Author: Joshua B. Freeman

Joshua B. Freeman teaches history at Queens College, the CUNY Graduate Center, and the Murphy Institute. He is currently writing a history of the United States since World War II, and can be reached at JFreeman@gc.cuny.edu.

History’s Mad Hatters: The Strange Career of Tea Party Populism

*This article was originally printed on www.tomdispatch.com.

On a winter’s day in Boston in 1773, a rally of thousands at Faneuil Hall to protest a new British colonial tax levied on tea turned into an iconic moment in the pre-history of the American Revolution.  Some of the demonstrators—Sons of Liberty, they called themselves—left the hall and boarded the Dartmouth, a ship carrying tea, and dumped it overboard.

One of the oddest features of the Boston Tea Party, from which our current crop of Tea Party populists draw their inspiration, is that a number of those long-ago guerilla activists dressed up as Mohawk Indians, venting their anger by emitting Indian war cries, and carrying tomahawks to slice open the bags of tea.  This masquerade captured a fundamental ambivalence that has characterized populist risings ever since.  After all, if in late-eighteenth-century America the Indian already functioned as a symbol of an oppressed people and so proved suitable for use by others who felt themselves put upon, it was also the case that the ancestors of those Boston patriots had managed to exterminate a goodly portion of the region’s Native American population in pursuit of their own self-aggrandizement.

Today’s Tea Party movement, like so many of its “populist” predecessors, is a house of contradiction, a bewildering network of crosscutting political emotions, ideas, and institutions.  What connects it powerfully to a populist past stretching all the way back to Boston Harbor is, however, a sense of violation: “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Despite a recurring resistance to the impositions of powerful outside forces—anti-elitism has been axiomatic for all such insurgencies—populist movements have differed greatly on just what those forces were and what needed to be done to free people from their yoke.  It’s worth noting, for instance, that an earlier invocation of the Boston Tea Party took place at a 1973 rally on a replica of the Dartmouth—a rally called to promote the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.

From the Know-Nothings to the People’s Party

Over the course of American history, the populist instinct, now resurgent in the Tea Party movement, has oscillated between a desire to transform, and so create a new order of things, and a desire to restore a yearned-for (or imagined) old order.

Before the Civil War, one such movement that caught both these urges was colloquially dubbed the “Know-Nothings” (not for any anti-intellectualism, but because its members deliberately conducted much of their business in secret—hence, if questioned, were instructed to say, “I know nothing”).  Know-nothing-ism exuded the desire to move forward and backward at the same time.  During the 1840s and 1850s, it swept across much of the country, North and South.  There were “know-nothing” candies, “know-nothing” toothpicks, and “know-nothing” stagecoaches.

Soon enough, the movement evolved into a national political party, the American Party, that appealed to small farmers, small businessmen, and working people.  Its attraction was two-fold.  The party vociferously opposed Irish and German Catholic immigration to the U.S. (as well as that of Chinese and Chilean immigrants working in the gold fields of California).  Yet, in the North, it also denounced slavery.  As planks in a political program, nativism and anti-slavery might seem like an odd couple, but in the minds of the party’s followers they were joined at the hip.  As Know-Nothings saw it, the Papacy and the South’s slave-owning planter elite were both conspiring to undermine a democratic society of masterless men.

Keep in mind that conspiratorial thinking has long been deeply embedded in American populist movements (as in the Tea Party today).  In nineteenth century protestant America, alleged plots by Vatican hierarchs were a recurrent feature of political life.  In the North, a wave of crime and the rise of “poor relief” and other forms of dependency—including wage labor, which accompanied the arrival of a flood of impoverished Catholic immigrants—seemed to threaten an American promise of a society of free, equal, and self-reliant individuals (supposedly so noxious to the priestly elite of the Catholic Church).  In the slave South, where the master class was believed to be hard at work subverting the Constitution, conspiratorial machinations were self-evidently afoot.  By the mid-1850s, most “Know-Nothings” in the North had found their way into the newborn Republican Party which combined hostility to slavery with a milder form of anti-Catholicism.

Populism with a capital “P,” the great economic and political insurgency of the last third of the nineteenth century that blanketed rural America from the cotton South to the grain-growing Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West, would bear its own distinctive ambivalence.  The People’s Party indicted corporate and finance capitalism for destroying the livelihoods and lives of independent farmers and handicraftsmen.  It also attacked big business for subverting the foundations of democracy by capturing all three branches of government and transforming them into coercive instruments of rule by a new plutocracy.  Populists sometimes attributed what they termed an American “counterrevolution” to the conspiratorial plots of the “great Devil Fish of Wall Street,” suspected of colluding with Great Britain’s elite to undo the American Revolution.

The remedies proposed, however, were hardly those of Luddites.  These instead anticipated many of the fundamental reforms of the next century, including government subsidies for farmers, the graduated income tax, direct election of the Senate, the eight-hour day, and even the public ownership of railroads and public utilities.  A tragic movement of the dispossessed, the Populists yearned to restore a society of independent producers, a world without a proletariat and without corporate trusts.  Yet they also envisioned something new and transformative, a “cooperative commonwealth” that would escape the barbaric competitiveness and exploitation of free market capitalism.

The Great Plains of Resentment

For the next four decades, populism remained emphatically against corporate capitalism and held on tightly to its resentment of powerful outsiders as well as a penchant for conspiracy mongering.  During the 1930s, however, the location of Conspiracy Central began to shift from Wall Street and the City of London to Moscow—and even New Deal Washington.  Anti-communism added a new ingredient to an already roiling American politics of fear and paranoia, a toxic element which still inflames the Tea Party imagination two decades after the Berlin Wall was torn down.

During the 1936 presidential campaign, in the midst of the Great Depression, three populist movements—Louisiana Senator Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” clubs, the Union for Social Justice formed by the charismatic “radio priest” Father Charles E. Coughlin, and Francis Townsend’s campaign for government pensions for the elderly—coalesced, albeit briefly and uneasily, to form the Union Party.  It ran from the left against President Franklin Roosevelt, nominating as its presidential candidate North Dakota Congressman William Lemke, a one-time spokesman for radical farmers. (The vice-presidential candidate was a labor lawyer from Boston.)

The Union Party expressed a broad dissatisfaction with the failure of Roosevelt’s New Deal to relieve economic distress and injustice.  Senator Long, the latest in a long line of Southern populist demagogues, had been decrying the power of land barons, “moneycrats,” and big oil since his days as Louisiana’s governor.  His “Share Our Wealth” plan called for pensions and public education for all, as well as confiscatory taxes on incomes over $1 million, a minimum wage, and public works projects to give jobs to the unemployed.  Townsend’s scheme was designed to solve unemployment and the penury of old age by offering monthly government pensions of $200, financed by taxes on business, to everyone over the age of sixty.  Coughlin, an early supporter of Roosevelt, trained his fire on finance capitalism, inveighing against its usurious, unchristian “parasitism.”

But Long and especially Coughlin were at pains to distinguish their form of radicalism from the collectivism and atheism of the Red menace.  Father Coughlin expressed support for labor unions and a just wage.  He was, however, an inveterate foe of the left-leaning United Automobile Workers union, and roundly condemned the sit-down strikes which spread like a prairie fire following Roosevelt’s triumphal landslide victory in the 1936 presidential election, as workers across the country occupied everything from auto plants to department stores demanding union recognition.

Indeed, in his radio addresses and his newspaper, Social Justice, the priest ranted about an incongruous conspiracy of Bolsheviks and bankers whose aim was to betray America.  He would eventually add a tincture of anti-Semitism to his warnings about a Wall Street cabal.  His growing sympathy for Nazism was not so shocking.  Fascism, after all, had its roots in a European version of populism that conveyed a post-World War I disgust with the selfishness and incompetence of cosmopolitan ruling elites, a virulent racial nationalism, and a hatred of bankers and especially Bolsheviks.

Followers of Long and Coughlin loathed big business and big government, even though big government—back then anyway—was taking on big business.  For them, “Don’t Tread on Me” meant a defense of local economies, traditional moral codes, and established ways of life that seemed increasingly endangered by national corporations as well as the state bureaucracies that began to proliferate under the New Deal.  Union Party campaign oratory was filled with references to the “forgotten man,” an image first invoked by Roosevelt on behalf of the working poor.

In the years ahead, kindred images would resurface during a time of turmoil in the late 1960s in Nixon’s appeals to the “silent majority” of “Middle America,” and more recently in the Tea Party’s wounded sense of exclusion.  “Forgotten man” populism conveyed the irate politics of resentment of precariously positioned Americans against the organized power blocs of modern industrial society: Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government.

Race, Resentment, and the Rise of Conservative Populism

Over the last half century populism has drifted steadily rightward, becoming ever more restorationist and ever less transformative, ever more anti-collectivist and ever less anti-capitalist.  What were subordinate themes in the older style populism—religious orthodoxy, national chauvinism, phobic racism, and the politics of fear and paranoia—have come to the fore in our time.  At least in broad terms, both the Barry Goldwater and the George Wallace insurgencies of the 1960s displayed this trajectory.

