national coordinator.  Readers will look at IREHR’s recent report on Tea Party membership and note that this national organization is the second largest of all the national factions.  She has considerable organizational weight behind her and during the recent immigration battle with Boehner managed to “set in motion 900,000 automatic phone calls in 90 Republican House districts connecting tens of thousands of voters to their members of Congress,” according to the February 8 New York Times. As IREHR previously reported, however, in 2008, during the summer before the Tea Parties emerged, Jenny Beth Martin declared bankruptcy from her home in an Atlanta suburb.  She is not an “elite” in the ordinary use of the term.  Neither are any other Tea Party leaders, except perhaps, Dick Army, the former congressman who once led the FreedomWorks Tea Party.  Neither should these leaders be considered “elites” simply in terms of their status within their movement, a movement which generally eschews elites. 

Schumer is simply wrong about the bald facts. Also, by emphasizing this construction, he misses how issues such as gun rights have emerged at the center of Tea Party concern after grass roots activists pushed up from below with the issue and took the movement by storm.  This was not an “elite” inspired storm.

Further, Schumer’s construction would cause opponents to miss the Tea Party movement’s actual weakest point: the grassroots members, chapter leaders and national groups who oppose the actual constitution all while claiming to uphold the United State Constitution.  One cannot—or more properly, you should not be able to—be against birthright citizenship, and thus the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and still claim you support said Constitution.  Similarly, you cannot aim to cut down voter access and still claim to support the Fifteenth Amendment.  Further, you cannot even claim to support democracy if you want to end the direct election of United States Senators, enabled by the Seventeenth Amendment.  And there are thousands of Tea Partiers who along with Cong. Ron Paul want to rescind the Seventeenth Amendment, all in the name of “states’ rights.”

The Tea Party movement is a movement with followers who do not support the existing Constitution, even while they claim to be its most fervent defenders.  We should Support the U.S. Constitution—All of It.  If IREHR, or any other reasonable opponent of the Tea Party movement, had the funds and the access we would put that message on as many county music stations as possible, and it would surely hurt the Tea Party movement. 

There are other major problems with Sen. Schumer’s speech.  Proposing the defense of Medicare and Social Security, for example, might be useful Democratic campaign tactics against Republicans, for example, but that is not a point that would move core Tea Party adherents. To hurt the Tea Party movement, opponents must rip it apart at its core. Cut it up from the ground up, then you can cut off its head.

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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