Tea Party still a largely southern phenomenon

There is a fine line between perception and reality. And in politics that line is too often blurred.

The recent debate over the debt ceiling, and subsequent legislative compromise, has left many of President Obama’s democratic supporters disappointed in what appears to be another capitulation to far-right conservatives and Congressional Tea Party Caucus members, who would rather see the nation risk economic solvency, than to engage in fair, balanced diplomacy.

After the deal struck in December 2010, in which the White House agreed to an extension of the Bush tax cuts as a trade-off to ensure unemployment benefits and elimination of the payroll tax, thereby providing relief for millions of middle and lower class American families, the debt ceiling crisis became a morally symbolic loss — in which Republicans used their control of the House of Representatives to enforce a unilateral agenda.

As the dust settles on what has been a heated and divisive battle the winners and losers are retreating to their corners and employing spin doctors to conceal the wounds.

Republican House Speaker Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appear to be taking a victory lap: praising the resolve and defiance of the Tea Party Caucus members — who seemingly stood on principle to demand the government focus on spending cuts and deficit reduction.

In truth, Boehner was essentially held hostage by the fringe elements within his own party: forced to abandon negotiations with the White House on an even larger debt reduction deal, simply because the Tea Party caucus objected to tax and revenue increases necessary for the deal to be accomplished.

But Boehner has obliged because the Tea Party, despite their rigid and ill-advised policy stances, provide a particular political advantage. They have created a useful smoking mirror for the mainstream Republican Party — behind which Boehner and his cronies can push a decisively ultra-conservative economic agenda, under the guise that it represents the will of the voters.

And as long as the mainstream media and policy analysts accept the narrative that the Tea Party speaks for the people, their unorthodox tactics go unchallenged.

From its inception, the Tea Party ‘movement’ has been touted as something new: a populist uprising against bank bailouts and Obama’s health care reform program. The November 2010 election increased their political leverage when voters in several states elected a freshman class of those who subscribed to anti-Obama rhetoric and sentiment, largely fueled by Fox News and its affiliates. But the Tea Party has never actually enjoyed a broad coalition of independent voters.

As Michael Lind explains in his recent article for Salon’s online magazine, “The Tea Party, the Debt Ceiling and White Southern Extremism”, 63 percent of the Tea Party Caucus members are from the South, and seem hell-bent on re-fighting the Civil War which has its roots in the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. It is no surprise that the main focus of this neo-Confederate group is to defund programs which largely aid the poor, the vulnerable, the black and brown. Lind argues it is clear that the origins of the debt ceiling crisis – as well as the fight against health care reform — isn’t based in traditional American conservatism, but in eccentric Southern conservatism. He explains that “the goal, the methods and the passion of the Tea Party in the House are all characteristic of the radical Southern right.”

A deeper look and it all becomes so clear. The Tea Party gained traction with vocal ideologues like Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann claiming they wanted to “take their country back”. (Never, of course, explaining from whom the nation needed to be rendered.)

Bachmann and others employ a self-righteous stance by declaring they speak for the “the American people”. The media, in turn, has focused so heavily on conveying what appears to be the Tea Party’s ideological position, while failing to show that it is a largely regional phenomenon.

Minnesota’s Bachmann may be the face of the Caucus, but in Congress the Tea Party members are largely Southern. In fact, the states comprising the largest number of Tea Party representatives come from former Confederate States: Texas (12), Florida (7), Louisiana (5), Georgia (5), South Carolina (3) and Tennessee (3). It is no surprise that the likes of Joe Wilson, the Republican who received international attention when he interrupted an address by President Obama to a joint session of Congress by shouting “You lie!”, is a card carrying member of the caucus. However, it may come as a surprise that in the entire House Tea Party Caucus, there is only one representative from the Northeast.

This division speaks volumes about the fractured and dysfunctional nature of our political system. Old wars are still being waged.

Lind reminds us that in 1820 and 1850 Southern states used the threat of secession to maintain their right to slavery. By 1861, the South had waged the war against the Union, rather than submit to presidential and federal authority on the same issue. Even after defeat, the former Confederate states regrouped as the Solid South — a one-party region, first Democratic and now Republican -that sought to block federal civil rights laws ordering racial integration.

By the time the new Republican Party successfully shutdown the government in 1995 , they were being led by Southerners like Newt Gingrich from Georgia , and Dick Armey and Tom DeLay , both from Texas. Always the same story: don’t tread on me. And not very much has changed since.

Today, they have been rebranded as the Tea Party movement, pushing conservative plans to scale back Social Security, Medicare and other social welfare programs, which are overwhelmingly relied upon by the poor and disadvantaged, while insisting on tax breaks for the wealthy and affluent, who remain disproportionately white.

This should serve as a warn sign. The developments we’ve witnessed, with this small, but vocal and powerful faction essentially high-jacking the political process to promote a niche agenda, is a dangerous precedent.

As Michael Doyle (D-PA) declared during a meeting with Vice Present Joe Biden, Democrats http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/02/white-house-biden-tea-party-terrorists_n_916473.html
”>“have negotiated with terrorists.”
With the Tea Party’s supposed ‘victory’ in the debt ceiling war, political insiders are claiming their power is at an all-time high, going so far as to suggest that Boehner’s speakership may well be in peril.

But of what is our government made, if the economic and political future rest in the hands of people willing to hold the government hostage. Is that not political terrorism? In an America where wars are being fought in deserts abroad, against a faceless and nameless enemy, could it be that the true enemy lies within?

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.