Goldwater, the Arizona senator and 1964 Republican candidate for president, an “insurgent”?  Yes, if you keep in mind his condemnation of the too-liberal elite running the Republican Party, who, in his eyes, represented a clubby world of Ivy League bankers, corrupt politicians, media lords, and “one-worlders.”  Or consider the way he flirted with the freakish John Birch Society (which called President Dwight Eisenhower a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist Party” and warned of a Red plot to weaken the minds of Americans by fluoridating the water supply).  Or the Senator’s alarming readiness to threaten to push the nuclear button in defense of “freedom,” which could be thought of as the Cold War version of “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Above all, Goldwater was the avatar of today’s politics of limited government.  In his opposition to civil rights legislation, he might be called the original “tenther”—that is, a serial quoter of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves for the states all powers not expressly granted to the federal government, with which he justified hamstringing all efforts by Washington to rectify social or economic injustice. For Goldwater the outlawing of Jim Crow was an infringement of constitutionally protected states’ rights.  Moreover, he was an inveterate enemy of all forms of collectivism, including of course unions and the welfare state.

As the Goldwater opposition sank its grassroots into the lush soil of the Sunbelt, its desire to restore an older order of things was palpable.  At a time when New Deal liberalism was the reigning orthodoxy, the senator’s reactionary impulses seemed startlingly adrift from the mainstream, and so strange indeed.

Goldwater’s rebellious constituents were an oddly positioned band of rebels.  Unlike the declining middling sorts attracted to the Union Party, they came mainly from a rising Sunbelt stratum, a new middle class significantly nourished by the mushrooming military-industrial complex: technicians and engineers, real-estate developers, middle managers, and mid-level entrepreneurs who resented the intrusion of Big Government while in fact being remarkably dependent on it.

They could be described as reactionary modernists for whom liberalism had become the new communism.  How shocking when this Arizona “maverick”—he deserved the label far more than John McCain ever did (if he ever did)—won the Republican nomination in a knock-down brawl with the presidium, led by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, that had run the party until then.  Might the Tea Party accomplish something similar today?

Think of Alabama Governor George Wallace as the other missing link between the economic populism of yesteryear and the cultural populism of the late twentieth century.  He was all at once an anti-elitist, a populist, a racist, a chauvinist, and a tribune of the politics of revenge and resentment.  “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”: a line spoken at his inauguration as governor in 1963 that would be his signature defiance of the civil rights revolution and its alliance with the federal government.  In no uncertain terms, it signaled the militant racism of his bed-rock supporters.

His appeal, however, ran far deeper than that.  The whole tenor of his politicking involved a down-home defense of blue-collar America.  Like Huey Long, he was sensitive to the economic predicament of his lower-class constituents.  As governor he favored expanded state spending on education and public health, pay raises for school teachers, and free textbooks.  When he ran for president as a third party candidate in 1968, he called for increases in social security and Medicare.  As late as 1972, Wallace increased retirement pensions and unemployment compensation in Alabama.

Yet he championed the hard-hat American heartland by hailing its ethos of hard work and what today would be known as “family values” far more than by proposing concrete measures to assure its economic well-being.  Wallace railed against the know-it-all arrogance of “pointy-headed” Washington bureaucrats, the indolence of “welfare queens,” and the impiety, moral decadence, and disloyalty of privileged long-haired, pot-smoking, anti-war college students.

Bellicose calls for law and order, states’ rights, and a muscular patriotism fueled the revanchist emotions that made Wallace into more than a regional figure.  When he ran in the Democratic primaries in 1964 (with the support of the John Birch Society and the White Citizens’ Council), he won significant numbers of votes not only in the Deep South, but in states like Indiana, Wisconsin, and Maryland, a sign of the Southernization of American politics at a time when the spread of NASCAR, country music, and the blues were Southernizing its culture as well.

Wallace’s venture into third-party politics (on the predictably named American Independent Party ticket) terrified the Democrats, who feared the loss of part of their blue-collar base.  He called Vice President Hubert Humphrey, then running for president against Richard Nixon, as well as Northern liberals generally, a “group of god-damned, mealy-mouthed sissy-britches”—shades of Senator Joe McCarthy and the 1950s—and he promised to take the gloves off, if elected, and bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age.

Wallace’s popularity revealed a possibility to Nixon and the Republicans denied them since the end of Reconstruction: that, on the road to an Electoral College victory, they might begin to develop a “Southern strategy.”  In the meantime, his populist cry that there “was not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democratic and Republican parties” won him ten million votes, 13.5 percent of the total and forty-six votes in the Electoral College.  And remember this: a crowd of twenty thousand attended a Wallace rally in 1968 at a sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Don’t Tread on My Taxes

So what does this episodic and checkered history of American populism have to do with the Tea Party?

As a start, the Tea Party movement reminds us that the moral self-righteousness, sense of dispossession, anti-elitism, revanchist patriotism, racial purity, and “Don’t Tread on Me” militancy that were always at least a part of the populist admixture are alive and well.  For all the fantastical paranoia that often accompanies such emotional stances, they speak to real experiences—for some, of economic anxiety, insecurity, and loss; for others, of deeper fears of personal, cultural, political, or even national decline and moral disorientation.

Though such fears and feelings are, in part, legacies of the corporate liberal order—one of the dark sides of “progress” under capitalism—in this new populist moment, anti-capitalism itself barely lingers on.  Though outrage at the bank bailout did help propel the Tea Party explosion, anti-big-business sentiment is now a pale shadow of its former self, a muted sub-theme in the movement when compared to the Wallace moment, not to mention those of Huey Long or the Populists.

This is hardly surprising since, at least economically, capitalism has, according to recent surveys of Tea Party backers, served many of them reasonably well.  Like Goldwater supporters of the 1960s, those who identify with the Tea Party movement are generally wealthier than the population as a whole, and more likely to be employed.  They are also apparently better educated, so their fondness for Sarah Palin’s intellectual debilities may be more a case of resentment of bicoastal cultural snobbery than eye-popping ignorance.  However, this profile may mislead us. Within the ranks of fellow white Republicans—which are, after all, their relevant reference group—Tea Party partisans tend to be poorer, economically less secure, and less educated.

Precariously perched in this way, they deploy an exalted rhetoric about threats to liberty which belies a sour, narrow-minded defensiveness against any possible threat of income redistribution that might creep into the body politic . . . and so into their pockets.  “Don’t Tread on Me,” once a rebel war cry, has morphed into: “I’ve got mine.  Don’t dare tax it.”  The state, not the corporation, is now the enemy of choice.

Tea Party populism should also be thought of as a kind of identity politics of the right.  Almost entirely white, and disproportionately male and older, Tea Party advocates express a visceral anger at the cultural and, to some extent, political eclipse of an America in which people who looked and thought like them were dominant (an echo, in its own way, of the anguish of the Know-Nothings).  A black president, a female Speaker of the House, and a gay head of the House Financial Services Committee are evidently almost too much to bear.  Though the anti-immigration and Tea Party movements so far have remained largely distinct (even if with growing ties), they share an emotional grammar: the fear of displacement.

But identity politics aside, Tea Party anger reaches far beyond the ranks of the modest Tea Party movement.  It resonates with other Americans who understandably feel that political and economic elites, serving themselves at the expense of everyone else, have failed Americans.  The big question is just exactly how (or even if) that private and personal rage gets transformed into moral and political outrage.  If the heirs of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater, or the Sarah Palins of today, have their way, the outcome won’t be a tea party.

IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR

Barbarism and Progress: The Story of Convict Labor

Sweatshop labor is back with a vengeance. It ranges across broad stretches of the American economy and around the world. Penitentiaries have become a niche market for such work. Prison privatizers—the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, and G4S Secure Solutions (formerly Wackenhut)—sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM. These companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or lease prisoners to work on the outside. Incarcerated men and women make office furniture; work in call centers; fabricate body armor; take hotel reservations; manufacture textiles, shoes, clothing, dental aides, and metal equipment; and work in slaughter houses, getting paid somewhere between ninety-three cents and $4.73 per day.

Rarely could you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, subject to martial discipline . . . unless you traveled back in time to the nineteenth century, when convict labor was commonplace throughout the nation. Indeed, a sentence of “confinement at hard labor” comprised the core of the penal system.

Penal servitude may strike us as a barbaric throwback to pre-modern medievalism. But on the contrary, from its first appearance in this country, and still today, it has been associated with modern capitalist industry and large-scale agriculture. And that is only one of several misconceptions about this peculiar institution. Infamous for the brutality with which prison laborers were once treated, indelibly inscribed in popular memory with images of the black chain gang in the South, most assume it was a Southern inspiration. But penal servitude—the leasing out of prisoners, in effect the sale of their labor power by government to private enterprise, either within prison walls or in outside workshops, factories, and fields—was originally known as a “Yankee invention.” First installed at Auburn prison in New York in the 1820s, the system spread widely and quickly throughout the North, the Midwest, and later the West. It developed alongside state-run prison workshops which produced goods for the public sector and sometimes the open market. A few Southern states also used it. Prisoners there, as elsewhere, were mainly white men since the slave masters had a free hand to deal with the “infractions” of their chattel. The reason the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, made an exception for penal servitude is precisely because it had long since become the dominant form of punishment throughout the free states. First installed at Auburn prison in New York in the 1820s, [penal servitude] spread widely and quickly throughout the North, the Midwest, and the West.

