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The Tea Party movement takes its name from the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when American patriots dumped British tea into Boston Harbor to protest British imperial power. But while New England was the center of resistance to the British empire, there are few New Englanders to be found in today’s Tea Party movement. It should be called the Fort Sumter movement, after the Southern attack on the federal garrison in Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12-13, 1861, that began the Civil War. Today’s Tea Party movement is merely the latest of a series of attacks on American democracy by the white Southern minority, which for more than two centuries has not hesitated to paralyze, sabotage or, in the case of the Civil War, destroy American democracy in order to get their way.
The mainstream media have completely missed the story, by portraying the Tea Party movement in ideological rather than regional terms. Whether by accident or design, the public faces of the Tea Party in the House are Midwesterners — Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann and Joe Walsh of Illinois. But while there may be Tea Party sympathizers throughout the country, in the House of Representatives the Tea Party faction that has used the debt ceiling issue to plunge the nation into crisis is overwhelmingly Southern in its origins:
The four states with the most Tea Party representatives in Congress are all former members of the Confederate States of America. The states with the greatest number of members of the House Tea Party caucus are Texas (12), Florida (7), Louisiana (5) and Georgia (5). While California is in fifth place with four House Tea Party members, the sixth, seventh and eighth places on the list are taken by two former Southern slave states, South Carolina and Tennessee, and a border state, Missouri, each with three members of the congressional Tea Party caucus.
If states with significant white Southern diasporas were included, the Southern proportion of the House Tea Party caucus would be even bigger. Many of the other states with Tea Party representatives are border states with significant Southern populations and Southern ties. One is Maryland, a state with Confederate sympathies during the Civil War, which, because the Census Bureau defines it as “Northeastern,” is responsible for the only Northeastern member of the Tea Party caucus, Roscoe Bartlett. The four Californian representatives come from the Orange County area or inland California, both regions whose political culture was shaped by Southern political culture, in the form of the “Okie” diaspora that settled there during the Depression.
In the entire House Tea Party Caucus, there is not a single representative from New England.
The fact that Tea Party conservatism speaks with a pronounced Southern drawl may have escaped the attention of the mainstream media, but it is obvious to members of Congress who have to try to work with these disproportionately-Southern fanatics. One is Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California. As a guest on a radio show, she mocked the Southern accent of the typical congressional Tea Party caucus member:
The congresswoman, who represents Anaheim and other parts of Orange County, laughed and said she knows how to get along with people. Then she used a mock Southern accent to describe how conversations with them play out.
“Hey what’s your name? ‘My name is M-o-e,’” Sanchez said, feigning a Southern drawl that drew howls of laughter from Miller and her co-host. “Ok Moe. Moe-ster, how you doing baby? What are we going to do today? What’s your interest? What can we work on together?”
“‘Well, it’s unconstitutional,” she said, using her faux Southern accent.
Contradicting the mainstream media narrative that the Tea Party is a new populist movement that formed spontaneously in reaction to government bailouts or the Obama administration, the facts show that the Tea Party in Congress is merely the familiar old neo-Confederate Southern right under a new label. The threat of Southern Tea Party representatives and their sidekicks from the Midwest and elsewhere to destroy America’s credit rating unless the federal government agrees to enact Dixie’s economic agenda of preserving defense spending while slashing entitlements is simply the latest act of aggression by the Solid South.
Here is how the League of the South, a neo-Confederate organization that favors Southern secession from what it describes alternately as “the yankee empire” and “the South-busting American regime,” describes the South’s pattern of voting in Congress in recent years (note the author’s British spelling of “favour” — Noah Webster, who tried to Americanize spelling, was a Yankee):
Another stark Southern – US split occurred when the Senate voted on President Clinton’s impeachment verdict. The whole Senate voted to acquit Clinton on both impeachment charges while Southern Senators voted two-thirds in favour [sic] of convicting Clinton of obstruction of justice (18 to 8). If the South had been in charge, President Bill “the Lecher” Clinton would have been the first president in U.S. history to have been removed from office by impeachment.
