The Tea Party: the American “precariat”?

What role does racism play in fueling support for the Tea Party movement? Tea Partiers are mobilizing to defend economic interests that liberal public policy in the US has fused with whiteness, says Lisa Disch
Lisa Disch
14 December 2010

The Tea Party can be understood by analogy to the “precariat.” This term, as Mika LaVaque-Manty has explained, is a play on the term “proletariat.” European activists are using it to spark protest against neoliberal downsizing of social welfare. The “precariat” is fighting to sustain the guarantees of job security, living wages, and the generous unemployment, retirement, health and family benefits that the European welfare state has provided.

How can the Tea Party be the American "precariat"?

Tea Partiers certainly do not identify with European-style social welfare, nor might they be made to do so. The analogy to the “precariat” advances a counterintuitive argument: the Tea Party movement is sparked, in part, by the threat its supporters perceive to their share in the economic legacy of the New Deal. They are defending the closest thing Americans have to social democracy although it is rhetorically not recognized as such.

The rhetoric, principles and voting records of Tea Party supporters are undeniably conservative. Surveys consistently reveal them to be nearly unanimous in supporting smaller government, advocating deficit reduction, and repealing the 2010 Health Reform Bill. Yet, a substantial proportion of Tea Party supporters would preserve Social Security and Medicare spending.  Their material commitments place them in a liberal genealogy: they are mobilizing in defense of property interests that are a direct inheritance of New Deal public policy. As Nicholas J. G. Winter has argued  social welfare programs in the U.S. have, from the beginning, created differences between white and black Americans. It follows that Tea Party supporters need not be consciously or explicitly racist for their politics to tap racial divisions. The New Deal inheritance is one in which they have a stake as white people. In short, Tea Party mobilization is collective political action in defense of property interests in whiteness that are a liberal legacy.

It is not that Tea Party supporters are being seduced into embracing a social agenda that works against their economic interests. They understand exactly what they have at stake. They are mobilizing to defend economic interests that liberal public policy in the US has fused with whiteness.

As George Lipsitz has explained, popular New Deal benefits such as FHA mortgage loans, college educations for veterans and, especially, Social Security have been materially and symbolically raced as white. Materially speaking, these programs were designed and administered so as to make it difficult if not impossible for black Americans to have access to them. This was most blatant in the case of Social Security, for which farm workers and domestics were initially not eligible, a provision that effectively excluded black workers in fact if not in name. Symbolically, Social Security was presented as “old age insurance.” It was and continues to be framed as a just return for work and investment, characteristics that are stereotypically attached to white racial identity, and juxtaposed against social “welfare,” which is characterized by qualities of dependency, wastefulness, and laziness that are attributed to the black poor.

Tea Partiers speak from this material and symbolic legacy. It is proclaimed on the signs that they carry: “This democracy will cease to exist when you take it away from those who are willing to work and give it to those who would not,” “You are not entitled to what I have earned,” or, “Redistribute my work ethic.” It can be heard when they complain to reporters, “‘All the government does is take my money and give it to other people.’” In defending benefits they believe they have earned against an administration that wants to give them to people who do not work, they are mobilized by their collective property in whiteness. This does not mean that they are mobilized against black citizens, or against their black president because he is black. They are moved to act by a rhetoric that taps not a black-white binary but a powerful cultural scenario that configures a relation among the poor, an elite class of intellectual do-good social engineers, and the hard working “forgotten man” who’ll foot the bill.