Before the Civil War, prisoners were employed at an enormous range of tasks, from rope- and wagon-making to carpet, hat, and clothing manufacturing (where female prisoners were sometimes put to work), as well as coal mining, carpentry, barrel-making, shoe production, and house-building; even rifles were made by felons. After the war, the convict-lease system metamorphosed. In the South, it became ubiquitous, one of several methods—including the black codes, debt peonage, the crop-lien system, lifetime labor contracts, and vigilante terror—used to control and fix in place the newly emancipated slave. It might be assumed that the convict-lease system was the brainchild of the “Redeemer” governments that overthrew the Radical Republican regimes that ran the defeated Confederacy during Reconstruction. That was sometimes, but not always, the case. In Georgia, for instance, the Radical Republican state government took the initiative soon after the war ended. And this was because the convict-lease system, no matter where in Dixie it was introduced and by whom, was tied to the modernizing sectors of the post-bellum economy.

So convicts were leased to major coal mining, iron forging, steel-making and railroad companies, including Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCI), a major producer all over the South. More than a quarter of the coal coming out of the rich fields outside Birmingham, Alabama was mined by prisoners. By the turn of the century, many major national coal and iron corporations relied heavily on prison laborers. So, too, did all the main extractive industries of the South. Turpentine and lumber camps deep in the fetid swamps and forest vastness of Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana worked their convicts till they dropped dead of overwork or disease or both. The region’s plantation monocultures in cotton and sugar made regular use of imprisoned former slaves, including women.

Because it tended to grant absolute authority to private commercial interests and because its racial make-up in the post-slavery era was overwhelmingly African-American, the South’s convict-lease system was distinctive. Its caste nature is not only impossible to forget, but should remind us of the unbalanced racial profile of America’s bloated prison population today. Moreover, this totalitarian control invited appalling brutalities: whippings, water torture, isolation in “dark cells,” dehydration, starvation, ice baths, shackling with metal spurs riveted to the feet, and “tricing” (stringing up refractory prisoners by the thumbs with fish line attached to overhead pulleys lifting the toes off the ground, thereby inflicting excruciating pain) for any sign of resistance. Work lasted at  least from sunup to sundown past the point of exhaustion. Death came often enough in unmarked graves by the side of the road or by incineration in coke ovens.

The Southern system also stood out because of the degree of intimate collusion between industrial, commercial, and agricultural enterprises and the law enforcement system. Sheriffs, local justices of the peace, state police, judges, and state governments conspired to keep the convict lease business humming. Indeed, local law officers depended on the leasing system for a substantial part of their income (they pocketed the fines and fees associated with these “convictions”). The region was so capital-starved that renting out convicts became a chief way to fund prison building and maintenance. So there was every incentive to concoct charges or send people to jail for trivial offenses.

All of this was peculiar to the convict-lease system in the South and made it easy to see it as uniquely antediluvian. However, it was really only different in degree from prevailing practice everywhere. Up North and throughout the rest of the country, the essentials were the same: the sale of prison labor power to private interests, corporal punishment, and the absence of all rights including civil liberties, the suffrage, and the right to protest and organize.

In the North, where 80 percent of the nation’s prison laborers were located, accounting for over $35 billion (in current dollars) of output, during the “long Depression” (lasting from the mid-1870s through the mid-1890s) the system was reconfigured to meet the needs of modern industry and internecine competition to depress labor costs. Convict labor was increasingly leased out only to a handful of major manufacturers in each state—textile mills, oven manufacturers, mining operations, hat and shoe factories—which installed the kind of mass production methods then becoming the standard in much of American industry. Lessees of convicts enjoyed authority to dispose of their rented labor power as they saw fit. Workers were compelled to labor in total silence; even hand gestures or eye contact were prohibited. Outside the South, supervision of prison labor was ostensibly a shared task between employers and prison authorities, but as a matter of practice the private enterprise foremen called the shots.

The use of penal institutions as an auxiliary arm of capitalist industry and commerce sparked sharp opposition. Protests against convict labor began in the antebellum years when mechanics societies, labor-oriented political parties, journeymen unions, and other groups considered the system an insult to the moral codes of egalitarian republicanism nurtured by the American Revolution. It was bad enough for self-reliant craftsmen to see their own livelihoods and standards of living put in jeopardy by the advent of “free” wage labor. It was worse to watch the use of unfree, miserably paid prison labor aggravate that dilemma. It was worse still to see employers resort to that captive population to combat attempts by aggrieved workers to

organize and defend themselves. On the eve of the Civil War, for example, a Bronx iron-molding contractor locked out his unionized workers and then moved his operation to Sing Sing penitentiary, where a laborer cost forty cents, $2.60 less than the going day rate. Worst of all was to perceive in this debased form of work a premonition of a more universal proletarian future of degradation and helplessness. The workingman’s movement of the Jacksonian era was deeply alarmed by the prospect of “wage slavery,” a condition inimical to their sense of themselves as citizens in a republic of independent producers. Prison labor was a sub-species of that dreaded “slavery,” a caricature of it perhaps, but nonetheless intolerable to a movement as much about emancipation as unionization.

Convict labor served as a target for emancipatory desires all the way through the Gilded Age. Above and below the Mason Dixon line protest rallies, petition campaigns, legislative investigations, Greenback-Labor and Populist political platforms, union strikes and boycotts by farm organizations like the Farmers’ Alliance and the Grange movement cried out for the abolition of the convict-lease system or at least for its rigorous regulation. During the Coal Creek Wars in eastern Tennessee in the early 1890s, TCI tried using prisoners to break a miners’ strike. Strikers and their allies launched guerilla attacks on the prisoner stockade, shipped the convicts back to Knoxville and when the governor shipped them back to Bricerville, the workers released them into the surrounding hills and countryside. Gun battles followed. The newly created American Federation of Labor denounced convict leasing as “contract slavery.” In Chicago the construction unions refused to work with materials made by prisoners. In addition, prisoners’ rebellions became ever more common, in the North particularly, where many prisoners turned out to be Civil War veterans and dispossessed working people who already knew something about fighting for freedom and fighting back. Major penitentiaries like Sing Sing in New York became sites of repeated riots and strikes.

The movement to abolish convict leasing embraced not only workers’ organizations, sympathetic rural insurgents, and prisoners, but also widening circles of middle-class reformers. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, penal servitude was on its way to extinction in state after state. New York, where it was born and where the “industry” was the largest, killed it by the late 1880s. Private leasing continued elsewhere in the North but under increasingly restrictive conditions. By World War II it was virtually extinct (although government-run prison workshops continued as they always had).

Even in the South it was at least officially over by the turn of the century in Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi. Higher political calculations were at work in these states. Established elites there sought successfully to break the interracial alliances that had formed over abolishing convict leasing (and briefly within the Southern Populist movement generally), by abolishing the hated system themselves. Often enough, however, it came to end in name only.

What replaced it in the South was the state-run chain gang (although some Southern states continued private leasing well into the 1920s). It performed a collateral purpose so far as the economic modernization of the region was concerned. Inmates were set to work building roads and on other infrastructural projects vital to the exfoliation of a mature market economy and so to the continuing process of capital accumulation. In the North the system of “hard labor” was replaced by the system of “hard time,” that numbing, brutalizing idleness where masses of people extruded from the mainstream economy pooled in mass penal colonies. The historic link between labor, punishment, and economic development was severed . . . until now.

 

IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR: A Brief History of Opposition to Public Sector Unionism

There is nothing new about opposition to public sector unionism. It has been a feature of American life for over a hundred years. But in some ways, the current wave of anti-unionism is a departure. Three different eras of opposition to public sector unionism, including the current one, have been distinguished by distinct core arguments against collective bargaining for public employees.

From the early 1900s through the 1960s, opposition to public sector unionism largely rested on the idea that it undercut the sovereignty of government. Unions of government employees were unusual during this period, though non-union associations of government workers—which engaged in lobbying, advocacy, and fraternal activities—were fairly common. When government workers tried to engage in private sector-type unionism, they ran into fierce opposition. The 1919 Boston police strike—which occurred in the middle of the post-World War I “red scare” and an extraordinary year-long series of militant strikes in virtually every industry—showed how far public employers would go to block public sector militancy and the political gains to be made in doing so. The Boston police commissioner did not object when police officers joined a local, independent association. But when they affiliated their group with the AFL, in effect claiming the same rights and status as private sector workers, he suspended nineteen officers, precipitating a walkout. Governor Calvin Coolidge, in the name of defending “the sovereignty of Massachusetts,” fired all the strikers, brought in state troops to patrol the city, and recruited a new police force from demobilized soldiers. He rode his strike-breaking into the 1920 Republican vice-presidential nomination and ultimately to the White House.

Many liberals shared Coolidge’s belief that government employees should not be allowed to unionize, or at least not engage in private sector-style unionism. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a letter to the head of a federal employees group, proclaimed that:

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service…The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or bind the employer…The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives. 

This is the essence of the sovereignty argument against public sector unionism—that collective bargaining undercuts the inherent power of the state as a sovereign representative of the people, and therefore is anti-democratic.

To this day, a few states, clustered in the South, completely ban collective bargaining by state and local government workers, while others limit it in various ways, often resting on the same state sovereignty argument Coolidge and Roosevelt made many decades ago. But over time, in much of the country, sovereignty objections to public sector unionism diminished. The vast expansion of the labor movement in the mid-twentieth century made everyone, including political authorities, more accustomed to the central presence of unions in American life.

