The ‘Tea Party’: Capitalist Ideology in Decomposition

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At least since the debacle of 2000 Presidential Election, which brought the often incompetent and clumsily bellicose Bush administration into office, Internationalism has often pointed to the increasing difficulty of the U.S. capitalist class  to manipulate its electoral apparatus in order to achieve the optimum political outcome in the interests of the overall national capital.

However, with the election of Barack Obama as President in 2008, the U.S. bourgeoisie at last seemed to have put the Bush years behind it. The new administration was supposed to reinvigorate confidence in the democratic and electoral process, revive the United States' standing in the world arena and enact policies and legislation to address pressing problems facing the national capital, which the Bush administration had either ignored or bungled.

Yet even prior to Obama's electoral victory a new political movement had begun to emerge, determined to derail his election and/or obstruct and ruin his administration should he take power. This movement has evolved today into a self-styled grassroots "alternative" political party: the so-called "Tea Party." In this article, we will review the emergence of the Tea Party during the Presidential campaign and the first year of the Obama administration and attempt to draw some preliminary conclusions about the significance of this movement in the life of the U.S. bourgeoisie.

Originally emanating from the right-wing fringes of the American political spectrum, such as racist white militia groups, hyper-libertarian anti-tax activists, various incarnations of Christian fundamentalists, anti-immigration activists and assorted other extremists, nasty rumors - spread via right wing talk radio and the internet - begin to circulate during the Presidential campaign that Obama was really a Muslim agent, sent to take over the federal government and surreptitiously lead America's capitulation to the terrorists. Other equally ridiculous rumors asserted that Obama's election as President would be illegitimate since he was really born in Indonesia, violating the Constitution's requirement that the President be a "natural born" United States citizen. These bizarre claims of the far right fringe begin to exert a serious weight in the 2008 election campaign, as Republican Party political operatives tacitly encouraged these rumors with the full cooperation of a salacious media.  Despite ample evidence that Obama was born in Hawaii and his numerous proclamations that he was - in fact - a Christian, public opinion polls conducted in the months prior to the election consistently showed a significant percentage of the electorate believing Obama was really a Muslim or a foreign born person ineligible for the Presidency.

As the 2008 election campaign heated up in the summer and fall, these claims were given new life by Republican candidate John McCain's nomination of the far right, libertarian Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Palin - an often volatile political novice - immediately injected a new round of cutting political rhetoric into the campaign. From the summer up until the election in November, the official Republican line attacked Obama as a "socialist" and a "Marxist," who during his days as a "community activist" in urban Chicago, associated with terrorists from the New Left. Just as the American banking system was collapsing in the wake of the housing market and sub-prime loan debacles, the Presidential campaign was defined by Republican Party operatives' attempts to brand Barack Obama a proponent of "big government socialism"!

However, Obama always enjoyed the determined backing of a very significant fraction of the American ruling class, who had recognized the imperative need for a break with the Bush era. This fraction was aided in its efforts to win over many of the more uncertain elements by the near collapse of the American banking system - just weeks before the election. This changed the campaign debate, giving Obama the ultimate impetus to win the election. The lame duck Bush administration orchestrated a massive federal government bail-out of Wall Street and the banks, which prevented a catastrophic outcome in the short term. However, the bail-outs proved deeply unpopular with the public at large and a "Wall Street vs. Main Street" theme emerged in the Presidential campaign, giving a natural advantage to the Democrat Obama (despite his open support for the bail-outs). Faced with the growing realization that an economic crisis of untold proportions lay ahead, many - who otherwise may have supported McCain and Palin on cultural and social grounds - held their nose and decided to vote for the Democrat and soon to be first "African-American" President.

After the election, the right-wing reaction

While the dominant factions of the bourgeoisie celebrated Obama's victory in November and his stated intention to address many pressing problems facing the U.S. state - such as the nation's arcane health care system, which boasts higher costs and worse outcomes than any other industrialized nation - the right-wing plotted its next move. Within weeks of his inauguration, a new challenge to Obama and the Democrats emerged born of the ideological detritus of the various permutations of anti-Obama rhetoric spewed during the Presidential campaign: the so-called "Tea Party."

