The Tea Party movement as a whole is a multimillion dollar complex that includes for-profit corporations, non-party non-profit organisations, and political action committees. Collectively they have erased the advantage that Democrats once enjoyed in the arena of internet fundraising and web-based mobilisation. They have resuscitated the ultra-conservative wing of American political life, created a stiff pole of opinion within Republican Party ranks and have had a devastating impact on thoughtful policy making for the common good, at the local and state level as well as at the federal level.
By Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind from the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (USA) for Searchlight.
These Tea Party organisations have given platforms to antisemites, racists and bigots. Further, hardcore white nationalists have been attracted to these protests, looking for potential recruits and hoping to push these (white) protesters towards a more self-conscious and ideological white supremacy. One temperature gauge of these events is the fact that longtime national socialist David Duke is hoping to find enough money and support in the Tea Party ranks to launch yet another electoral campaign in the 2012 Republican primaries.
Their self-designated spokespeople in Washington DC claim that their movement concentrates solely on budget deficits, taxes and the power of the federal government. Nevertheless, concerns about race and national identity and other so-called social issues permeate Tea Party ranks. It is inside the Tea Parties that an abiding obsession with Barack Obama’s birth certificate is often a stand-in for the belief that the first black President of the United States is not a “real American”. Rather than strictly adhering to the Constitution, many Tea Partiers challenge the provision for birthright citizenship found in the 14th Amendment. While Tea Partiers and their supporters are concerned about the current economic recession and the increase in government debt and spending it has occasioned, there is no observable statistical link between Tea Party membership and unemployment levels. And their storied opposition to political and social elites turns out to be predicated on an antagonism to federal assistance for those deemed the “undeserving poor”.
The incessant depiction of Obama as a non-American began before the 2008 election among those who regard him as a non-native born American who should not rightly (constitutionally) hold the presidency. The permutations have continued from there: Islamic terrorist, socialist, African witch doctor, lying African, etc. If he is not properly American then he becomes the ‘‘other” that is not “us”. Further, the oft-repeated Tea Party call to “Take it back, take your country back” is an explicitly nationalist refrain. It is sometimes coupled with the assertion that there are “real Americans”, as opposed to others who they believe are driving the country into a socialist ditch.
The Tea Party phenomenon exists at about three levels of agreement and commitment. Several national opinion polls point to support for the Tea Parties running at approximately 16% to 18% of the adult population, which would put the number of sympathisers in the tens of millions. That would be the outermost ring of support. At the next level is a larger less defined group of a couple of million activists who go to meetings, buy the literature and attend the many local and national protests. At the core are the more than 250,000 members in all 50 states who have signed up on the websites of the six national organisational networks.
The leading figures in one national faction, the 1776 Tea Party (more commonly known as TeaParty.org), were imported directly from the anti-immigrant vigilante organisation, the Minuteman Project. Tea Party Nation has provided a gathering place for so-called birthers and has attracted Christian nationalists and nativists. Tea Party Express so outraged the public with the racist pronouncements of its leaders that other national factions have (recently) eschewed any ties to it. Both ResistNet and Tea Party Patriots, the two largest networks, harbour long-time anti-immigrant nativists and racists; and Tea Party Patriots has opened its doors to those calling for the repeal of the 17th Amendment, which established the direct election of US Senators by popular vote instead of their election by state legislatures. Five of these six national factions have “birthers” in their leadership, the only exception being FreedomWorks.
Tea Party numbers have grown considerably over the past 12 months, but the different factions are not all growing at the same rate. The Tea Party Patriots and ResistNet, the two national factions with the most diffuse, locally-based organisational structures, are experiencing the fastest rate of growth. This would tend to indicate a larger movement less susceptible to central control and more likely to attract racist and nativist elements at the local level.
FreedomWorks Tea Party
FreedomWorks Tea Party has the largest structure of support. The FreedomWorks corporate complex includes both a charity foundation and a non-profit membership organisation. In 2008, the membership organisation raised and spent more than $4 million (£2.6 million). The foundation took in more than $3 million that year, and spent about $100,000 more than it received. As of February 2010, FreedomWorks boasted a staff of 13 professionals, including state directors in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey chairs FreedomWorks. In 2008, he received $550,000 in remuneration from a combination of FreedomWorks sources.
As of 1 August 2010 FreedomWorks Tea Party had 15,044 online members. These are concentrated in the Northeast, particularly the corridor from Boston to New York City to Washington DC. Other clusters are in Texas and Florida. One staffer described working with local Tea Party groups, “Usually what happens is an organiser from anywhere in the country will contact me and say I’d like to organise a Tea Party and do something in my city, so what we do is we help resource them with ideas for signs, locations, for media outreach, and we try to give them this list of things to do so that they can make sure their event is successful.” FreedomWorks also served as the central organisation sponsoring the March on Washington of 12 September 2009. In January 2010, FreedomWorks began focusing on the 2010 elections.
1776 Tea Party
The 1776 Tea Party, also known as TeaParty.org, is the one national faction most directly connected to the Minuteman Project and the anti-immigrant movement. With 6,987 online members, it is also the smallest of the national Tea Party factions.
The organisation’s founding president is Dale Robertson, a former naval officer who served with the Marines. On 27 February 2009, Robertson attended a Tea Party event in Houston with a sign reading “Congress = Slaveowner, Taxpayer = Niggar”. He has also sent out racist fundraising emails depicting President Obama as a pimp. Stephen Eichler and Tim Bueler became corporate directors in October 2009; Eichler as treasurer and Bueler as secretary. Robertson is president of the Texas non-profit corporation. Although Robertson remained the public face of the 1776 Tea Party, much of the day-to-day operations and public relations shifted to Eichler, who became the 1776 Tea Party executive director in addition to his corporate board role, and to Bueler, who became media director while also keeping his corporate board role.