Starting in the late 1950s, a set of ideas and laws emerged which created in the public sector a variation of unionism that granted workers different, and usually reduced, rights compared to private employees.

In most of the country, when public sector workers won the right to unionize, they did so under rules and systems designed, in part, to address the sovereignty issue. In 1959, Wisconsin—with its long history of progressive labor legislation and a recent increase in Democratic power—passed the first state law granting the right to public sector collective bargaining after a campaign by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The law exempted public safety workers—the Boston police strike cast a long shadow—and forbid government employees from striking. In New York City, which pioneered municipal unionism, public employee strikes were illegal, too, though they nonetheless occurred. The federal government, which allowed collective bargaining beginning in 1962, likewise banned strikes. Some government employers also forbid collective bargaining over public policy, again addressing the sovereignty issue. In New York City, for example, after a 1965 strike when social workers demanded and won improved benefits for their clients, the city government specifically forbid bargaining over the level of services city agencies delivered, diminishing the possibilities for alliances between service providers and service users.

Such arrangements lessened concern over government worker unionism. When, in 1970, postal workers engaged in the largest public worker strike in U.S. history, Richard Nixon called out the National Guard but also allowed Secretary of Labor George Shultz to engage in collective bargaining to end the walkout. Reflecting the new consensus on public sector unionism (at least outside of the South), and the still formidable power of the labor movement, Congress endorsed most of the agreement Shultz and the unions worked out and allowed future bargaining. But it also denied postal workers the right to strike or have a union shop.

The next wave of opposition to public sector unionism, just a few years later, saw new arguments deployed. In the mid-1970s, a deep recession left many states and cities in fiscal difficulty, with New York City capturing national attention as it hovered on the edge of bankruptcy. (Cleveland actually did default on its debt.) But even at the height of the fiscal crisis, political conservatives—like Secretary of Treasury William Simon—and bankers—like First National City Bank’s Walter Wriston—who fiercely opposed municipal unions, by and large did not call for a withdrawal of their bargaining rights or question their basic legitimacy. Rather, they opposed what those unions had concretely achieved through bargaining and militant action. Their core argument was that public sector unions had won wages and benefits beyond what government entities could afford. Accordingly, they demanded wage and benefits concessions from the unions, which they achieved, but achieved through collective bargaining.

For some fiscal-crisis-era opponents of the public sector unions, the argument was not simply about budgets, however. Simon and many other conservatives detested what they saw as the growth of an overly-generous social welfare state, exemplified by New York City. They targeted what, in their view, were excessive municipal employee pay rates and benefits as part of the broad problem of an overly-generous social wage. For conservative critics of government unionism, high municipal pay rates and pensions were of a piece with free tuition at the City University of New York, cheap mass transit, and rent control, all of which—except for the last—they managed to chip away at. Many private employers wanted to weaken public sector unions, too, or at least roll back their contracts, because the benefits (though not the pay) their companies offered paled in comparison. They did not want an ample benchmark of employee benefits set by the state. The fight over public sector unionism was thus part of a broader class struggle, an attack on the working class by ruling elites in the face of global economic stagnation.

In New York, municipal unions made preserving collective bargaining a central goal. Their ability to do so—they actually strengthened their institutional rights when they got the state legislature to agree to the agency shop (requiring workers who decline to join the union representing them to pay a fee in lieu of dues)—was a measure of their power, but also of the diminished importance of the sovereignty argument questioning the very legitimacy of public sector unionism. The most high-profile attack on publicly-employed unionists since the Boston police strike, Ronald Reagan’s firing of the PATCO strikers in 1981, had a more fundamental effect in the private sector, emboldening employers to break strikes and attack unions, than in the public sector, where unions continued to grow.

Which brings us to the third, current wave of opposition to public sector unionism. What we are seeing now is the recapitulation and revival of all the old arguments against public sector unionism, and then some new ones. Budgetary problems have been the occasion for reopening the question of public sector unionism and the justification for seeking to lower pay, benefits, and bargaining rights. Some harsh anti-union officials, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, have been pretty much willing to stop at reducing the cost of publicly-employed labor. But as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker demonstrated, even when unionists have addressed budgetary concerns anti-unionism has continued, suggesting that the recession—perhaps together with the drastic decline in the power and reputation of the labor movement generally—has been an opportunity for as much as a cause of the revived assault.

In Wisconsin and elsewhere, the sovereignty argument has reemerged in several forms. It is often recast as an efficiency issue; government leaders need flexibility to provide the best and most cost-efficient services as possible. Particularly in regard to teachers’ unions, critics have argued that seniority systems and tenure impede the workings of meritocracy, which they claim makes the private sector more efficient than government. And the sovereignty-cumdemocracy argument is now revived as an effort to take on unions as a special interest that has hijacked the people’s government in its own behalf. Some of the proposals for revising state public employee bargaining laws specifically ban bargaining over public policy issues.

But other arguments and motivations have emerged, too, some unspoken. Part of what we are seeing is a partisan strategy to defund the Democratic Party, which has received massive amounts of money from the union movement in recent years, especially from public sector unions (which, nationally, now represent a majority of union members). Thus the new push to deny public sector unions bargaining rights is largely a Republican phenomenon. In Massachusetts, though, Democrats led an effort to deny municipal workers the right to bargain over health care benefits, infuriating their union backers.

Finally, there is one more basis for the current push against public sector unions, and that is that they are seen as representatives of the state itself, which is now cast in almost completely negative terms. Government worker power and pay, so the argument goes, should be chopped down to size because government should be chopped down to size. Government is bad because it impedes liberty and sucks resources from its citizenry. This is almost the reverse of the old sovereignty argument. The problem with government employee unions is not that they undermine the power of the state but that they are part of it—symbolically and practically. Unions hamper the disassembly of the state: lay-offs, agency closures, budget cuts, privatization, and the elimination of welfare benefits. So unions have to go.

So today we face layer on layer of anti-public sector union arguments. It is a tough challenge. But, of course, the amazing mobilizations that occurred in response to anti-union attacks in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and elsewhere make it clear that there is another side to this story. Americans, by and large, do not hate school teachers or policemen or the highway crew. They may think government is too big and their taxes are too high—though it is not clear most do—but they do not share the broad anti-statism that informs much of the current attack on public sector unions. Some low-paid workers no doubt resent paying taxes to finance government worker benefits like pensions and health insurance that they themselves do not receive. But today’s attack on public sector unionism is not a populist revolt—it’s a movement from the top down, led and financed by some of the wealthiest people and corporations in the country. The solidarity displayed in Madison, which extended beyond the public sector unions to the entire union movement and to students, activists, and common citizens, suggests that—although the public sector unions and their allies confront both a fiscal crisis and a thick layering of arguments against them—there are good reasons for hope.

 

IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR: The Weight of Dead Generations

Marx was wrong. He famously declared that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” But it turns out that, for some, the remembered past can act like a tonic, an inspirational elixir, even a promissory note. Over the course of American history, popular movements of resistance and rebellion have sometimes resolutely turned their backs on the future in concerted efforts to return to some mythic golden age. Others have enlisted their collective recollections of the past to fashion an emancipated new way of life.

As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War begins, we are reminded of this plasticity of historical memory and the way it gets deployed to resolve contemporary dilemmas. Commemorations of the Civil War functioned for generations in the South to reinforce commitment to the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause.” “Confederate Balls,” reenactments of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration, and the like had a political purpose in solidifying core beliefs about white supremacy, states’ rights, and loyalty to the region’s all-white Democratic Party. Around the turn of the twentieth century, when the hot-blooded emotions of the war had finally cooled enough, the “Lost Cause” got nationalized and found a home in the North as well. There it served to turn a conflict over freedom and slavery into a shared national tragedy that hid the country’s ugly racial pathology.

In the South, that distinctive recall of the past at the same time worked to replenish the soil of social subservience, leaving the Southern oligarchy of landlords, merchants, and their political facilitators in charge. Still, for legions of true believers, the “Lost Cause” was empowering, firing resistance to both Reconstruction and subsequent attempts to end American apartheid. For a long century, most white Southerners reveled in their peculiar version of the past, used it to define their moral imagination, and mobilized politically on its behalf; but they were imprisoned by it, unable to envision a future that would liberate them from hierarchies of the South’s caste-based political economy. Already, the sesquicentennial has shown us there’s life still left in that old dog: Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, recalls that life in 1960s Yazoo City wasn’t all that bad as the White Citizens’ Council kept the Klan at bay, and Virginia’s governor “forgot” to mention slavery in his sesquicentennial proclamation. Dream and nightmare!

Using and being used by the past is hardly unique to partisans of the Old South. Take the Tea Party. Memories of its revolutionary-era forefathers—no matter how fantastical the images of that revered past may be—incite among Tea Party partisans an enthusiasm to restore an idealized world of self-reliant heroism. Government—whether it’s King George’s or Barack Obama’s—is the great enemy; dependency its toxic seduction. No one actually contemplates donning knee breeches and pinafores, however. Rather, for Tea Party followers the nearest historic exemplar of what they want to see restored is a kind of Disneyland version of small town/suburban yesteryear: nuclear families, conventional marriage, home ownership, Christian morals, cultural and racial homogeneity, and economic self-sufficiency. One might call this the twenty-first century version of a romanticized family capitalism; profoundly sentimental insofar as it ignores how utterly dependent that suburban arcadia was on an intricate network of federal, state, and local government programs and bureaucracies.

