The mid-term elections and the Tea Party

FRFI 218 December 2010/January 2011

The November mid-term elections in the US resulted in major gains for the Republican Party. This comes just two years after the country voted for Barack Obama and ‘Change we can believe in’. How did this come about? The right-wing ‘Tea Party’ has been at the centre of this shift. What does this mean and what are the prospects for US politics? US correspondent STEVE PALMER reports.

The Democratic Party has lost its majority in the House of Representatives: from 255 of 435 seats, it has dropped to 190; in the Senate from 59 of 100 seats to 53. There is a high proportion of new faces: the Republicans have 85 new Representatives and 13 brand-new Senators. This is the worst defeat for any party for several decades. The fault is that of Obama and of the Democratic Party: they promised change and used youth, blacks and Latinos as an electoral battering ram to win a sweeping majority in Congress. Then they expanded the war in Afghanistan, continued the Guantanamo torture centre, bailed out the banks and the car companies but not the people, enacted hopeless healthcare legislation and failed to bring unemployment down. Along the way they quietly dropped their most enthusiastic supporters and many who were yearning for change.

The consequences are serious for the Obama administration. It needs to ratify the START Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, has to decide what to do about Bush’s tax cuts for the rich which are due to expire shortly, wants to end the ban on gays in the military and extend unemployment benefits, and still has to fix the economy. Now it is in the minority in the House, faced with a mass of Republicans who have moved further to the right.

The failure to honour campaign promises and the failure to turn the economy around have taken their toll. While 1 in 5 voters were aged under 30 in 2008, this year there were just 1 in 10; 18% of voters were black and Latino, compared to 22% in 2008; 23% were seniors compared to 19% in 2008. The youth and minority vote fell – precisely the vote which brought Obama to power – while that of whites and older Americans rose.

One of the major factors in the election was the role of the Tea Party, derisively known among radicals as the Teabaggers. The Teabaggers take their name variously from the acronym for ‘Taxed Enough Already’ or from the 1773 Boston ‘Tea Party’ which protested against unfair taxation by dumping tea from British ships into Boston harbour. Glenn Beck, an extreme right-wing TV talk show host, is watched by many baggers. Beck retells a version of history spread by the John Birch Society – an extreme anti-communist organisation which described Dwight Eisenhower, Republican President 1953-1961, as being ‘a dedicated conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy’ – and has hosted a spokesman for the Society on his show. Assistance has come from big business: the Fox News channel, one of Rupert Murdoch’s outfits, has become the movement’s voice. The Koch family, who control Koch Industries, the largest privately-held energy corporation in the US, has channelled money to the movement from their Foundations through the right-wing organizations Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity. The two groups have provided organizational expertise and other aid and drawn the baggers into the Republican Party.

The baggers are anti-tax, anti-deficit, anti-big business, anti-Democrat (which they equate with socialism) and anti the traditional Republican Party leadership.1 Their ideology runs something like this: the Democratic Party, in league with lobbyists of some large companies and banks and sponsored by the unions, is championing Big Government: it has bailed out the banks, AIG, the auto companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; it has increased the government deficit and increased taxation: this is Socialism. Small businesses are being strangled by taxation and regulation. Illegal immigrants are taking jobs, receiving welfare and breeding children who automatically become US citizens. The Constitution has been seriously violated and we need to return to its original meaning. Yes, George Bush and the Republican Party leadership connived at this, but it is still the party of conservatism and needs to be ‘taken back’ as a first step in ‘taking back America’. In short, this is the squealing of the petit-bourgeoisie, jealous of the bourgeoisie proper, tottering on the edge of the economic abyss and terrified of being hurled down into the proletariat.

The petit-bourgeoisie stands between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, ‘eternally tossed about between the hope of entering the ranks of the wealthier class, and the fear of being reduced to the state of proletarians or even paupers; between the hope of promoting their interests by conquering a share in the direction of public affairs, and the dread of rousing, by ill-timed opposition, the ire of a government which disposes of their very existence, because it has the power of removing their best customers; possessed of small means, the insecurity of the possession of which is in the inverse ratio of the amount – this class is extremely vacillating in its views’.2

Often the political activity of this class is symptomatic of deep crisis in capitalist society. Confronted with a passive working class; with a labour aristocracy cynically in league with the Democrats, who bail out Finance Capital, but not the people; squeezed by the economic crisis; abandoned by their erstwhile Republican leaders, a howl of protest has gone up from this class.

