The tea party movement and black conservatism

Recently Paul (Mr Cotterill to you), in the comments thread to a post of mine on conservatism and epistemic closure, said that I’d probably at some stage detail some of my thoughts on the tea party movement. That’s what I am going to do now, albeit exploring another narrative simultaneously; that of black conservatism.

Unsurprisingly, some of the sentiments and placards that stand out from the tea party movement concern Obama’s race, nationality, religious background and myths about socialistic politics – all very low politics.

Some of the intellectual backbone of the movement is provided by such media personalities as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh – who the charge “epistemic closure” had originally been levelled at by Julian Sanchez. It remains almost impossible to separate the politics of conservative epistemic closure from the tea party movement therefore.

Another thing that springs to mind is Pastor Jones and the Koran burning, and the protests over Ground Zero Mosque, which drew support from that most disturbing blogger and tea partier Pamela Geller of Atlas Shrugs.

There are 61 posts on the above blog which are categorised as Obama’s Birth Certificate Forgery – which should tell you something about the content which appears there. Indeed, the tea party has become inseparable from ad hominem attack of Obama’s nationality, evoking criticisms that at the heart of the movement is racism. Further still, reports have emerged that the English Defence League are forging links with the tea party movement, which will add much fuel to the fire of such criticisms.

But it is of little surprise to me that certain black commentators have come out to deny the movement as ultimately a racist one. The Telegraph had an article on Saturday profiling Tom Scott – who will be the first black Republican congressman from the deep south in more than a century. In it, they quote him as saying, of the tea party movement, “this whole race issue is a diversion away from the real basic platform of the Tea Party”.

The Guardian has started to host a blog by a man called Lloyd Marcus, who is referred to on his homepage as a “Tea Party singer/songwriter, entertainer and speaker” as well as being a “black conservative”.

In a blog entry published last Friday entitled “Why I am a black tea party patriot opposed to Barack Obama” – a really terrible piece – he ends by saying:

…when I hear politicians, such as Barack Obama, pandering to the so-called poor of America, it turns my stomach. I’ve witnessed the deterioration of the human spirit, wasted lives and suffering that happens when government becomes “daddy”.

What is common to both commentators, and common to what Tom Scott called “the real basic platform of the Tea Party” is a dissatisfaction of high taxes and big state. Some of the patent crap about Obamacare having a death panel, uttered in lieu of research by Sarah Palin, was piss in the wind, but the movements’ opposition to universal healthcare was predicated on the idea that universal care is somehow un-American and at odds with the principle of low spending and less government.

In fact listening to some of the members of the movement who are dubious even of the Republican’s spending, views of whom Ed Pilkinton of the Guardian recently had the privilege of interacting with (see video here), one gets the sense that at heart of the movement is a kind of socially conservative, economically fiscal conservative/libertarianism exploiting a low politics platform to reach the hearts and minds of Obama-sceptics.

Therefore I should just clarify, that simply because the movement has black members, this in itself does not prove critics wrong about race – I’m not that stupid – but that there is a little more to the tea party than that – and in fact it hasn’t phased me at all that the movement appeals to black people.

In fact, it rather reminds me of an analysis of black conservatism by the US philosopher and academic Cornel West – whose voice rose once again in light of Obama’s presidency, after saying he wanted him to be a “progressive Lincoln” so that West can be the “Frederick Douglass to put pressure on him.”

It was the opinion of West, in his 1994 book Race Matters, that black conservatism gained much traction, among other things, as a response to a crisis in black liberalism. Black conservatives, for West, seemed inclined to support freedom movements abroad – Europe, Latin America, East Asia – but were disinclined to support the freedom movement in America.

Black conservatives according to West were rather scornful of affirmative action measures, but it is his contention that the well-heeled, middle class black American conservatives were actually biting the hand which fed them. 40 years ago, he stated, 50% of black teenagers in the US had agricultural jobs, 70% of those lived in the South, many jobs disappeared due to measures curbing industrialisation, and in 1980 15% of all black men reported no yearly earnings at all to the Census Bureau while the US army at the time was almost a third black.

In the same breath as questioning why black conservatives couldn’t see the obvious racial disparity in equality of opportunity, West also pours scorn on black liberalism limiting itself to in-fighting and petite squabbling, taking its eye off of the real crisis.

West contends that many viewed black liberalism as inadequate and black conservativism unacceptable, that is until black conservatism began to appeal to a classical liberalism in what West defines as a “post-liberal society and post-modern culture”.

Such a move is not alien to us in the UK; indeed listen to any Tory cabinet minister admit at the moment how the Conservatives are more radically liberal and supportive of the poor than Labour were.

The parallels in what West is saying and the sentiments of contemporary black conservatives and members of the tea party are that not only does Obama purposefully play down his white heritage, but that he is setting back the plight of blacks in society because of it; he represents a failure in black liberal leadership (or, in the words of Timothy Johnson, co-founder of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a group that helps promote black Republican candidates, “His mother was white, his father was a person of colour but every time there’s a racial issue he plays the race card just the same as everyone else.”)

I don’t share this sentiment, but all it takes is the perception that Obama is setting black politics back, and thus arises the crisis of black leadership similar to one diagnosed by Cornel West.

In conclusion to this blog entry, which admittedly took many deviations, I will say that the tea party is marred by a pretty low level of epistemically closed politics, but that stripped down it is a PR-savvy version of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. In the process of its becoming in US politics, it will be a haven for many black people who feel, as Timothy Johnson does, that Obama is doing a disservice to black politics; this may well see a resurgence of black conservatism similar to that assessed by Cornel West – and through the same conditions too. It is incumbent upon Obama to take heed of this possibility, and counter the tactics of the tea party, not because it is racist, but precisely because it is opening itself to Obamasceptics of all stripes.


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