The Tea Party boasts of its "grassroots" appeal in its stated intention to oppose the bail out of Wall Street and punish the greedy bankers, while at the same time fighting the growth of the federal government, "pork barrel" spending, increased taxes and the so-called "socialism" and "Marxism" of the new Obama administration. Spurred on by right-wing radio and the internet blogosphere, and even given legitimacy by Republican politicians, including Sarah Palin, the Tea Party - despite its grossly eclectic ideological allegiances - has grown over the last year into a serious political force in American politics.

Tea Party ideology is said to have had a major role in the Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate Race in February of 2010, which saw the long time Democratic held seat of Edward "Ted" Kennedy pass into Republican hands and which cost the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate. Similarly, right-wing Republican political candidates have taken up Tea Party ideological themes in advance of the 2010 Congressional elections. Some Tea Party inspired candidates have launched primary challenges to unseat well-established Republicans, including 2008 Presidential candidate John McCain.

The campaign around ‘health reform'

However, the Tea Party movement is most famous today for the part it played in the political and media circus surrounding Obama's health care "reform" efforts, which has dominated U.S. domestic politics for months. Tea Party inspired demonstrations have taken place across the country, protesting against what they see as a "government takeover" of health care embodied in Obama's plan to force everyone to buy health insurance from private, profit-seeking insurance companies, as well as the plan's overall cost, which they believe will increase the national debt.These demonstrations are often replete with provocative slogans decrying "Obamunism" and stoking fear of legislation that would supposedly create "death panels," through which government bureaucrats would decide when to "pull the plug" on elderly and terminally ill patients. Faced with pressure from the right wing base of the party now dominated by Tea Party ideology, sitting Republican Congressmen and Senators have taken up many Tea Party slogans, calling the health care "reform" legislation, "the loss of freedom" in America.

Now that the health care legislation has passed, Republicans pledge to repeal it at first chance, while grassroots Tea Party activists make death threats against Democratic Congressmen, smash Democratic Party office windows and vow to "resist" legislation they call an "attack on freedom" by "any means necessary."  Meanwhile, Democratic leaders protest the "decline of civility" in politics, excoriate their Republican colleagues for failing to adequately denounce the dangerous rhetoric on the right, and publicly fear for their own safety.  American domestic politics has turned particularly brutal and ugly these days, harkening back to the nastiest days of the 1960s and 70s. While not openly expecting fascism any time soon, one Democratic Congressman has predicted a dangerous turn in American politics, should the Democrats attempt to pass immigration "reform" in the same way they did health care legislation.[1]

So how should the working class and its revolutionary minorities make sense of the tortured evolution of the Tea Party and its highly eclectic, and often contradictory,  ideology?

A good deal of further analysis is needed in order to fully understand the evolution of U.S. politics, the extent to which decomposition has infested the political life of the American bourgeoisie and the complex effect of bourgeois ideological campaigns on working class discontent and resistance. However, it is possible to offer some preliminary analysis of the "Tea Party" phenomenon from a proletarian political perspective and draw some of the implications for the working class struggle against capital.

The Tea Party reflects a very real decomposition of bourgeois ideology in the face of an increasing inability of that class to manage its own political affairs. More and more, faced with the Tea Party to its right, and the infiltration of many Tea Party activists in its ranks, the Republican Party is expressing an extreme right-wing ideology that seeks to eviscerate the federal government, devolving power back to the state level. This ideology is strongly opposed to Keynesian economic politics in order to address the crisis, including extending unemployment benefits to displaced workers.