Like those who once rallied to “The South Shall Rise Again,” the Tea Party rises in righteous resistance to reclaim the way we never were. It draws its energy from an imaginary past. But that same fantasy disarms it. After all, what helped set off the uproar a year or so ago were government bailouts of Wall Street fat cats. Tea Party militants, however, have reset their sights not on big business and finance—such anti-capitalism cuts too close to home—but on the leviathan state, in particular what’s left of its social-welfare apparatus. Back to the future may tickle the fancy and win votes but, without a real alternative to corporate capitalism and the welfare state, “don’t tread on me” is an idle boast.

Can we say something similar today about the labor movement and the broader “Left” with which it is loosely identified? Traditionally, the Left was (by definition) future-oriented, a main branch on the tree of Forward Progress. No more! From the day it assumed power (and even before then), the Obama administration has been relentlessly compared to FDR’s New Deal administration. Some people think it has fallen short, even way short, others think it has come closer or as close as is feasible. No matter the particular assessment, the far horizon of possibility for those in the progressive community seems to remain the restoration of the New Deal order in one updated form or another. This is our “lost cause,” a seventy-five-year-old movement invented to put back together a bygone form of capitalism, resurrected now but without even the more radical forms of egalitarian anti-capitalism that were once part of the New Deal heritage. Is there no life after capitalism? Who, then, is a prisoner of the past? Are we the true conservatives?

Living too much in the past is not, then, strictly a right-wing pathology. However, it would also be wrong to conclude that social movements rooted in the past are inevitably poisoned at the source. On the contrary, many of our country’s most notable insurgencies have looked both backward and forward as they struggled to free themselves from systems of exploitation and oppression.

Take the early-nineteenth-century labor movement. Artisans enmeshed in handicraft production were threatened by the emergence of the factory system and the farming out of work to the countryside by merchant capitalists (the original form of outsourcing). They mounted a fierce resistance. On the one hand, these apprentice and journeymen craftsmen looked to the past. They demanded that the customary practice of “just” wages and prices that, for generations, had defined the “moral economy”—long before the advent of the free market and “free” wage labor—should continue to insure their social identity and social well-being. At the same time, they broke free of the hierarchical and patriarchal structures of handicraft work and the household economy, welcomed the opportunities for social and economic mobility opened up by the new capitalism (this was back when capitalism truly functioned as a leveling force, breaking apart the traditional deferential order of things), and became champions of democratic political reform in the age of Andrew Jackson.

A half-century later, the country was alive with social upheavals powered by this same dynamic. Populist rhetoric, for example, regularly conjured up images of Jeffersonian freeholder agriculture, a mythic romance of self-sufficient farm communities, proud of their independence and rough equality. This yeoman farmer idyll was their “lost cause,” a pastoral collective memory marshaled against the predatory forces of global capitalism: Eastern and British banks, the railroads, farm-machinery oligopolies, grain-elevator operators, and commodity speculators.

But what gave the movement true grit, what freed it of sentimental fantasizing and won it legions of committed crusaders, was its breakthrough vision of the future, something the Populists—especially in the form of the Farmers’ Alliance—called the “cooperative commonwealth.” This was to be a world of modern, mechanized agriculture, to be sure, but one freed of the ravages of the free market. Cooperative enterprises in purchasing, credit, marketing, distribution, and storage of farm commodities would intercept the “invisible hand” at every point along what today we might call the “supply chain,” stopping it from driving independent farmers off the land. Putting aside their inherited Jeffersonian suspicion of big government, the Populists also called for the nationalization of the railroads. And they proposed that the federal treasury stamp out wild oscillations in the prices of agricultural goods and the massively destructive role of commodity speculators by a timed withholding and releasing of crops into the global marketplace so as to insure stable prices that would keep farming a viable way of life.

These were feats of great social and moral imagination which managed to transcend the past without obliterating it. They could crop up in the most homely surroundings, familiar enough to today’s Tea Party activists. During the Gilded Age, and well past the turn of the new century, middling classes in towns and cities across the country mobilized to battle the Trusts, those corporate behemoths that had come to dominate core sectors of the economy. One might casually assume this anti-trust movement expressed the resentments of smaller businessmen threatened with extinction, and that it sought to return to some ideal state of petty entrepreneurship. And in some ways it did. But the Progressive movement included and expressed much more than that. Consumers angered by the price-fixing and rate discrimination practiced by many trusts, employees of trusts abused and exploited at work, and a wide variety of urban middle-class professionals and white-collar workers worried about the inordinate power of the trusts assembled together. Naturally, they demanded that the trusts be restrained, regulated, or broken up so as to preserve the entrepreneurial opportunity and family capitalism they cherished from the past. But in many locales they advocated as well that they be replaced by publicly-owned enterprises. And in many cases they were. In towns and cities across the country, public transportation systems and public utilities supplanted privately-owned ones. Edward Bellamy’s famous utopian novel of 1888—Looking Backward, with its futuristic portrait of a National Trust that would encompass the whole of society—was the rather bizarre articulation of a social movement that alchemized its past into some hypothesized non-capitalist future. For a while, it captured the imagination of millions.

Arguably the whole history of the labor movement during what might be called the “long century of strikes,” from 1870 to 1970, exemplified this same pas de deux between the past and the future. Rebellions against the predations of industrial capitalism remembered the just price and the just wage, reasserted traditional control of the shop floor against the usurpations of management, tried to reclaim old-time customary breaks in toil from the relentless rhythms of the factory time clock, defended the age-old dignity of skilled labor, and drew on Catholic condemnations of usury and parasitism (and the Church’s sanctification of childhood and the maternal role, and all those pre-capitalist ways of life which resisted the transformation of human beings into abstract wage labor). However, nourished by their varied pasts, these labor insurgencies aspired to new forms of emancipation—cooperatives, socialism, syndicalism, and anarcho-syndicalism—finally culminating, during the New Deal years, in a system of industrial democracy to replace the industrial autocracy of the old regime.

In this opening year of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial it’s worth remembering that the civil rights movement was infused with this same paradoxical logic. Rising up against generations of systematic exploitation, degradation, exclusion, and a kind of racialized quasi-serfdom, African-Americans were inspired by a quest for a universal equality of individual rights that is the antithesis of apartheid. For a despised caste, so long denied that elementary condition of modern American life, that was the future which beckoned. But it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine that extraordinary act of courageous resistance and social invention without reckoning with Christianity; or, more precisely, with the Afro-Christian past of generations of slaves and freedmen. This folk Christianity supplied much of the lingua franca of the movement and often made up its institutional and emotional understructure. Spirituals, their lyrics sometimes appropriately secularized, were more than the movement’s music; they were its house of being. Marx got it right: “Religious suffering is at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.”

William Faulkner, who perhaps not coincidentally hailed from the South, once famously noted that, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Whether we remain its captives or not depends on our capacity to use it without being used by it.

 

 

IN THE REARIEW MIRROR Trading Places: Protecting American Industry Is So Yesterday

The current recession has been brutal on manufacturing workers. Between December 2007 and December 2009, over two million of the country’s 13.7 million manufacturing jobs disappeared. Six million industrial jobs have vanished since 1998 and manufacturing employment today is only 60 percent of its peak in 1979. Walking around the mall, it sometimes seems impossible to find a product made in the U.S.A.

It is a piety of present politics that the United States needs to rebuild its manufacturing base, an idea that the labor movement, the president, and most of the public support. But the financial interests that increasingly dominate our economy tend to see greater profit opportunities in globalization than in domestic manufacturing, which is one reason why little has been done to staunch the flow of jobs abroad. Indeed, these peak financial institutions grew to their present preeminence in part by systematically looting and shutting down American industry over the past quarter century. Policies aimed at reviving domestic industry—tariffs, currency revaluations, state-sponsored reindustrialization schemes—were, until recently, relegated to the margins of political discourse and situated largely outside of the realm of democratic governance.

This was not always the case. From the earliest days of the United States, promoting and protecting manufacturing jobs was a rallying cry for workers and a hotly debated electoral subject. With little exaggeration, one might say that industrializing America constituted the core of public policy for more than a century. One reason artisans—both journeymen and the masters who employed them—supported the ratification of the Constitution was their belief that a strong federal government would be better able to enforce restrictions on imports than the individual states, thereby protecting their markets, jobs, and wages. “Taxes on imported goods,” wrote one Philadelphia plebian, “can distress none but the rich.” As artisans hoped, the newly created Congress did pass a tariff, and—during the decades that followed—labor groups continued to agitate for high tariffs. During the Gilded Age, workers carried on a no-holds-barred, often violent battle with employers over the distribution of income and power on the shopfloor. Yet they found themselves allied politically inside the Republican Party in defense of the protective tariff. That irony is one of the reasons labor remained so weak politically, at least at the national level. In the 1880s and 1890s, the tariff became a leading electoral issue. The debate pitted the protection tariffs provided for domestic manufacturing against the lower prices that might come from reducing the penalties on foreign-made goods, and the advantages—to international merchants and commodity exporters—of low trade barriers. (Farmers felt doubly disadvantaged by import duties, resenting the high price of manufactured goods and fearful that other countries would raise tariffs on agricultural goods.) Generally the Democrats, strongly influenced by their Southern wing, wanted to lower tariffs while the Republicans sought to keep them high, retaining the support of working-class voters, even in 1896 when populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan won considerable union backing.

