Subsequent to the historically unprecedented election of Barack Hussein Obama as the first African-American president of the United States, there emerged — maybe erupted might be a better description — a (seemingly) widespread movement in apparent opposition to his presidency. This movement took the name “Tea Party,” referencing the early American tax protest in colonial Boston in 1773.
I noticed right away that this movement seemed to be predominately populated by ordinary conservative and libertarian citizens who were not generally considered, as a demographic group, to be avidly politically active and who, historically, tended to pretty much keep their views to themselves … the classic “Silent Majority” of past political fame, perhaps?
What I wanted to know, was: What prompted these individuals to suddenly speak up and become active? How was it, given their apparent objection to the outcome of the election, that their opposition to Obama had not been reflected in the election result? Was that opposition based on the man’s race, or was it based on his politics? Was it really about him at all?
Or, was the formation of the Tea Party simply the result of a giant, spontaneous, “we’ve had it with politics as usual” response by an overtaxed, overregulated and underappreciated vast middle class who felt the last straw had been placed upon their backs? These questions, in turn, gave rise to my research question: Is the Tea Party the voice of the (once) “Silent Majority”?
The key to answering this question is race. If the cause of this group’s discontent is only the color of Obama’s skin, then they can not be awarded majority status, by definition; racism is contrary to all American precepts and is not held as a majority view.
Following is what I discovered, and how I discovered it, as I pursued the answers to my questions.
My Search Process
In as much as my research question relates more to the nature of the Tea Party, and its origin, than it does to its specific current activities, my search necessarily led me away from contemporary news sources (blogs, online forums, recent newspaper stories, etc.) and resulted in a more history-based search model.
I utilized the internet exclusively, accessing both general and academic databases, including Google searches for Tea Party websites, Wikipedia postings and other pertinent information. Some of my cited material I quickly found on Academic Search Premier through the LCC library database. Information was readily found in all searches with just the phrase “Tea Party,” eliminating the need for me to refine my search terms beyond the original.
I was not surprised to find a great many sites and articles devoted to the subject; this is a hot topic on the net, both in support and opposition, as well as the focus of significant attention by the “mainstream” media, specifically periodicals like TIME magazine, National Journal and the New York Times.
What I Have Learned
The first order of business, I felt, was to define, and establish the provenance of, the term “Silent Majority.” I had always, for some unknown reason, attributed the term to President Lyndon Johnson. But according to Dan Keating, writing in the Tulsa Beacon, it ” … was actually first used by President Richard Nixon on November 3, 1969, in a speech referring to Americans who did not join in demonstrations, who did not riot, who were not members of the counterculture and who were overshadowed by the more vocal minority” (Keating). This definition (or one very much akin to it) surfaced time and again in descriptions of those who make up the Tea Party groups today, bolstering my feeling that the faction was representative of the “Silent Majority.” That, in addition to the facts that the Tea Party is actually the name given a ” … movement [that] has no central leadership but is composed of a loose affiliation of national and local groups that determine their own platforms and agendas” (Wikipedia), and a 2009 Gallup Poll that tells us 40% of the citizenry identify themselves as politically conservative and another 35% claim moderate (or centrist) ideology (Saad), compels me to conclude that the Tea Party is, indeed, the voice of that segment of the population once deemed to be the “Silent Majority.”
So, why are they no longer silent? The easy, and oft proffered, answer seems to be: They don’t like Obama’s race. Much of the criticism directed at the movement, by the liberal minority (and, to an extent, the mainstream media), is based on this theory.
Racism has been a rallying cry of Tea Party opponents since the movement’s emergence as a political power in 2009. In the “Racial Issues” segment of Wikipedia’s treatment of the Tea Party subject is the statement: “About 61 percent of Tea Party opponents say racism has a lot to do with the movement, a view held by just 7 percent of Tea Party supporters,” clearly drawing the battle lines in the issue (Wikipedia). Also presented is the opinion of Allen West, one of the 32 African-Americans who ran for Congress in 2010, who was credited as claiming ” … the notion of racism in the Tea Party movement has been made up by the news media” (Wikipedia). Although not conclusive, of course, both statements tend to suggest that institutional racism is a perceived Tea Party characteristic rather than a real one. This is as I suspected.
Numerous and highly sensationalized charges of racism have been leveled against the movement right from the start, but perhaps the most visible of those was the allegation that Tea Party supporters — at a 2010 anti-Obamacare rally in Washington, D.C. — called civil-rights icon, Congressman John Lewis, the N-word multiple times. As conservative firebrand commentator, Ann Coulter, pointed out in a Human Events article, those charges have never been proven, despite the fact that ” … hundreds of news cameras, cellphone cameras and camcorders, capturing every nook and cranny of the Capitol Hill protest — and news media hungry for an ugly, racist act … ” failed to turn up even a single substantiating recording of the alleged incidents (5). Within days of the protest, investigative reporter, Andrew Breitbart, offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who could produce a video of even one such verbal assault on Lewis, much less all the reported 15. The reward has never been claimed (Coulter 5). Breitbart also offered to donate $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund if Lewis could pass a lie-detector test (Wikipedia). Certainly, there are racists in the Tea Party — it’s made up of human beings, after all — just as there are racists in the Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green, Socialist and all other parties. But is race the demonstrated motivation for the Tea Party’s appearance and actions? Arguably, given what I’ve found out so far, it is not.
What This Means
Being able to eliminate racism as a motivating factor and founding principle of the Tea Party allows me to accept that the word “majority” in the phrase “Silent Majority” is valid; racism is the refuge of only a small segment of modern American society. This clears the way for me to recognize the Tea Party movement as being the voice of that (once) “Silent Majority.”
Coulter, Ann. “Obama’s Poll Numbers Down, Imaginary Racism Up.” Human Events 66.26 (2010): 5.
Academic Search Premier. EBSCO Web. 12 Apr. 2011.
Keating, Dan. “A New Silent Majority.” Tulsa Beacon. n.d. tulsabeacon.com. Web. 12 Apr. 2011.
Saad, Lydia. “”Conservatives” Are Single-Largest Ideological Group.” Gallop Polls. 15 Jun. 2009.
Gallop.com. Web. 21 Oct 2010.
Wikipedia. “Tea Party Movement.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. n.d. en.wikipedia.org. Web. 12 Apr.