If the South had had its way, however, Clinton would not even have been elected in the first place. In both 1992 and 1996 the South voted for the Republican nominee for President, i.e., the candidate generally perceived to be more conservative (regardless of the reality).
On tax policy, the South almost always votes for lower taxes, and is sometimes overridden by the US congress. In 1998 the thirteen State South voted by the required two-thirds margin for a constitutional amendment to require a two-thirds vote of both houses of congress to raise taxes. Southerners voted in favour [sic] of this constitutional amendment 90 to 41. In the full House the amendment failed by 238 to 186 opposed, far short of the constitutionally required two-thirds margin.
Also in 1998, Southern Representatives voted by the requisite two-thirds “super majority” to submit to the States the Religious Freedom Constitutional Amendment. It would have guaranteed an individual’s right to pray and recognize his religious beliefs on public property, including schools. The house of representatives [sic] as a whole rejected this amendment by a vote of 224 in favour to 203 opposed, falling miserably short of the necessary two-thirds margin.
In 1997 Senator Hutchinson of Arkansas offered an amendment to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts and transfer its fiscal 1998 funding directly to the States. The South voted for this State Rights proposal by the ample margin of 17 to 9, whereas the full Senate rejected this affirmation of the rights and duties of the States by the almost equally strong margin of 63 against to only 36 for.
In light of this recent history, it is clear that the origins of the debt ceiling crisis are to be sought, not in generic American conservatism, but in idiosyncratic Southern conservatism. The goal, the methods and the passion of the Tea Party in the House are all characteristic of the radical Southern right.
From the earliest years of the American republic, white Southern conservatives when they have lost elections and found themselves in the political minority have sought to extort concession from national majorities by paralyzing or threatening to destroy the United States.
The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and 1799 asserted the alleged right of states to “nullify” any federal law that state lawmakers considered unconstitutional. This obstructionist mentality led to the Nullification Crisis of 1832, when South Carolina refused to enforce federal tariffs. Civil War was averted only when President Andrew Jackson, a Southerner himself, forced the nullifiers to back down.
In 1820 and 1850 the South used the threat of secession to force the rest of the United States to appease it on the slavery issue. In 1861, the South tried to destroy the United States, rather than accept a legitimately elected president, Abraham Lincoln, whom it did not control.
Following defeat in the Civil War, the former Confederate states regrouped as “the Solid South,” a one-party region, first Democratic and now Republican, that has tended to vote as a bloc in national affairs. The South sought to block the federal civil rights revolution by a policy of “massive resistance” to court orders ordering racial integration. Some Southern states went so far as to try to abolish their public school systems rather than integrate them. It is hard to avoid seeing a link between this racist rationale for privatization and modern conservative plans to scale back Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, relied on disproportionately by black and brown Americans and low-income whites, while increasing taxpayer subsidies to private retirement and healthcare accounts enjoyed mostly by affluent whites.
As white Southerners, upset with the Democratic Party’s racial and social liberalism, migrated into the post-Goldwater GOP, they brought their Dixiecrat attitudes into the party of Lincoln. The Kemp-Roth tax bill of 1981, which inaugurated the policy of creating permanent deficits by slashing taxes without cutting spending, had its strongest support among Southern and Western members of Congress and the least support in the fiscally conservative Northeast.
The Republican Party’s attempted government shutdown of 1995 marked the new domination of the Republican Party by Southerners like Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay. The impeachment of their fellow Southerner Bill Clinton was an attempted coup d’état by the Southern white minority in the United States, which, as in 1860, was frustrated because its candidate lost the presidential election.
The debt ceiling crisis is the latest case in which the radical right in the South has held America hostage until its demands are met. Presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln refused to appease the Southern fanatics. Unfortunately, President Obama and the Democrats in Congress chose not to follow their example and instead gave in. In doing so, they have encouraged the neo-Confederate minority in Congress to find yet another opportunity in the near future to extort concessions from America’s majority by sabotaging America’s government.
Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.More Michael Lind.