The Great Depression and World War II changed the politics of trade and pushed the issue of protecting domestic manufacturing to the back burner. Most New Dealers believed that high tariffs, and their retarding effect on international trade, contributed to the depth of the global economic downturn of the 1930s. Also, Southern Democrats—an important component of the New Deal coalition—generally supported free trade because they did not want other countries imposing tariffs on exported cotton. When the Roosevelt administration moved to negotiate bilateral agreements lowering tariffs, it won backing from internationally oriented banks and manufacturing companies, and from oil companies, all of whom backed free trade. As the labor movement exploded in size and cemented its ties to the New Deal, it largely abandoned its earlier protectionism.

World War II further changed the calculus of trade. The United States emerged from the conflict as the world’s unchallenged industrial power. Rather than facing a threat from imports, American companies had the opportunity for a massive expansion of exports and overseas investment. American policymakers pressed for lower tariffs and reduced trade obstacles, which they believed would benefit the American economy and promote international stability. But sometimes they departed from this goal in order to strengthen the economies of American allies, with an eye toward the Cold War contest with the Soviet bloc. So they looked the other way when Japan and the European Economic Community (the predecessor of the European Union) put up barriers to imports from the United States. With unemployment rates low during the quarter-century after the war and the United States exporting more goods than it imported, even unionists expressed relatively little concern about the foreign threat to domestic manufacturing jobs.

Trade issues reemerged with a vengeance when the period of post-World War II prosperity ground to a halt in the 1970s. By then, Germany and Japan had rebuilt their industries to become formidable competitors to the United States and many American companies had set up overseas operations, which—in some cases—shipped goods back to the United States. In 1971, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union—hit hard by the growing importation of apparels—launched a long, unsuccessful drive for protectionist legislation.

When the automobile and steel industries plunged into deep crises in the late 1970s and early 1980s, unions representing their workers joined the debate about protecting domestic manufacturing. The United Automobile Workers called on the public to “Buy American” and promoted legislation to require specified levels of domestic content in vehicles sold in the United States. But the consensus in support of low trade barriers had become so strong that—even as the balance of trade reversed and, in 1971, the country became a net importer for the first time since 1893—no fundamental move away from free trade occurred.

What did change, however, was the international currency system. Under the Bretton Woods agreement, worked out during World War II, most capitalist countries pegged their currencies at fixed rates to the dollar, which the United States in turn backed with gold reserves, also at a fixed rate. In August 1971, President Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard, which had the effect of replacing fixed currency exchange rates with floating rates. Once currency exchange rates became variable, they could protect or undercut domestic manufacturing.

Nixon initially pressed Japan to raise the value of the yen in relation to the dollar to help U.S. exports and win him workingclass votes in the upcoming election. But later administrations often preferred a strong dollar, which benefited consumers and Americans investing abroad.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the labor movement and its allies continued to oppose the movement toward free trade, but with only modest success. The relocation of American industrial and financial investment abroad commanded the allegiance of both parties. President Bill Clinton broke with unions when he pushed the NAFTA treaty through Congress with only fig leaf protections for labor. The movement against corporate-oriented globalization reached a high point in the protests at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. But the protests were not strong enough to reverse the basic thrust of American economic policy. In recent years, pressure from the labor movement and domestic manufacturers occasionally has gotten the federal government to pursue charges of unfair trade practices against other countries, but there has been little debate about the principle of low tariffs.

Which leaves currency exchange rates as one of the few tools that might be used to protect domestic manufacturing from foreign competition. Whereas late-nineteenth-century arguments over the gold standard verged on civil war that pitted debtors against creditors, today such debates remain confined to circles of experts, despite the fact that the value of the dollar in relation to other currencies—the Chinese renminbi, especially—has a fateful impact on the health of American manufacturing. As in the Cold War, domestic manufacturing gets sacrificed to foreign policy concerns (like Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea and Iran), and to the interests of American financial institutions and corporations with investments and suppliers abroad (including domestic icons like Apple and Wal-Mart, whose businesses essentially consist of selling goods manufactured in China).

Of course, there are steps other than currency manipulation that would help U.S. manufacturing. The only long-term strategy for supporting domestic American manufacturing—and, in the process, for reversing the generation-long underdevelopment of the national economy—is a state-sponsored program of high-tech, energy-efficient reindustrialization. Infrastructure development, worker training, targeted government investments and credit, research programs, and domestic content provisions in government procurement are among the steps that could be taken. Unlike in the past, when Congress openly debated and set tariff rates and currency policies, today they are largely outside the realm of public control, controlled by opaque, insulated agencies. Not many liberal politicians or activists seem very interested. The Obama administration’s “Framework for Revitalizing American Manufacturing” never even mentions currency rates. Some labor supporters, including Robert Pollin in the Fall 2010 issue of New Labor Forum, are skeptical that tariff or currency adjustments would make much difference in restoring manufacturing. But with the fate of hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of manufacturing jobs at stake, trade policy, currency rates, and national industrial policy need to be placed at the center of political debate and democratic decision-making, much as the tariff was during the first century-and-a-half of the Republic.

 

In the Rearview Mirror: When Congress Roared

Whatever the complex causes of our economic calamity, no one doubts the culpability of the financial and business elite. Their avarice, fraud, hubris, incompetence, and a willful suspension of disbelief about their own speculative fantasies laid the country low. However, their misdeeds, and the underlying reasons they committed them, have so far escaped systematic scrutiny by our representatives in Congress. Senators and House members berated a few CEOs of companies that were bailed out by the government for giving huge bonuses to bankers and traders who nearly destroyed the world economy. After that, virtual silence.

This is remarkable. During the Great Depression, the banking and corporate leaders who led the nation into economic collapse were subjected to a barrage of congressional investigations that undermined the credibility and legitimacy of the old ruling class. Those inquiries helped make possible the rise of the New Deal order, which endured for nearly a half-century.

Of the half-dozen major congressional investigations that targeted the country’s business establishment, the “Pecora Committee” garnered the most attention. Ferdinand Pecora, a Sicilian immigrant, had been a stalwart supporter of Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party. Later, as an assistant district attorney in New York, he went after shady Wall Street operations. In January 1933, the Republican-led Senate Banking and Currency Committee made Pecora, known for his impeccable integrity and refusal to be intimidated by the high and mighty, the chief counsel of its very public investigation of the financial community, which kept making news well into 1934. Running concurrently, the Senate Finance Committee conducted its own inquiry. Together their hearings utterly discredited the country’s leading financiers.

Before the Senate committees, men like Wall Street speculator Bernard Baruch, William Atterbury (the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad), Myron Taylor (the head of U.S. Steel), and Jackson Reynolds (of the First National Bank) admitted they had no solution to the economic crisis. Pecora exposed a whole host of shenanigans committed by Wall Street’s most august figures. It turned out that Jack Morgan and many of the senior partners of the House of Morgan had paid no income tax for years. Morgan, along with other investment banks, had regularly engaged in insider trading, compiling “preferred lists” of notables—such as Owen Young of General Electric and former secretary of war and Democratic Party powerhouse Newton Baker—who were offered stock at low prices by Morgan-controlled investment trusts, which would then manipulate the market to send the price soaring until dumping the stock onto the public. The major investment houses also had favored insiders through rigged stock pools, the deliberate hyping of bad investments (“Peruvian bonds” were the subprime mortgages of that era), and outsized bonuses. Charles Mitchell, the chairman of the nation’s largest bank (National City), short-sold the stock of his own firm because he knew, long before the investing public did, how shaky it really was.

[In the 1930s] a half-dozen major congressional investigations targeted the country’s business establishment. 

Like today, financiers fiercely defended the old order. Richard Whitney, vice president of the New York Stock Exchange, pronounced it a “perfect institution.” Others warned that regulating the capital markets would freeze up credit, stifle innovation, amount to pointless scapegoating, and end up in national disaster or communism (or both). Sound familiar? But they could get no traction in front of their congressional inquisitors. The head of the white-shoe Wall Street firm of Dillon Read was compelled to admit that firms like his had never invested in frontier industries until, as in the case of automobiles, they were well established. As the investigations captured headlines, the once untouchable titans of finance were publicly ridiculed by prominent intellectuals like Walter Lippmann and Edmund Wilson. Even FDR noted that “the Stock Exchange crowd” displayed an “inability to understand the country or their obligations to their fellow men,” and needed “a [k]indergarten education on those subjects.”

