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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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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