Tea Party = Racism?

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson takes a look at the Tea Party movement and claims to find racism.

Along the same lines as Bernard Finel’s post, which James Joyner responded to earlier, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson uses today’s column to question the motives behind the Tea Party movement and finds, not surprisingly for Robinson, that race is the central reason people have risen up in opposition to President Obama’s policies:

Underlying all the Tea Party’s issues and complaints, it appears to me, is the entirely legitimate issue of the relationship between the individual and the federal government. But why would this concern about oppressive, intrusive government become so acute now? Why didn’t, say, government surveillance of domestic phone calls and e-mails get the constitutional fundamentalists all worked up?

I have to wonder what it is about Obama that provokes and sustains all this Tea Party ire. I wonder how he can be seen as “elitist,” when he grew up in modest circumstances – his mother was on food stamps for a time – and paid for his fancy-pants education with student loans. I wonder how people who genuinely cherish the American dream can look at a man who lived that dream and feel no connection, no empathy.

I ask myself what’s so different about Obama, and the answer is pretty obvious: He’s black. For whatever reason, I think this makes some people unsettled, anxious, even suspicious – witness the willingness of so many to believe absurd conspiracy theories about Obama’s birthplace, his religion and even his absent father’s supposed Svengali-like influence from the grave.

Obama has made mistakes that rightly cost him political support. But I can’t help believing that the Tea Party’s rise was partly due to circumstances beyond his control – that he’s different from other presidents, and that the difference is his race.

The fact that racism is the first thing that comes to Robinson’s mind when he looks at a grassroots political movement says more, I think about Robinson than it does the movement. Yes, it’s true that there is an element to the opposition to the President that includes people who think he ineligible to be President, or that he is a “secret Muslim.” There are even prominent so-called intellectuals who have asserted that the President’s problem is that he has an “anti-colonialist, Kenyan world view.” To assert that this represents a majority of the Tea Party movement, though, is simply absurd.

Every movement has its kooks and its crazies. During the Bush Administration, the anti-war movement included people who believed that George W. Bush knew about, or even participated in, the September 11th attacks and people who believed that he consciously lied about WMDs in Iraq for the purpose of conquering Iraq for American oil companies. During the Clinton years, there were those who believed that Bill Clinton was involved in drug running out of an airfield in Arkansas and that the UN was about invade America using black helicopters. It’s not more legitimate to judge the entire Tea Party by referencing the birthers than it is to judge the anti-war movement, or the opposition to Bill Clinton, based on its kooky contingent. Yes, there are crazies in the Tea Party movement but, then, the Democratic Party includes people like Dennis Kucinich and Alan Grayson and I’m sure Robinson wouldn’t want me to judge the entire party based on those two individuals.

Elsewhere in the column, Robinson asks where the Tea Party people were during the Bush Administration when spending was increasing at a rate unseen since the Johnson years and the National Debt increased by $ 5 trillion over the course of eight years. This is legitimate question, and it’s own that has frustrated people like me, who were fiscally conservative before being fiscally conservative was cool. Back then, it was pretty lonely to be one of the few people complaining about a trillion dollar unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit, or the fact that we were undertaking to fight two wars at the same time that we were cutting taxes and increasing domestic spending. It wasn’t until the debate over the TARP bill and, later, the automaker’s bailout that mainstream conservatives became vocal about the spending excesses of the Bush era. By then, of course, it was too little, too late. However, the fact that Tea Party movement didn’t exist under the Bush Administration isn’t an argument against it today. What matters now is how consistent they’ll be in attacking fiscal excesses when the GOP is in power It’s largely because I don’t really believe that they will be as hard on Republicans as they have been on Democrats that I have been largely skeptical of the Tea Party movement.

Robinson makes this point that pretty much sums up just how clueless he is when it comes to understanding what’s happened over the past 21 months:

On Sunday, in a last-minute fundraising appeal, Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee implored his supporters to help “return American government to the American people.”

Again, who’s in possession of the government, if not the American people? The non-American people? The un-American people?

There’s an obvious answer, but it’s one that generally comes from the progressive end of the political spectrum: Americans must fight to take back their government from the lobbyists and big-money special interests that shape our laws to suit their own interests, not for the good of the nation.

That may be what some Tea Partiers have in mind, but the movement hasn’t seen fit to make campaign finance reform one of its major issues.