The scenario of the "Forgotten Man " was first introduced in the 1890s by William Graham Sumner, the free-market advocate and social Darwinist who wrote What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. Sumner created the “forgotten man” as a figure of identification for the American middle class whom he believed had a right to be angry at being taxed to pay for poverty relief and other forms of what Sumner denounced as social engineering. Sumner himself did not paint this story in black and white. As Martin Gilens has observed, that happened in the 1960s, with social movement activism that called attention to black poverty and with the turn of the news media to represent black poverty both pathologically and out of proportion to its real numbers.  The “forgotten man” scenario was masterfully exploited by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who understood brilliantly how to tap peoples perceptions of and beliefs about racial difference without explicitly mentioning race, and to whip up a fury among those whom this scenario invites to identify as put upon and righteously indignant. The trouble with liberal social democratic reform in the U.S. is that it has worked within this scenario rather than against it, emphasizing the virtues of work and the vices of dependency almost as vehemently as conservatives do.

The reason to propose this counterintuitive understanding of Tea Party fear, anger and resentment is to counter the tendency among some on the Left to portray Tea Party mobilization as liberal America’s “other”. This othering is most obvious when analysts and opponents reduce Tea Party supporters’ motivations to racism. The precariat analogy is meant to suggest that the problem is not racism; the problem is a policy legacy in the U.S. that has distributed various forms of social security not as rights but as race-based privileges. In short, Tea Party movement belongs to liberal America even as Tea Party rhetoric denounces liberalism and liberals denounce Tea Partiers.

The precariat analogy serves to hold liberals to account for the Tea Party. It also helps explain one of the biggest contradictions in Tea Party politics, that Tea Partiers overwhelmingly favor smaller government (92%) yet at the same time 62% of Tea Party supporters rate Medicare and Social Security as “worth” the expense to taxpayers. This percentage, though markedly under the 76% support those programs receive from Americans generally, is striking in its deviation from the typical pattern of survey research which, as Nicholas Winter notes, finds opposition to big government associated with opposition to Social Security spending. And enthusiasm for Social Security tends to be stronger among the less well-educated. Tea Party supporters, by contrast, are well-educated small government advocates who remain boosters for this select piece of the liberal welfare state.

Their position makes sense through the analytic of whiteness. Survey researchers have developed a battery of questions to measure what they term “racial resentment,” which essentially amounts to identification with whiteness by means of the 'forgotten man' scenario. The four-question series probes attitudes about whether members of different racial and ethnic groups are hard working, and asks respondents whether they believe that blacks continue to confront race discrimination in the US. It is not surprising that respondents who report seeing blacks as less hard working than “Irish, Italians, Jewish and may other minorities who overcame prejudice and worked their way up,” and who affirm that blacks need “only try harder to be just as well off as whites,” will also oppose government spending on welfare. But what seems contradictory is that these same respondents strongly support spending on Social Security. The apparent contradiction makes sense if we think back to the “forgotten man.” At the core of their belief system is not free-market capitalism but, rather, a sense that hard-working whites ought not to be made to finance rescue programs for underachieving blacks. An April 2010 Survey on Race & Politics conducted by Christopher Parker at the University of Washington ran this battery of questions on Tea Party supporters and non-supporters in six battleground states to find exactly what the signs they carry are telling us: Tea Party “true believers” make precisely the identification between whiteness and work that correlates with support for Social Security spending.  Put differently, they identify with the "forgotten man".

Tea Partiers can defend Medicare and Social Security, even as they object to big government, because they have learned to regard these as property - rights that they have earned. Unlike the European precariat, Tea Party supporters do not recognize that they did not earn their middle-class status; it is dependent on the government-sponsored benefits programs of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society, programs that set the terms on which whites would be perceived as responsible, self-insuring agents and blacks as addicted to aid. If Tea Partiers do not recognize government responsibility for vulnerability, that is because the policies that established our liberal social safety net in the US has never been couched in those terms.

Politically, is it not more fruitful to recognize their fear and anger as a creation of liberalism than to denounce it as liberalism’s politically incorrect “other”? For liberals cannot do much to correct the mind-sets of their fellow citizens; they can, however, counter the Tea Party agenda with demands for a more universalist, more generous and less market-centered liberalism.

This article stems from a talk given by Professor Disch at the recent Tea Party Conference held by UC Berkeley's Center for the Comparative study of Right-Wing Movements

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