Republicans wrestle with race and Tea Party

The headline of Jake Sherman’s story at Politico is “Republicans line up to rip Michele Bachmann.

Rep. Bachmann (Minnesota) and four other Tea Party conservatives    ( Reps.  Trent Franks [Arizona], Louie Gohmert [Texas], Thomas Rooney [Florida] and Lynn Westmoreland [Georgia]) in the House had sent a series of letters raising the alarm about Muslims and Arabs in government who might be, they said, distorting American policy to favor terrorists.  The evidence was, uh, weak, and the racist overtones were fairly obvious.  Senator John McCain denounced the accusations on the Senate floor.  Jake Sherman details many other Republicans leaping at the chance to distance themselves from Rep. Bachmann and, less explicitly, the Tea Party she claims to represent.  Remember that Bachmann is leader of the House Tea Party caucus.

The first wave of Tea Party activism in 2009 featured a diverse collection of grievances, some rooted in social conservatism and others in a fairly libertarian critique of big government and taxes.  Over time, politicians like Rep. Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum worked to emphasize the socially conservative elements of the Tea Party, leaving the libertarians and real limited government folk on the outs.  And from the start, there’s been a streak of racism and xenophobia in the Tea Party, more visible in some of the grassroots groups than in the most visible national groups (but take a look at Tea Party Nation).  Indeed, some grassroots activists worked hard to keep the racist signs from decorating their rallies.

Rep. Bachmann’s national audience and her prodigious fundraising ability gave her something of a protected status within the House Republican caucus, even–as is now quite clear–many of her Republican colleagues were uncomfortable with some of her politics and the image she presented of their party.  Certainly, politicians like Michele Bachmann can win Congressional elections, but it’s not clear that a Republican Party like Michele Bachmann can maintain a majority in the House of Representatives.  Many Republicans doubt it.  And even the most socially conservative and xenophobic Republican needs to demonstrate extraordinary faith to believe that such a posture could govern for long a country whose population is changing.

As David Boaz, the certifiably conservative executive vice president of the Cato Institute put it (in Politico’s Arena, July 19):

If the Republicans want only straight white Christian men to vote for them, they’d better figure out a way to make more straight white Christian men.

Republicans who were interested in winning elections–and/or those who were offended by the racist streak in the movement–were eager to try to scratch off someone they view as a political liability.  It’s going to take much more, however, to make this stream of the Tea Party go away.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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11 Responses to Republicans wrestle with race and Tea Party

  1. John Krinsky says:

    It’s partly because the GOP and “respectable” conservatives still cannot pass up an opportunity to race-bait. They just do it, as they have for generations now, in coded ways. Their favorite codes have to do with welfare and crime. That’s why, at the moment, they’re having a collective freak-out about welfare-to-work rules. It seems as if the Obama administration has acceded to the requests of several Republican governors to waive some reporting requirements on welfare-to-work programs under the 1996 welfare law (and its subsequent renewals). The Heritage Foundation began to scream that Obama was “gutting” the welfare reform law. The problem, of course, is that the rigid rules and reporting requirements in workfare and welfare-to-work programs mean that people are actually impeded from doing what they need to get decently and steadily employed. We’ve known that virtually from the start. I’m sure that the folks at Heritage and Fox know this, too. Certainly, the Republican governors who asked for flexibility (usually a pet project of the states’ rights crew) knew the problems with administering a stupidly rigid welfare law.

    So, the explanation for why this, and why now, should probably be that there is an effort to build up Obama as the “welfare president.” Obama’s just going to give away the store to the lazy blacks. Just like his ACORN supporters wanted him to do. It’s so easy and so sleazy to do this. And it’s not even that much more subtle than Bachmann. The problem is that it’s a well-worn code, and everyone knows what it does. And yet, because it’s code, there’s plausible deniability. “We’re just concerned about the will of Congress as expressed in the bi-partisan welfare reform law…”.

    All of this to say that racism’s respectable on the right…it just requires dressing up a little bit.

    • I don’t think it’s only the fact that President Obama is African-American (literally!) that has made the racial dynamics in electoral politics even more visible than usual. The demographics of America present fundamental change–and a threat to core elements in the Republican constituency. As the Party has declined, those elements are more central and powerful than before, which leads to a slide (see California, as example). But the Republicans did very well in the last Congressional election, and the combination of big money and a bad economy means that the Party may well make gains this year.
      Meanwhile, it’s worthwhile to think systematically about how different the politics of race are in America today than when Kevin Phillips articulated the new Republican strategy in the 1960s.

