The Tea Party takes its name from an incident in 1773, when a group of revolutionary-minded citizens in Boston boarded a British ship carrying tea from India and threw the cargo into the harbour. This event, which became known as the Boston Tea Party, directly led to the US Revolution of 1775-83 against British domination.
The present day Tea Party pretends to hark back to those revolutionary days. Nothing could be further from the truth. A more accurate analogy would be to bracket them with the pro-British US Tories, conservatives who opposed the Boston Tea Party and subsequent revolution.
The present Tea Party emerged on the scene after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession. While it has new features, it also has deep roots in US history.
These roots, like so much that characterises US politics, in part go back to slavery and its aftermath of racial oppression of African Americans, which continues up to the present.
The bourgeois democratic revolution in the US occurred in two revolutions some 70 years apart. The first was the War of Independence and the adoption of political democracy. It left the institution of slavery intact in the southern states.
The second revolution was the Civil War between the southern Confederacy and the national government and the aftermath in Radical Reconstruction, which abolished slavery. This entailed both the political overthrow of the slavocracy’s governments in the south and a social revolution that overthrew the mode of production based on slavery and the property form of the ownership of human beings. It took both stages of the bourgeois democratic revolution to unfetter capitalist development throughout the country.
Like all bourgeois democratic revolutions, it fell short of its promise. In particular, the freed slaves were denied land. One of the historical tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution is land reform.
The period of Radical Reconstruction, imposed on the south by federal troops, was followed by a counter-revolution that led to the establishment in the former slave states of racial apartheid or segregation. This was accomplished through legal terror and illegal terror by the Ku Klux Klan. The newly triumphant capitalist class, ruling the whole country as well as the south, was behind this counter-revolution.
The apartheid system was characterised by extreme oppression and exploitation of Blacks. It became known as the Jim Crow system, and was enforced by a continuation of legal and extralegal terror, including lynching and mass murders known as “race riots”.
Racism first developed as a justification for slavery, and then for Jim Crow. It extended geographically to the whole country, and to other peoples of colour, and marked the US to this day.
While the centre of racism and racial oppression was the south, its poison extended throughout the country. African Americans suffered racial oppression and super exploitation in the north and west, too, but without the legal codification of the Jim Crow laws.
The Jim Crow system existed until the 1960s, when it was overthrown by the mass civil rights and Black liberation movements, which included mass non-violent action, Black armed self-defence and urban rebellions in Black communities throughout the country.
This great awakening had the support of democratic-minded whites, including millions of young people in the youth radicalisation of the 1960s and 1970s who were inspired by the Black struggle. A key factor was the inter-racial communist and socialist parties that helped lead the labour upsurge of the 1930s, grew in the ’60s and won important sections of the white working class and other whites to the anti-racist struggle.
The overthrow of Jim Crow spurred big changes and new opportunities for Blacks in the rest of the country.
Jim Crow lasted more than eight decades. Its political expression in the south was the one-party rule of the Dixiecrats, a wing of the Democratic Party nationally. (“Dixie” was an affectionate nickname for the south.) This is why the national Democratic Party did not counter Jim Crow until the mid-1960s.
It was the former leader of the segregationist (Dixiecrat) bloc in the Senate, Lyndon Johnson, who as president led the Democrats to pass laws against the Jim Crow legal system. The “betrayal” by the national Democratic Party of its Dixiecrat wing led to a realignment in capitalist party politics. While it is a bit of an oversimplification, the Dixiecrats became Republicans.
Republican Ronald Reagan was successful in his 1980 presidential election on the basis of the “solid south” and winning over “Reagan Democrats” who had traditionally voted Democratic.
This “southern strategy” was geared to white resentment against “big government’s” role in ending Jim Crow and furthering for a time affirmative action and other steps forward that were won as a product of the radicalisation of the ’60s.
There is also resentment of other gains won in that radicalisation, including by women, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and other peoples of colour. Obama’s 2008 victory enraged a significant minority already disgruntled for the above reasons.
They do not think that any Black person has the right to be president. No sooner was Obama elected than a hue and cry went up on far right talk radio and right wing meetings that he wasn’t a US citizen, he was a Kenyan like his father, he was a Muslim, he had no birth certificate, he was from a “socialist” country etc. etc.
This found expression in the rise of the Tea Party, which has its roots in the right wing of the Dixiecrats. It was indicative that at a recent Tea Party demonstration against Obamacare, a Confederate flag was unfurled.
While well financed by a section of the ruling class, including the fascist-minded billionaire Koch brothers, the professional politicians in the Republican Party who style themselves Tea Party have a mass base. Many in this almost purely white base are not themselves well off and have suffered in the Great Recession and its aftermath. They are open to rightist demagoguery about “big government” from this angle too.
Along with most US citizens, they saw Congress, the “establishment” Republicans including the outgoing Bush administration and the Democratic administration pour billions into bailing out big finance while doing almost nothing to help the “little guy”.
The Tea Party demagogues play upon racist fears of its base that anything that helps those worse off than they are somehow comes at their expense. They are thus open to campaigns against extending health care to the uninsured, raising the minimum wage and so forth.
The Republicans and their donors got behind the Tea Party candidates in the 2010 elections, most of whom won. This is how the Republicans became hitched to their Tea Party wing and beholden to it, as was so evident in the recent debacle.
We do not have even a mini-mass workers party, even a reformist one, in the US. What passes for a bourgeois left, the current Democrats, would have been seen as to the right of the Nixon or Reagan administrations.
The Democratic Party “left” has failed dismally to address the needs of working people of all races in the ongoing crisis. In this atmosphere, the far right racist Tea Party was formed.