While this ideology has a long history in the life of the U.S. bourgeoisie, going back to the Civil War and the debate on slavery (or even further, since the emphasis on "states' rights" goes back to the foundation of the Republic), today it is completely incompatible with the United States' role as the lone remaining imperialist superpower and the needs of the national state to implement policies to manage the ever deepening economic crisis.[2] Although previously this ideology may have been deployed strategically by elements of the Republican Party to achieve immediate political goals with no intention of carrying them to their conclusion, this right-wing ideology is increasingly assuming its own autonomous character, despite the immediate practical needs of the national state.

To a certain extent, U.S. domestic politics is becoming "ideologized" in a way that negatively impacts the ability of the state to effectively manage the interests of the national capital. This reflects both the deepening difficulty of the U.S. state in the international arena, as well increasing social decomposition shown in the "everyman for himself" approach to social and political life and the flourishing of backward looking  ideologies typified by the Christian right and the Tea Party movement.[3]

Despite the reality of the Tea Party as a political force and its infection of the Republican Party, the U.S. bourgeoisie - through its media apparatus - is perfectly capable of exploiting this movement in a number of ways to defuse working class discontent over the deepening economic crisis. First, the constant media images of enraged Tea Party rallies where supporters proudly wear t-shirts and carry placards adorned with colorful phrases, such as "Marxism is an Obamanation" and "I Didn't Vote for Socialism," simply continue the long ideological campaign against Marxism, communism and the working class movement that once identified them with Stalinist totalitarianism. Today, the campaign identifies Marxism with Obama's Keynesian state capitalist policies. The goal here is to associate proletarian politics with state capitalism and corporate giveaways so as to divert the working class away from its own class terrain and toward a simplistic attack on the "state" in the name of a mythologized primordial American "liberty" emanating from the days of the Revolution of 1776.

Second, and complementary to the first goal, the media campaign around the Tea Party seeks to stoke fear in those who reject their ideology, but who remain angry and concerned about the economic crisis. The goal here is to enroll these workers around a defense of the federal state, state capitalist policies, democratic ideology and a now under siege Obama administration, supposedly threatened from an increasingly violent, racist and utterly irrational proto-fascist tendency within the Tea Party.

In short, whether the Tea Party is presented as a dire threat or a positive force for freedom, workers are going to be called on to take sides in an increasingly bitter struggle between factions of the bourgeoisie which, in historical terms, are equally anti-working class and reactionary. This is a dangerous trap which can only be sprung by workers developing their struggles.[4]

With its fervent individualism, anti-welfare and anti-immigrant sentiment, Tea Party ideology is essentially a rejection of social solidarity, which is the life blood of the working class fighting  on its own class terrain, in defense of  its own living and working standards.[5] This alone can provide the necessary antidote to all  the ideological poison emanating from this dying social system. 

Henk 10/4/10



[1].- House Democratic Majority Whip, James Clyburn (Democrat, South Carolina) on "Hardball With Chris Matthews" MSNBC. March 24th, 2009.

[2].- Although an argument could be made that the Republicans rhetoric about the national debt reflects a very real growing realization within the bourgeoisie that Keynesian tactics, though they may provide a short term relief, only dig a deeper grave for the national economy in the longer term.

[3].- We should be careful to not overstate this phenomenon. Despite the fact that not a single Republican voted for the legislation, the state was still able to push through health care "reform" by alternative parliamentary procedures, avoiding the prospect of a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Moreover, despite the opposition of the particularly grumpy Republican Senator Jim Bunning from Kentucky, the state has found a way to push through a series of last minute "miracle" extensions of unemployment benefits (charged of course on the national credit card!).

[4].- Ironically, despite their vitriol against "socialism" and "government run health care," many Tea Party supporters actually receive coverage through Medicare, leading to the odd sight of protesters carrying banners reading, "Keep the government's hands off my Medicare."  

[5].-  Consequently, a large part of the media campaign regarding the Tea Party is to identify social solidarity, compassion and empathy for others with the state, as if only a strong state can safeguard these values against the threat emanating from an increasingly belligerent and sociopathic right-wing.