The congressional inquiries became the incubators of critical legislation like the GlassSteagall Act (repealed in 1999), which separated commercial from investment banking, and the law creating the Securities and Exchange Commission, to which the president appointed Pecora. Nor did Congress limit its attention to the financial sector. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin chaired a Senate subcommittee which conducted hearings into the labor relations practices of the nation’s leading industrial companies. It uncovered an appalling picture of corporate intimidation and bellicose resistance to unionization, one that included legions of spies, private armies, stockpiled armaments, and other means for preserving industrial autocracy. The committee’s findings shocked the country, painted an ugly picture of the country’s captains of industry, and contributed measurably to the organizing successes of the labor movement in basic industry. Gerald Nye of North Dakota chaired the Senate Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, which investigated war profiteering by the Morgan interests and leading industrialists during World War I. Hugo Black, a senator from Alabama and future Supreme Court justice, conducted an investigation of the utility industry which helped discredit the moguls who ran it by showing how their elaborate pyramids of holding companies had sucked dry the underlying operating businesses. Black’s hearings established an evidentiary basis for the 1935 Public Utility Holding Company Act. Yet another congressional exposé unearthed the indefensible subsidies paid to the airplane and ship industries.

There is little apparent will, or courage, to subject the whole financial and business meltdown to sustained public interrogation. 

No one would argue that these congressional interventions were unqualified successes. Some of the legislation that emerged from them was effectively diluted by the very business elements under assault. Still, how differently matters stand today. Public outrage notwithstanding, our financial overlords continue to reward themselves lavishly for a job just about everyone agrees they thoroughly screwed up. Nonetheless, there is little apparent will, or courage, to subject the whole financial and business meltdown to sustained public interrogation. Why is Congress so supine? The decline of congressional authority in favor of the executive branch is a long story that began, ironically, during the New Deal years under Roosevelt. Republican progressives like La Follette and Nye no longer exist, while the Democratic Party—which moved steadily to the left during the 1930s—has moved steadily to the right over the last quarter-century. With no organized Left comparable to the one that existed in the thirties to provide a counterweight, “Blue Dogs” intimidate the party’s congressional leadership at precisely the moment when the power of conservative Democrats ought to be dwindling. The president encourages this misguided attempt to find friends on the right—where they really don’t exist—and so undercuts the historical momentum to move in the opposite direction. For their part, business leaders have largely succeeded in presenting themselves as bland technocrats, harder targets for populist inquiries than their more flamboyant predecessors (like Richard Whitney, the Groton- and Harvard-educated scion of a Social Register family). All this means that, too often, Congress acts as if “business as usual” prevails when, on the contrary, a once-in-a-century crisis has suspended all business as usual.

New Labor Forum 19(1): 90-92, Winter 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.191.0000013

IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR History’s Mad Hatters: The Strange Career of Tea Party Populism

On a winter’s day in Boston in 1773, a rally of thousands at Faneuil Hall to protest a new British colonial tax levied on tea turned into an iconic moment in the pre-history of the American Revolution. Some of the demonstrators—Sons of Liberty, they called themselves—left the hall and boarded the Dartmouth, a ship carrying tea, and dumped it overboard.

One of the oddest features of the Boston Tea Party, from which our current crop of Tea Party populists draw their inspiration, is that a number of those long-ago guerilla activists dressed up as Mohawk Indians, venting their anger by emitting Indian war cries, and carrying tomahawks to slice open the bags of tea. This masquerade captured a fundamental ambivalence that has characterized populist risings ever since. After all, if in late-eighteenth-century America the Indian already functioned as a symbol of an oppressed people and so proved suitable for use by others who felt themselves put upon, it was also the case that the ancestors of those Boston patriots had managed to exterminate a goodly portion of the region’s Native American population in pursuit of their own self-aggrandizement.

Today’s Tea Party movement, like so many of its “populist” predecessors, is a house of contradiction, a bewildering network of crosscutting political emotions, ideas, and institutions. What connects it powerfully to a populist past stretching all the way back to Boston Harbor is, however, a sense of violation: “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Despite a recurring resistance to the impositions of powerful outside forces—anti-elitism has been axiomatic for all such insurgencies— populist movements have differed greatly on just what those forces were and what needed to be done to free people from their yoke. It’s worth noting, for instance, that an earlier invocation of the Boston Tea Party took place at a 1973 rally on a replica of the Dartmouth—a rally called to promote the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.

From the Know-Nothings to the People’s Party

Over the course of American history, the populist instinct, now resurgent in the Tea Party movement, has oscillated between a desire to transform, and so create a new order of things, and a desire to restore a yearned-for (or imagined) old order.

Before the Civil War, one such movement that caught both these urges was colloquially dubbed the “Know-Nothings” (not for any anti-intellectualism, but because its members deliberately conducted much of their business in secret—hence, if questioned, were instructed to say, “I know nothing”). Know-nothingism exuded the desire to move forward and backward at the same time. During the 1840s and 1850s, it swept across much of the country, North and South. There were “know-nothing” candies, “know-nothing” toothpicks, and “know-nothing” stagecoaches.

Soon enough, the movement evolved into a national political party, the American Party, that appealed to small farmers, small businessmen, and working people. Its attraction was twofold. The party vociferously opposed Irish and German Catholic immigration to the U.S. (as well as that of Chinese and Chilean immigrants working in the gold fields of California). Yet, in the North, it also denounced slavery. As planks in a political program, nativism and anti-slavery might seem like an odd couple, but in the minds of the party’s followers they were joined at the hip. As Know-Nothings saw it, the Papacy and the South’s slave-owning planter elite were both conspiring to undermine a democratic society of masterless men.

Keep in mind that conspiratorial thinking has long been deeply embedded in American populist movements (as in the Tea Party today). In nineteenth-century Protestant America, alleged plots by Vatican hierarchs were a recurrent feature of political life. In the North, a wave of crime and the rise of “poor relief ” and other forms of dependency—including wage labor, which accompanied the arrival of a flood of impoverished Catholic immigrants—seemed to threaten an American promise of a society of free, equal, and self-reliant individuals (supposedly so noxious to the priestly elite of the Catholic Church).  In the slave South, where the master class was believed to be hard at work subverting the Constitution, conspiratorial machinations were self-evidently afoot. By the mid-1850s, most “Know-Nothings” in the North had found their way into the newborn Republican Party which combined hostility to slavery with a milder form of anti-Catholicism.

Populism with a capital “P,” the great economic and political insurgency of the last third of the nineteenth century that blanketed rural America from the cotton South to the grain-growing Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West, would bear its own distinctive ambivalence. The People’s Party indicted corporate and finance capitalism for destroying the livelihoods and lives of independent farmers and handicraftsmen. It also attacked big business for subverting the foundations of democracy by capturing all three branches of government and transforming them into coercive instruments of rule by a new plutocracy. Populists sometimes attributed what they termed an American “counterrevolution” to the conspiratorial plots of the “great Devil Fish of Wall Street,” suspected of colluding with Great Britain’s elite to undo the American Revolution.

The remedies proposed, however, were hardly those of Luddites. These instead anticipated many of the fundamental reforms of the next century, including government subsidies for farmers, the graduated income tax, direct election of the Senate, the eight-hour day, and even the public ownership of railroads and public utilities. A tragic movement of the dispossessed, the Populists yearned to restore a society of independent producers, a world without a proletariat and without corporate trusts. Yet they also envisioned something new and transformative, a “cooperative commonwealth” that would escape the barbaric competitiveness and exploitation of free market capitalism.

The Great Plains of Resentment

For the next four decades, populism remained emphatically against corporate capitalism and held on tightly to its resentment of powerful outsiders as well as a penchant for conspiracy mongering. During the 1930s, however, the location of Conspiracy Central began to shift from Wall Street and the City of London to Moscow—and even New Deal Washington. Anti-communism added a new ingredient to an already roiling American politics of fear and paranoia, a toxic element which still inflames the Tea Party imagination two decades after the Berlin Wall was torn down.

During the 1936 presidential campaign, in the midst of the Great Depression, three populist movements—Louisiana Senator Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” clubs, the Union for Social Justice formed by the charismatic “radio priest” Father Charles E. Coughlin, and Francis Townsend’s campaign for government pensions for the elderly—coalesced, albeit briefly and uneasily, to form the Union Party. It ran from the left against President Franklin Roosevelt, nominating as its presidential candidate North Dakota Congressman William Lemke, a one-time spokesman for radical farmers. (The vice-presidential candidate was a labor lawyer from Boston.)

The Union Party expressed a broad dissatisfaction with the failure of Roosevelt’s New Deal to relieve economic distress and injustice. Senator Long, the latest in a long line of Southern populist demagogues, had been decrying the power of land barons, “moneycrats,” and big oil since his days as Louisiana’s governor. His “Share Our Wealth” plan called for pensions and public education for all, as well as confiscatory taxes on incomes over $1 million, a minimum wage, and public works projects to give jobs to the unemployed. Townsend’s scheme was designed to solve unemployment and the penury of old age by offering monthly government pensions of $200, financed by taxes on business, to everyone over the age of sixty. Coughlin, an early supporter of Roosevelt, trained his fire on finance capitalism, inveighing against its usurious, unchristian “parasitism.”

But Long and especially Coughlin were at pains to distinguish their form of radicalism from the collectivism and atheism of the Red menace. Father Coughlin expressed support for labor unions and a just wage. He was, however, an inveterate foe of the left-leaning United Automobile Workers union, and roundly condemned the sit-down strikes which spread like a prairie fire following Roosevelt’s triumphal landslide victory in the 1936 presidential election, as workers across the country occupied everything from auto plants to department stores demanding union recognition.

