At a recent extended family gathering a relative of mine asked me, “So what do you think of your President now?” I indicated my firm support, briefly explaining why I thought health care reform was really important and good, and then asked for her opinion. “I don’t know enough [about policies] to say, but he just scares me.” I asked why, expecting something about the deficit or “big government,” but she said, “I don’t know why. He just scares me.” I tried to probe for specific reasons, but she reported that she wasn’t sure and didn’t “want to talk politics.”
I teach my students in undergraduate critical-thinking courses that it is not legitimate to attribute negative motives to people unless you can credibly explain how these motives are related to what the person actually says. This is a particularly important principle, I say, if you disagree with someone – and even more important if you strongly disagree. By that standard, it would be wrong to charge Helen with “racial prejudice,” let alone “racism,” but in the absence of specific reasons to be scared of Barack Obama, it’s also hard to imagine that her fear does not have something to do with his being a black man.
Helen (not her real name) is a white senior-citizen widow living almost entirely on Social Security in a modest one-story house that she owns outright. She never attended college and worked as a clerical worker after she helped raise her three children as a stay-at-home mom. Her husband, who also had no college, was a front-line supervisor in a steel mill now long gone. Later in another fleeting conversation she expressed interest in and sympathy for the Tea Party.
I’ve known Helen most of my life, and I have never heard her use explicitly racist language or express anything but a kind of paternalistic sympathy for the plight of African Americans, with whom she has had almost no experience. There are many nonracial reasons why she would not and did not vote for President Obama. She is a life-long Republican, a small-town Protestant, and in her early ‘70s, somebody who is rooted in a more traditional set of gender roles and family arrangements that Democrats seem dismissive of. But she also lives in an atmosphere that is common among the white working class as I’ve experienced it – an atmosphere infused with a free-floating anxiety that any gains for black people will come at some loss to white folks like her.
This atmosphere is not specific to working-class whites, but my guess is the anxiety is more intense for the working class than among more securely affluent whites. It is this anxious atmosphere of a racial zero-sum game that I suspect informs many of the “supporters” and “sympathizers” of the Tea Party movement, not the boldly explicit racism of the 10% who have told pollsters that “racial prejudice against Barack Obama” is one reason for their support of the movement.
Of course, the class position of the Tea Partiers isn’t clear. Recent polling has revealed somewhat contradictory notions of who they are, with a Gallup Poll finding, “Tea Partiers Are Fairly Mainstream in Their Demographics,” while a New York Times/CBS News poll proclaims, “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated.” Both headlines, it turns out, are both true and deceptive. Both polls show that Tea Partiers on average are whiter, older, and have higher incomes and higher levels of education than the population as a whole, though by somewhat different degrees.
The most widely used demographic class marker for electoral politics is whether a person has a bachelor’s degree – if they do, they’re counted as “middle class,” if not, then “working class.” By this marker, self-identified Tea Party “supporters” are substantially working class, 68% for Gallup and 62% for the Times. This is less than for the population as a whole (which is 70% for persons 25 years or older), but still “fairly mainstream.” Thus, Tea Party supporters are disproportionately middle class, but the majority is working class just like the population as a whole.
Neither white racism nor racial zero-sum anxiety is class exclusive. The real tragedy is that many working-class whites like Helen do not have a clear sense of the actual policy alternatives provided by the Democrats and Republicans. Part of the reason is that our public discussion is allergic to principled debate about public policy. Not that it never occurs, but most often it is framed by politicians’ caricatures of each other’s policies. Meanwhile, political reporters use their expertise not to explain the different policies and who might benefit or be harmed by them but rather to explain the different political tactics behind the caricatures. In the absence of clear reporting about policies as if they might actually matter to real people, Helen can be satisfied to “not know enough” while forming opinions based on vague anxieties related to appearances and antique loyalties.
According to these polls, Tea Party self-identifiers (the vast majority of whom are not active participants in movement activities) are a demographically diverse group of mostly conservatives and Republicans. At somewhere around 20% of the adult population, they are a decided minority of all voters, of all white voters, and of all working-class whites. It is also worth noting that in all national polls, the attitudes and views of Southern whites disproportionately affect the national numbers. In the 2008 Presidential election, for example, only 43% of whites voted for Obama across the nation, but 52% did so in the Northeastern states, 49% in the Western states, and 47% in the Midwest. The national number is so much lower because only 30% of whites in the South voted for the man who scares Helen.