Walter Rodgers

Tea party’s biggest concern isn’t Obama’s agenda

Beyond the tea party's antigovernment slogans lies white angst over lost political power.

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Recently, I was fishing for trophy trout in this northeast corner of Georgia. When fellow anglers learned I live near Washington, the derisive remarks and sneering about “the government” started rolling like trout to a mayfly hatch.

The rants of the upscale fly fishermen echoed those of the “tea partyers.”

“The government is out of control,” one fisherman said. “I’m so angry. The existing administration is taking us toward socialism, like France.” I asked him how he felt about Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Proudly, he told me he collected checks from all three and they paid for his regular trips to the Mayo Clinic.

He’s a Florida businessman who builds condominiums, yet he tried to persuade me he was on the way to the poorhouse and that he was one of those “little guys” worthy of the government’s help. “Obama’s stimulus package is doing nothing for Main Street,” he complained.

Amid his grumbling about “big government not helping the little people,” I asked him why, with a house in Paris, a bigger house in Florida, and his ability to pay more than $350 a day to fish a private trout stream in Georgia, did he qualify as “one of America’s little people?”

“I’m really not,” he replied, somewhat chagrined.

His admission shows that the tea party movement’s issues are somewhat more complex than 30-second TV news clips suggest. Tea party protests are about much more than “big government, socialism, and taxes.”

Deep grievances have deep roots in American history. In 1791, the US Congress passed a tax on liquor. Three years later, Pennsylvania farmers, objecting to the tax, staged the Whiskey Rebellion. No doubt they, like today’s tea partyers, believed “Washington” was not in tune with the American people. But Washington didn’t budge – the first US president sent a militia to arrest the ringleaders.

Before and after the Civil War, the American South has ever been a hotbed of rebellion against the federal government.

In the early 1830s, South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun argued that the individual states possessed the power of “nullification,” to cancel any laws passed by Congress they deemed unconstitutional. Calhoun’s doctrine was first employed against a federal tariff that South Carolinians didn’t want to pay. Later the South would expand this concept to try to secede from the Union to perpetuate slavery.

Today, that nullification-style sentiment is alive and well at tea party rallies. Speakers rail against a “government out of control” under President Obama. They talk of repealing “ObamaCare” and cheer on a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.

Some critics see racism fueling this animus. It may be a factor, but it’s wrong to dismiss all tea partyers as racists. That’s a neo-McCarthy tactic, which stifles what should be a healthy debate about serious issues – such as federal debt – dear to the hearts of the Earl Grey set.

The dominant “racial” factor in the tea party movement isn’t antiblack bigotry but whites’ fear of their own diminishing political power. The oft-heard battle cry “take back the government” could be translated as “don’t disenfranchise us as we get older and become a minority in our own country.” If demography is destiny, the older whites who wave “Don’t Tread on Me” flags at tea party rallies have good reason to be afraid that they are losing political power to the emerging Hispanic generation.

We have almost reached the tipping point. Look at the huge backlash to Arizona’s new immigration law. Call almost any service desk now, and the first option you hear is “Press 1 for English, or “para español, oprima numero dos.” Ask any Anglo visiting South Texas who has been ignored and refused service because he does not speak Spanish.

The nation’s aging, white middle class may be forgiven when it looks south of the border and gets incensed at the rhetorical efforts of Mexico’s president to undermine US immigration policy.

Historically, fear of immigrants’ rising political power has been a massive driver of change. Writing in “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe,” Christopher Caldwell notes “[T]he arrival of the Irish in Boston destroyed the Protestant culture of one of the most important cities in the history of Protestantism. The destruction occurred not only because the Irish arrived but because New England Yankees chose not to live in an Irish-run city that was increasingly violent and corrupt.”

Mr. Obama’s health-care reform worries Americans of many stripes because few of us know the details of what Congress passed and we worry that our premiums will rise while the quality of our care will worsen. Today’s tea party may represent the loud wing of the so-called silent majority that twice elected Republican Richard Nixon at a time when liberals were ascendant. If Obama doesn’t address the anxieties of Middle America – from taxes to immigration – he may find that the rest of the silent majority is shouting by Election Day.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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