The Tea Party Movement is a populist movement of the Right, largely made up of Republican Party adherents. While Movement members use many euphemisms such as “unfair taxation” and “government intrusion” to express their displeasure, the root of their unhappiness and the basis of their populist agenda is bigotry. The origins of that bigotry are not new; they are longstanding, and deeply imbedded in the American psyche. To identify their beginnings, we must look to the nation’s first big economic bubble, one created by the South’s reliance on the “peculiar institution” of slavery.
The total value of slaves in America rose steadily from 1800 to 1850, in proportion to the increase in the total number of slaves. But as the market for cheap American cotton exploded, the purchase price of slaves also increased exponentially. By 1860 the total value exceeded $3.5 Billion, which would translate to roughly $600 Billion in 2009 dollars. For a white population of 5.5 million in the about-to-be Confederacy this was a substantial sum, equal to the total value of the South’s land itself.
But this wealth was not evenly distributed among the South’s white residents. Instead, much as we see in today’s wealth distribution profile, most of it was concentrated in the hands of a few. Out of 1.6 million households, only 384,000 owned slaves and of those, 88% owned 20 or less. Large holdings were relatively rare with only 10,000 “planters” owning 50 to 100 slaves, another 3,000 owning 100+ and just 14 who owned 1,000 slaves or more.
With an economy based dominantly on agriculture, the large slave-owners were able to produce at lower costs than those who held few slaves or tried to work their fields themselves. The effect was to reap large financial rewards for the few, due to the leverage of their capital wealth, and suppress the income of small operators. The presence of slaves in the South, therefore, acted directly against the financial interests of the majority of whites. Why, then, did 75% of Southern whites of military age take up arms and risk their lives to protect an institution that generally did them economic harm? Why, in today’s parlance, did they act against their own self-interest?
The answer is that for most whites in the South, the real value of slaves was not founded in economics but in social stature. Whatever their circumstances, however poor they might be, however morally degenerate, all whites could count on the institution of slavery to ensure that some “other” group, black slaves, would always be lower on the social scale. On pain of beatings or death, slaves had to defer to all whites at all times. When approaching a white, blacks had to lower their gaze and avoid eye contact. Unless the need was extreme, they were to only speak when spoken to and in most cases restrict their answers to “Yas Suh” and “No Mam”. If struck, however unfairly, they could not fight back. They had no rights and their legal status was set at 3/5 of a white person; by law, they were less than fully human.
With the end of the Civil War the enormous wealth from slave ownership evaporated and this, along with the horrific cost of the war and the punitive measures of Reconstruction, lowered Southern per capita wealth and average income substantially, but within 40 years white per capita income in the former Confederacy had returned to pre-war levels. Yet whites continued to seethe at what they saw as the unfair consequences of the “War of Northern Aggression.” They did so then and continue to do so today because economic recovery did not assuage their real hurt – the pain of having the social floor pulled out from under them.
Free, blacks could claim the same rights as whites and behave as equals. This meant for whites that the social cushion of blacks being always “less than” had been stolen, and they now could fall as low as anyone. In response, whites passed restrictive and punitive “Jim Crow” laws, organized vigilante groups to sow terror and mete out punishment, obstructed education and social intermingling through segregation, blocked black voter participation and generally did whatever they could keep blacks “in their place,” to try and preserve their own status at some artificially “higher” social station.
Those practices continued unabated in America for 100 years, and not just in the South. In the North and West, housing discrimination through red-lining and discriminatory lending kept blacks out of home ownership, to the point that even today the difference between average white and black wealth levels is almost entirely found in disparate levels of home equity. During the American diasporas of the Dustbowl and Great Depression years, poor working-class whites relocated by the millions from former Confederate states to the West, bringing their social bigotry with them. Today bigotry of all kinds, racial and sexual, is widespread across the nation within the same poor working-class white socioeconomic group and focused on many “others,” all of whom are viewed as “less than” just as black slaves were in the antebellum South.
Even a casual observer can see this bigotry in the signs and rhetoric of the Tea Party participants. The increasing tone of threatened violence accompanied by clearer epithets of “nigger” and “faggot,” is not aberration; it is only the latest fulmination of a hatred that has been there all along, the same hatred that drove Southern Democrats into the Republican fold after the Civil Rights, Voting Rights and Immigration Acts of the earl 1960s. It is the reason that poor working-class whites today vote against their economic interests, just as they marched off to war against their own economic interests in 1861. The most important thing in their minds is the need to establish that no matter what they are not the worst people, not the least skilled, not the most worthless, to ensure that some “others” will always be in that “less than” role.
This bigotry is everywhere. It is why we see Tea Party members and their Republican apologists trying to blame the Bush Recession on minority homeowners, why they oppose marriage for homosexuals even though it cannot possibly have any effect on their own marriage, why the absurd Hyde Amendment forbids the people’s commonly-held tax money to be spent on a medical procedure that is a commonly-held constitutional right, and why they unendingly assert that a black man cannot possibly be a legitimate President. None of that makes any sense, precisely because it is irrational; hatred and diminishment of others in an attempt to make one’s self “better” is in no way rational.
Of course, both the leadership of the Tea Party and their Republican allies deny that bigotry is in play. But as Leonard Pitts has observed, racists and other bigots never admit that’s what they are. They always claim they are “…good people fighting for principle, trying to save this country from…” take your pick of dastardly enemies, from Liberals to Socialists to Communists to Abolitionists all of whom are trying to destroy what the bigots envision as “The American Way Of Life.”
This lie of denial is getting harder to sustain, however; truth eventually will out itself. Last week the irrepressible Newt Gingrich let slip his real viewpoint, which is also that of the modern Republican Party and the Tea Party Movement. Speaking to a gathering in Washington DC, he stated that the current health insurance reform effort constituted the biggest threat to the “American way of life since the 1850s.”
Gingrich could not have been talking about the Civil War; that took place from 1861 to 1865, not in the 1850s, and Gingrich is an educated man, a college history professor who wouldn’t have made such a mistake. No, he meant what he said, that the “American way of life” was last this severely threatened in the 1850s. And what would that threat have been from? What major social movement was ascendant then? Only one; Abolitionism, the effort to end slavery and with it the unquestioned legal dominance of whites.
That’s what Gingrich along with other Republican leaders and the Tea Party Movement are upset about, the continued social trend away from white domination, and a black man sitting in the White House named Barack Hussein Obama is the visual element that has triggered their now uncontrollable outrage.
It is this element of bigotry that defines the unbridgeable gulf between Right-wing Populism and Progressive Populism. Progressives have as their objective greater economic class equality, an agenda that desires equal economic opportunity across all citizen groups regardless of race, gender, social status, inherited wealth or other division. Right-Wing populists, in contrast, care most about reclaiming a superior social status for whites and much less about economic interests; it is a movement dominantly about social class rather than economic class. However much Progressives may contort themselves reaching out to Rightist populists, the aims of the two groups cannot be reconciled.
[Frank Rich has similar thoughts.]