In other words, if the Tea Party really believed what it says, it would agree with me. This strikes me as the same kind of blindness that Thomas Friedman exhibited when he argued last month that the real “Tea Party” is the one that agrees him completely:

The important Tea Party movement, which stretches from centrist Republicans to independents right through to centrist Democrats[**], understands this at a gut level and is looking for a leader with three characteristics. First, a patriot: a leader who is more interested in fighting for his country than his party. Second, a leader who persuades Americans that he or she actually has a plan not just to cut taxes or pump stimulus, but to do something much larger — to make America successful, thriving and respected again. And third, someone with the ability to lead in the face of uncertainty and not simply whine about how tough things are — a leader who believes his job is not to read the polls but to change the polls.


This is the plan the real Tea Party wants from its president. To implement it would require us to actually raise some taxes — on, say, gasoline — and cut others — like payroll taxes and corporate taxes. It would require us to overhaul our immigration laws so we can better control our borders, let in more knowledge workers and retain those skilled foreigners going to college here. And it would require us to reduce some services — like Social Security — while expanding others, like education and research for a 21st-century economy.

Agree with me, those like Robinson and Friedman say, or your just not worth paying attention to. Or, worse, your’re a racist.

Finally, as James notes in his post, the truth of the matter is that it is the economy that is driving opposition to the President, the Democratic Party, and their agenda right now. Perhaps the reason that there wasn’t a “Tea Party movement” of some kind during the Bush years is that the economy was in good shape, people were working, and home values were rising. Arguments about high government spending and debt levels didn’t resonate with the public under those conditions the way that they do now. People are paying attention to economic issues because the economy is the most important issue for them right now. That, and not the color of the President’s skin, is the main reason that we’ve seen the rise of a populist movement that is likely to result in a strong rebuke to his agenda later tonight.

FILED UNDER: 2010 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Drew says:

    Robinson has proved himself to be a disgusting human being for quite some time. The notion of racism can only be characterized as bizarre. All those folks who voted FOR Obama have suddenly discovered their inner grand wizard? Stupid. Just pathetically stupid.

    I feel like I’m in the minority, but I’m still thinking this is NOT limited to a referendum on the economy or Democrat Congressional leadership, but in large part on Obama as well. He’s the chief spokesman for leftist policies.

  2. JKB says:

    Boy, the Left sure is doubling down today. They must truly fear the rebuke of their “progressive” agenda and are thrashing around for any reason not to fact that reality.

    If this be racism, why is it that Democrats running for dog catcher on up are finding their party affiliation a drag? In Georgia, they did a poll that found just that and the Democratic candidate for governor doesn’t even hit at his party affiliation in his ads. It’ll be very telling if their are state and local races that break away from their historical Dem possession.

    Or is this just a pre-emptive plan to blame it on the black guy now so the Dems don’t seem racist when they choose to run a primary challenge to Obama.

  3. John Personna says:

    We should net some Tea Partiers, test them for racism, tag them, and rerelease them into the wild(*)

    * – i’v been reading about fisheries management today

  4. Drew says:

    Take another toke, JP.

  5. John Personna says:

    I voted, but won’t jump the gun.

  6. george says:

    As they say, believing is seeing …

    There certainly are some racists in the Tea Party. But to suggest that Republicans would have happily supported Obama if he was white is to ignore a few hundred years of politics.

  7. Drew says:

    Courtesy – Sister Toldjah

    Let’s just look at a couple of US House races for examples of the damage “raaaacist” Tea Partiers can do:

    – Tim Scott – South Carolina’s US House District 1. Elected Tuesday night – with 65% of the vote. Wasn’t even a contest. SC1 is 75% white, and solidly conservative. Scott will be the first black Republican Congressman from SC since the Reconstruction.

    – Allen West – Florida’s US House District 22. Elected Tuesday with 54% of the vote. Not much of a contest there, either. FL22 is 82% white. That seat was a Republican pick-up and, as far as I know, is the first time a black Republican has ever represented that district in the US House.

    Did I mention that both of these US House Rep.-Elects were and are heavily backed by the “raaaacist” Tea Party crowd? Yeah, they are. And here I thought racists did everything they could to keep black folks from even participating in the political process, let alone getting elected for political office …