Eichler has remained executive director of the Minuteman Project. He is also listed as president of the Minuteman Victory Political Action Committee and a corporate officer in Minutemanbookclub.com. Bueler has remained the media person at the Minuteman Project, while continuing to host a radio show on the “Wake Up America Talk Show”.
ResistNet Tea Party
The corporate structure that envelopes ResistNet.com is akin to Russian nesting dolls. ResistNet is a for-profit project of Grassfire Nation, a division of Grassroots Action. Grassfire has grown through the use of a number of internet petition campaigns. By June 2010, Grassfire had developed a contact database of 3,713,521 people (including 2,608,818 phone numbers and 1,211,259 opt-in email names). As of 1 August 2010, ResistNet is the second largest national Tea Party faction with 81,248 online members.
It has also become a gathering spot for bigotry against Muslims, as well as leaders of state and local anti-immigrant groups who have become active with ResistNet.
Tea Party Nation
Tea Party Nation was organised as a for-profit corporation by Judson Phillips, a Nashville, Tennessee attorney, and his wife Sherry Phillips. He is a local Republican activist and former assistant district attorney. The birth of Tea Party Nation mirrors that of several of the other factions. Its founder helped organise a Tea Party rally in Nashville on 27 February 2009 that attracted several hundred people. It organised Tax Day Tea Party protests in Nashville on 15 April, where about 10,000 attended, and in nearby Franklin, with an additional 4,000. Tea Party Nation is now the third largest national Tea Party network, with 31,402 online members as of 1 August 2010.
At an “Altar Call” at the Cornerstone Church in Nashville on 31 July 2009, 600 Christian conservatives gathered for a “call to arms”. Phillips exhorted the crowd to action. “You must get involved. The time for sitting on the sidelines is over,” he said. He urged the crowd to fight what he called the “Obama-Pelosi-Reid axis of evil”, which he believes threatens the American way of life. “Tonight we are doing a different kind of altar call,” Phillips said. “Tonight’s altar call is not for God. It’s for country.”
Tea Party Nation’s conference in Nashville in February 2010 was well attended and highlighted the place of Christian conservatives, indeed Christian nationalism, inside this movement generally and in Tea Party Nation specifically. The convention also built bridges to nativists and so-called birthers. There was a marked shift away from supposed focus on bailouts and budget deficits towards culture war. It also featured an appearance by Sarah Palin, who reportedly received $100,000 for her speech.
Tea Party Patriots
Tea Party Patriots can rightly make the claim that it is the most grassroots faction. Just over 2,200 different local Tea Party Patriot chapters are listed on its website, more than all the other national factions combined. There are 115,311 online members on its main website and 74,779 registered to its social networking site. Despite its size, Tea Party Patriots’ budget is considerably smaller than those of FreedomWorks, Tea Party Express and ResistNet. For the fiscal year ending on 31 May 2010 total contributions were $538,009 and total expenses $400,596 ($342,559 on programme service and $58,037 on administration and management).
At a convention last May in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, attended by over 300 people, workshops included presentations by Pam Geller, an anti-Islam agitator, and a set by the Oath Keepers, a quasi-militia group that focuses on recruiting law enforcement officers and military personnel, and defending their version of the Constitution.
Tea Party Caucus in Congress
The link between the Tea Parties, anti-immigrant politics and birthright citizenship shows up in Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives. Founded in July 2010, the Tea Party Caucus quickly grew to include 51 representatives, all of them Republicans. Bachmann (pictured) , from Minnesota’s 9th District, is the only representative from that state who is a member of the caucus. Ten are from Texas, five from Georgia, four from California and the rest are scattered around the country, although none are from the northeastern part of the country.
Notably, 42 of the 51 are also members of the House Immigration Reform Caucus in Congress, the grouping of the most steadfast opponents to any reform legislation that would include a pathway to citizenship for those without proper papers. Thirty nine of the Tea Party caucus members are also co-sponsors of H.R. 1868, the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2009, a bill currently sitting in a House committee that would end birthright citizenship in the United States for the America-born children of parents without papers. It would present a direct constitutional challenge to the 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War to guarantee the citizenship rights of the newly freed slaves and their children.
Opposition to “birthright citizenship” is often linked to an explicit fear of the demographic transformation under way in the United States, in which white people are projected to become one minority in a country of minorities during the next decades.
Richard Mack and the militias
Local groups affiliated with Tea Party Patriots that describe themselves as militias include the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, the Billy Hill Militia in Oklahoma and the defunct North Coast Militia. Other Tea Party Patriot-affiliated groups actively promoted militia formation. The Pocatello Tea Party, for example, promoted the “Ten Reasons Why We Need a State Militia”. In Springfield, Missouri, the 9-12 Tea Party group advised followers to join the SW Missouri militia.
Other signs of the militia impulse include the omnipresence of Richard Mack (pictured) at Tea Party-related events. A former Graham County, Arizona, sheriff (1987-1997), Mack first became prominent in 1995 after he sued the federal government over enforcement of the Brady Bill. During the mid-1990s, he became a popular speaker on the militia circuit. As a result of spending so much time outside his own county, he was defeated in a 1996 election and lost his office. Mack co-authored two books during that period, arguing militia-style that “proponents of the New World Order are entrenched and moving forward aggressively with their plan”. In Mack’s view, Satan is acting through conspiracies every day.
Currently, as a member of Oath Keepers, Mack presents himself as a defender of the constitution. He does not talk at Tea Party events about fiscal policy, taxes and the national debt but about “states’ rights”. And he is one of the most popular speakers on the Tea Party circuit.