      • John Krinsky says:

        I agree that it’s not all focused on Obama. I’m just saying that I think that the welfare dust-up is standard GOP racial coding, and it would be with or without Obama. It’s just convenient… They’re also disenfranchising, etc., etc. If your larger point is that this is a dud of a long-term strategy, I think you’re probably right. But I certainly hope that it’s not the long-term as in “in the long-term, we’ll all be dead”!

      • I think the welfare rhetoric is played out, at least partly because TANF is so small and stingy. The dangerous image is now more likely to be an immigrant coming to work than a resident living on welfare. And you’re absolutely right about the “ballot integrity” measures. Sometimes the people pushing voter ID can’t help themselves from explaining the partisan consequences they imagine….

      • John Krinsky says:


        I saw that. Pretty nutty.

        But I disagree both that the welfare rhetoric is played out and disagree about the reason. Welfare will be a code-word for a long time, just as red-baiting still exists. Indeed, the Heritage Foundation’s freak-out about welfare suggests that they don’t think the rhetoric is played out. The reason is threefold. First, it’s a way of talking about people who expect something from the government for nothing. Second, it’s a way of talking about black people without having to talk about black people. The Gilens issue persists. Third, it’s not mutually exclusive with nativist garbage. In fact, it coexists with it comfortably. But if the reason it’s played out is that TANF is so small and stingy, that assumes a pretty high-information voter, doesn’t it? I think most people know that “welfare reform was a success” (whatever that means), but they still think that millions suck at the public teat in a state of abject dependency. Moreover, TANF/AFDC has always been stingy and susceptible to state cutbacks, sanction programs, and punitive benefit-level contraction. So perhaps I’m ultra-sensitive to it (for obvious reasons), but I don’t think that welfare’s end is nigh with respect to political rhetoric and its power as racial coding.

  2. Jose says:

    I think Huntsman has to be the unrepentant moatedre to have a chance. He’d have to hope that rank and file Republicans who don’t like the direction the tea party is taking them go out and vote for him in primaries. But Romney is already filling that role so it’ll be hard from Huntsman (though Romney is doing more to try to have it both ways).Huntsman would be a good VP candidate, but VP choices don’t do much to help (though some like Eagleton in 1972 who McGovern dumped, and Palin in 2008, can hurt a candidate). Romney-Perry could be a strong ticket. Romney-Huntsman would be a strange ticket they’re too much alike (but then again, so were Clinton and Gore). Perry at the top of the ticket would be weaker, but he definitely would need someone like Huntsman. If the fight between him and Romney for the nomination gets bitter, Huntsman might be Perry’s top choice. I don’t think Bachmann, Gingrich or the others really have much of a chance. Though I did like a Politico headline the other day: Bachman Turnover Drives Questions. (Gee, did she say I was just taking care of business you ain’t seen nothing yet! )

  3. John Krinsky says:

    Apparently, Mitt’s taking the welfare reform stuff on the road…

    • Yup. let’s see if it turns into something even remotely reminiscent of Reagan rhetoric about “welfare queens.”
      Immigration is the more racially charged issue today, and the Republican Party is in a tough spot, trying to navigate the preferences of xenophobes in the grassroots and big business supporters who want access to labor.

      • John Krinsky says:

        Maybe welfare is a line of least resistance and has the advantage of coding. I’ll actually be surprised if anything gets the kind of traction that welfare queens did, simply because our attention spans–or the media’s–has gotten much shorter, and every intervention is likely to be a flash in the pan…

    • Wow, I’m always eager to see how wrong I am about something. I thought the welfare issue was a non-starter for Republicans because: a) Latinos, not African Americans, are the most visible non-white group now, and b) immigration was a far more salient issue than welfare, which is stingier and smaller than ever. Seizing on Pres. Obama’s offer of slight flexibility to governors seemed a desperate move, and one based on explicit distortion. I’m now thinking that race politics are going to be far more prominent in this election as Gov. Romney has figured out that his only path to victory involves running up the margin in the white vote and, to the degree that’s possible, suppressing minority voter turnout. See Ronald Brownstein,

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