Indeed, in his radio addresses and his newspaper, Social Justice, the priest ranted about an incongruous conspiracy of Bolsheviks and bankers whose aim was to betray America. He would eventually add a tincture of antiSemitism to his warnings about a Wall Street cabal.  His growing sympathy for Nazism was not so shocking. Fascism, after all, had its roots in a European version of populism that conveyed a post-World War I disgust with the selfishness and incompetence of cosmopolitan ruling elites, a virulent racial nationalism, and a hatred of bankers and especially Bolsheviks.

Followers of Long and Coughlin loathed big business and big government, even though big government—back then anyway—was taking on big business. For them, “Don’t Tread on Me” meant a defense of local economies, traditional moral codes, and established ways of life that seemed increasingly endangered by national corporations as well as the state bureaucracies that began to proliferate under the New Deal. Union Party campaign oratory was filled with references to the “forgotten man,” an image first invoked by Roosevelt on behalf of the working poor.

In the years ahead, kindred images would resurface during a time of turmoil in the late 1960s in Nixon’s appeals to the “silent majority” of “Middle America,” and more recently in the Tea Party’s wounded sense of exclusion. “Forgotten man” populism conveyed the irate politics of resentment of precariously positioned Americans against the organized power blocs of modern industrial society: Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government.

Race, Resentment, and the Rise of Conservative Populism

Over the last half century populism has drifted steadily rightward, becoming ever more restorationist and ever less transformative, ever more anti-collectivist and ever less anti-capitalist. What were subordinate themes in the older style populism—religious orthodoxy, national chauvinism, phobic racism, and the politics of fear and paranoia—have come to the fore in our time. At least in broad terms, both the Barry Goldwater and the George Wallace insurgencies of the 1960s displayed this trajectory.

Goldwater, the Arizona senator and 1964 Republican candidate for president, an “insurgent”? Yes, if you keep in mind his condemnation of the too-liberal elite running the Republican Party, who, in his eyes, represented a clubby world of Ivy League bankers, corrupt politicians, media lords, and “one-worlders.” Or consider the way he flirted with the freakish John Birch Society (which called President Dwight Eisenhower a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist Party” and warned of a Red plot to weaken the minds of Americans by fluoridating the water supply).  Or the senator’s alarming readiness to threaten to push the nuclear button in defense of “freedom,” which could be thought of as the Cold War version of “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Above all, Goldwater was the avatar of today’s politics of limited government. In his opposition to civil rights legislation, he might be called the original “tenther”—that is, a serial quoter of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves for the states (or to the people) all powers not expressly granted to the federal government, with which he justified hamstringing all efforts by Washington to rectify social or economic injustice. For Goldwater the outlawing of Jim Crow was an infringement of constitutionally protected states’ rights. Moreover, he was an inveterate enemy of all forms of collectivism, including of course unions and the welfare state.

As the Goldwater opposition sank its grassroots into the lush soil of the Sunbelt, its desire to restore an older order of things was palpable. At a time when New Deal liberalism was the reigning orthodoxy, the senator’s reactionary impulses seemed startlingly adrift from the mainstream, and so strange indeed.

Goldwater’s rebellious constituents were an oddly positioned band of rebels. Unlike the declining middling sorts attracted to the Union Party, they came mainly from a rising Sunbelt stratum, a new middle class significantly nourished by the mushrooming military-industrial complex: technicians and engineers, real-estate developers, middle managers, and mid-level entrepreneurs who resented the intrusion of Big Government while in fact being remarkably dependent on it.

They could be described as reactionary modernists for whom liberalism had become the new communism. How shocking when this Arizona “maverick”—he deserved the label far more than John McCain ever did (if he ever did)—won the Republican nomination in a knock-down brawl with the presidium, led by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, that had run the party until then. Might the Tea Party accomplish something similar today?

Think of Alabama Governor George Wallace as the other missing link between the economic populism of yesteryear and the cultural populism of the late twentieth century. He was all at once an anti-elitist, a populist, a racist, a chauvinist, and a tribune of the politics of revenge and resentment. “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”: a line spoken at his inauguration as governor in 1963 that would be his signature defiance of the civil rights revolution and its alliance with the federal government.  In no uncertain terms, it signaled the militant racism of his bed-rock supporters.

His appeal, however, ran far deeper than that. The whole tenor of his politicking involved a down-home defense of blue-collar America.  Like Huey Long, he was sensitive to the economic predicament of his lowerclass constituents. As governor he favored expanded state spending on education and public health, pay raises for school teachers, and free textbooks. When he ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1968, he called for increases in social security and Medicare. As late as 1972, Wallace increased retirement pensions and unemployment compensation in Alabama.

Yet he championed the hard-hat American heartland by hailing its ethos of hard work and what today would be known as “family values” far more than by proposing concrete measures to assure its economic well-being. Wallace railed against the know-it-all arrogance of “pointy-headed” Washington bureaucrats, the indolence of “welfare queens,”  and the impiety, moral decadence, and disloyalty of privileged long-haired, pot-smoking, anti-war college students.

Bellicose calls for law and order, states’ rights, and a muscular patriotism fueled the revanchist emotions that made Wallace into more than a regional figure. When he ran in the Democratic primaries in 1964 (with the support of the John Birch Society and the White Citizens’ Council), he won significant numbers of votes not only in the Deep South, but in states like Indiana, Wisconsin, and Maryland, a sign of the Southernization of American politics at a time when the spread of NASCAR, country music, and the blues were Southernizing its culture as well.

Wallace’s venture into third-party politics (on the predictably named American Independent Party ticket) terrified the Democrats, who feared the loss of part of their blue-collar base.  He called Vice President Hubert Humphrey, then running for president against Richard Nixon, as well as Northern liberals generally, a “group of god-damned, mealy-mouthed sissybritches”—shades of Senator Joe McCarthy and the 1950s—and he promised to take the gloves off, if elected, and bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age.

Wallace’s popularity revealed a possibility to Nixon and the Republicans denied them since the end of Reconstruction: that, on the road to an Electoral College victory, they might begin to develop a “Southern strategy.” In the meantime, his populist cry that there “was not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democratic and Republican parties” won him ten million votes, 13.5 percent of the total and forty-six votes in the Electoral College. And remember this: a crowd of twenty thousand attended a Wallace rally in 1968 at a sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Don’t Tread on My Taxes

So what does this episodic and checkered history of American populism have to do with the Tea Party?

As a start, the Tea Party movement reminds us that the moral self-righteousness, sense of dispossession, anti-elitism, revanchist patriotism, racial purity, and “Don’t Tread on Me” militancy that were always at least a part of the populist admixture are alive and well.  For all the fantastical paranoia that often accompanies such emotional stances, they speak to real experiences—for some, of economic anxiety, insecurity, and loss; for others, of deeper fears of personal, cultural, political, or even national decline and moral disorientation.

Though such fears and feelings are, in part, legacies of the corporate liberal order—one of the dark sides of “progress” under capitalism— in this new populist moment, anti-capitalism itself barely lingers on. Though outrage at the bank bailout did help propel the Tea Party explosion, anti-big-business sentiment is now a pale shadow of its former self, a muted subtheme in the movement when compared to the Wallace moment, not to mention those of Huey Long or the Populists.

This is hardly surprising since, at least economically, capitalism has, according to recent surveys of Tea Party backers, served many of them reasonably well. Like Goldwater supporters of the 1960s, those who identify with the Tea Party movement are generally wealthier than the population as a whole, and more likely to be employed. They are also apparently better educated, so their fondness for Sarah Palin’s intellectual debilities may be more a case of resentment of bicoastal cultural snobbery than eye-popping ignorance.  However, this profile may mislead us. Within the ranks of fellow white Republicans—which are, after all, their relevant reference group—Tea Party partisans tend to be poorer, economically less secure, and less educated.

Precariously perched in this way, they deploy an exalted rhetoric about threats to liberty which belies a sour, narrow-minded defensiveness against any possible threat of income redistribution that might creep into the body politic . . . and so into their pockets. “Don’t Tread on Me,” once a rebel war cry, has morphed into: “I’ve got mine. Don’t dare tax it.” The state, not the corporation, is now the enemy of choice.

Tea Party populism should also be thought of as a kind of identity politics of the right. Almost entirely white, and disproportionately male and older, Tea Party advocates express a visceral anger at the cultural and, to some extent, political eclipse of an America in which people who looked and thought like them were dominant (an echo, in its own way, of the anguish of the Know-Nothings). A black president, a female Speaker of the House, and a gay head of the House Financial Services Committee are evidently almost too much to bear. Though the anti-immigration and Tea Party movements so far have remained largely distinct (even if with growing ties), they share an emotional grammar: the fear of displacement.

But identity politics aside, Tea Party anger reaches far beyond the ranks of the modest Tea Party movement. It resonates with other Americans who understandably feel that political and economic elites, serving themselves at the expense of everyone else, have failed Americans. The big question is just exactly how (or even if) that private and personal rage gets transformed into moral and political outrage. If the heirs of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater, or the Sarah Palins of today, have their way, the outcome won’t be a tea party.

*This article was originally printed on www.tomdispatch.com

New Labor Forum 19(3): 49-50, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000008