Tea Party’s Extortion Politics Is a Southern Tradition

In the U.S. House
In the U.S. House
The New America Foundation’s Michael Lind, a fifth generation Texan and a columnist at Salon, suggests that the corporate media has missed something important about the tea party movement: Its Southern character conservative political influence. This factor, says Lind, helps explains the movement’s reflexive impulse to engage in extortion politics:

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.

For the record, I am a 12th generation or so North Carolinian.


  • Friend
    August 3, 2011 - 9:26 am | Permalink

    um, **resemblance** to a Southern character. I doubt that western teabaggers are Southern in character. The west(ern USA) is characteristically westish.

  • Bobbski
    August 8, 2011 - 10:41 am | Permalink

    The Tea Party has a Dick Armey/Koch bros character.

  • August 8, 2011 - 4:17 pm | Permalink

    No offense Jon but here we go again, dismissing the entire rest of the country from responsibility by saying, “Yep, the problem is those ignorant Southerners. Got that solved. Let’s all go home and feel virtuous now.” Seriously, Orange County, Calif. is in the “Southern diaspora?” I’m not feeling it.

  • August 8, 2011 - 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but when you look at it in terms of percentages, you get a completely different picture. Just talking about the Tea Party Caucus in the House, we find that 25% of the U.S. Representatives from Minnesota are tea (2 of 8), compared to 28% of Florida’s (7 of 25). In Iowa, 1 of 5 (20%) is tea; in Indiana it’s 2 of 9 (22%), and in Colorado, 2 of 7, or 28%. New Mexico, Montana, Nebraska, and Utah each have 1 of 3 tea members, or 33% each. And looking only at the caucus headed by Michelle Bachmann (who represents Minnesota, although she was born in Iowa) in the House ignores people like Sarah Palin (Alaska), Glenn Beck (Washington State), and Dick Armey (North Dakota), who are famous representatives of the tea party movement.

  • August 9, 2011 - 6:16 am | Permalink

    Yeah, Judy’s headline when she linked to this story on Facebook was something like “They always blame Southerners.”

    But statistics aside, I think Michael Lind hit on something here. When it comes to the tradition of using political extortion as a tactic, there is a dotted line that leads from the planter-class Southern oligarchs of yore down to their political descendants, the white male Christian nationalists who dominate the Republican Party today.

    I think that context is important because the first step in solving a problem is understanding it. I also think there’s a serious warning embedded in Lind’s short history: Look at how willing the members of this political class are to destroy the country when they don’t get their way on policy. They are what they say they fear most: An enemy within.

    About the statistics, the most recent poll I could find that looked at tea bagger demographics was the big study done by the CBS/NYT poll in the spring of 2010. It found that “More than one in three (36 percent) hails from the South, far more than any other region. Twenty-five percent come from the West, 22 percent from the Midwest, and 18 percent from the northeast.”

    The latest CBS/NYT poll found that approval of the tea party has dropped as more regular Americans have gotten wise to them:

    The percentage of people with an unfavorable view of the Tea Party in a New York Times/CBS News Poll this week was higher than it has been since the first time the question was asked, in April 2010. Forty percent of those polled this week characterized their view as “not favorable,” compared with 18 percent in the first poll.

    In the first poll, a plurality, 46 percent, said they had not heard enough about the Tea Party to have an opinion (an additional 14 percent were undecided). Now, just 21 percent said they had not heard enough.

    The Tea Party may have benefited early on from people not really knowing exactly what it was.

    While 18 percent of people in the April 2010 poll identified themselves as Tea Party supporters, just 4 percent of those polled had actually attended a meeting or given money to the movement.

  • August 9, 2011 - 7:04 am | Permalink

    But you can’t put statistics aside. When you include Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Orange County, Calif. in the South, as your author did, then more than one in three AMERICANS comes from here too. I don’t think he hit on anything, except his own leg when it banged upward in that knee-jerk reaction that prompted him to blame the South for anything bad. But we didn’t give the world Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, Dick Armey, or Matt Kibbe. Unless you want to annex Alaska, Washington State, Iowa, Minnesota, etc. into the South to make the theory work. In that case, guilty as charged.

    • August 9, 2011 - 9:29 am | Permalink

      What Lind is talking about is an ancient, ingrained mindset that is out to intentionally damage the country. His thesis is that it was born and nurtured among the planter oligarchs.

      Are we debating whether his thesis is correct about the historical roots of the tactic of political extortion? All of the incidents he cites are the same “our way or we’ll take the country down” mentality that is undeniably the M.O. of today’s Republican Party, which is simultaneously dominated by Southerners and under the control of its tea party minority, who, yes, represent dozens of districts outside the South.

      There have been non-Southern sympathizers who have joined forces with Southern conservatives from the beginning. Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are part of a long continuum that includes Franklin Pierce, Stephen Douglas, the Copperheads during the Civil War, Richard Nixon and on and on.

  • August 10, 2011 - 7:30 am | Permalink

    I guess people see what they expect to see, and in this case, it’s that the tea party is a Southern phenomenon. When I look at who are the leaders of the tea party, or the Republican party, I see John Boehner, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, etc. You see Southerners.

    • August 10, 2011 - 7:58 am | Permalink

      Well, no. That is incorrect. I see the tea party and their poodles in the GOP leadership using a tactic — political extortion — handed down to them, in a direct line, from their Southern conservative political forebears.

      Southern and non-Southern unionists, lefties, socialists, women’s rights and civil rights advocates, modern-day Democrats and others who are on the opposite side of the fence from the GOP-Ts do not have a centuries-long tradition of using this tactic. Only conservatives do, and their current iteration is this Republican tea party cabal.

      I’m not approaching this from the perspective of stereotypes but, as Lind laid it out, from the record of actions taken by this faction — which has called itself many things, including Democrats (from the 1820s until the 1960s), Copperheads, Dixiecrats, the Ku Klux Klan, Republicans (from the 1960s until today), Moral Majority, evangelicals and now the tea party — over time.

      Yes, the tea party is a nationwide phenomenon, but so were all its antecedents. The GOP would not be the dominant political force in the South today if Richard Nixon, from Whittier, Calif., had not set out to make it so with his Southern Strategy in 1968, or if Ronald Reagan, the Illinois native and former governor of California, had not kicked off his campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., the site of the the murders of three civil rights volunteers in the 1960s, which was a deafeningly loud dog whistle that he was at least tacitly in solidarity with Jim Crow.

      What’s crucial here is to understand them and their tactics, not for nothing because they have repeatedly demonstrated that they are prone to violence and radical disruptions of the country. But apparently in editing this piece, which took about three minutes, if that, I made a mistake by phrasing something in a way that made it appear I was taking a swipe at Southern regionalism. If there’s an edit I can make to make this clearer, let me know and I will update the headline and the paragraph I wrote.

  • August 10, 2011 - 8:51 am | Permalink

    “…the corporate media has missed something important about the tea party movement: Its Southern character.”

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