Baggers mobilized to win Republican primaries and to get their candidates elected. Of the 85 new Republican representatives, about half owe their success to the Tea Party. Seven are doctors, seven are farmers, 32 are owners of small businesses – classic petit-bourgeois. They have arrived in Washington promising to do battle. Giddy with success and intoxicated with their own rhetoric, Teabaggers are now, like the loud lonely pugnacious drunk swaying in the middle of the street, ready to take on the world.

Idiotically, some have claimed that the baggers are a symptom of Republican decline. But increased political influence and more votes hardly seem symptoms of a party in decline. Some dismiss them because of the kooks, clowns, cranks and flakes they attract. But this ignores their political significance. Others see them as a fascist movement. Certainly there are fascistic aspects to the movement. They have drawn all sorts of right-wing and racist dregs out of the political woodwork. However, the US is far from the kind of crisis which brings fascism to the fore. Certainly, the economic crisis remains unresolved, but the ruling class has barely set about taking the drastic measures needed to fix it. Only with a massive social crisis and the possibility of the proletariat taking power does fascism become a critical political force. For now, the baggers are a right-wing influence with an inflated estimation of their own importance.

In fact it is important to take a step back and examine just how significant the baggers really are. Both coasts of the US remained basically politically unchanged: it was only in the Midwest that the baggers were able to create any real upset. Polls showed that a sizeable slice of swing voters in the region who voted for Obama in 2008 swung to the Tea Party in 2010. With all the immigration hysteria caused by Arizona’s ethnic cleansing law, Latino voters turned out in enough strength to keep leading Democratic Senator Harry Reid in his seat in Nevada and Barbara Boxer in hers in California. Despite spending $160 million of her own money and sucking up to the baggers, Meg Whitman, former boss of Ebay, failed to beat Gerry Brown for the California governorship. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Alaskan Republican Senator who was unseated at the primary election by a bagger, successfully conducted a write-in campaign (US elections allow candidates to be written onto the ballot) to regain her Senate seat.

Kookie Teabagger candidates may have cost the Republican Party three Senate seats. Ken Buck in Colorado lost. It emerged that as a District Attorney he had refused to prosecute a rapist who had made a taped confession. He also equated alcoholism and homosexuality – ‘you have a choice’. In Nevada, Sharron Angle claimed that Sharia Islamic law was operating in parts of the US and campaigned to get rid of the tax code, the Department of Education and US membership of the United Nations. In Delaware Christine O’Donnell turned out to be an anti-masturbation activist (it’s a form of adultery), a creationist, and claimed to have classified information that China was plotting to take over the US. Importantly, Teabagger candidates generally got a smaller share of the vote than their mainstream Republican colleagues who were running for other positions in the same constituencies.

The signs are that the baggers are going to be a problem for the Republicans in Congress. Their extremism may impede the Republicans from doing ‘business as usual’ on behalf of finance capital. They have pledged to end ‘earmarks’ – the inclusion of appropriations in unrelated bills, for the representative’s pet constituency projects and their lobbyist friends. Earmarking is an important channel for members of Congress to bring pork back to their district or State. Although this practice only accounts for less than half of one per cent of the budget, it is seen as a key test of true baggerism. Perhaps a taste of power will blunt the zeal of the bagger representatives; but the hysteria which propelled them to Washington will continue to influence the Republican Party and play an important role in the selection of its next candidate for US President.

1 For a comprehensive articulation of the baggers’ politics, see Erick Erickson and Lewis Uhler, Red State Uprising: How to Take Back America (Washington, 2010) or the website

2 Engels, ‘Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany’, Marx and Engels Selected Works, I, (Moscow, 1969), p304.

Right-wing Cuban-American is new chair of

US House Foreign Relations Committee

A sign of what can be expected from the new Congress is the appointment of Ilean Ros-Lehtinen as the new Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee. Her father is a counter-revolutionary activist and has broadcast on the US propaganda station Radio Marti. Ros-Lehtinen herself supports the assassination of Fidel Castro. She has lobbied for the release and pardon of Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, the terrorists involved in the bombing of Cubana Airlines flight 455 in 1976 which killed 73 people. She was active in promoting the Elian Gonzales affair, the attempt to kidnap a young Cuban boy and keep him in the United States. This is the kind of reactionary politics which will be dominating the US House of Representatives.


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