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“The South’s Lesson For The Tea Party”: Will They Reject The Siren Song Of Nativism And Populism?

Last week’s Republican primary in Tennessee resulted in a comfortable win for Senator Lamar Alexander over his Tea Party-backed challenger, State Assembly Representative Joe Carr. But make no mistake: The Tea Party is on a roll across the South, having mounted major primary challenges in Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina, and knocked out Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia.

The movement’s success, with its dangerous froth of anti-Washington posturing and barely concealed racial animus, raises an important question for Southern voters: Will they remember their history well enough to reject the siren song of nativism and populism that has won over the region so often before?

We often think of the typical segregationist politician of yore as a genteel member of the white upper crust. But the more common mode was the fiery populist. Names like Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina and James K. Vardaman and Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi may be obscure outside the South, but for most anyone brought up here, they loom large.

In the early 20th century, these men rose on an agrarian revolt against Big Business and government corruption. They used that energy, in turn, to disenfranchise and segregate blacks, whose loyalty to the pro-business Republican Party made them targets of these racist reformers.

Their activities spawned a second wave of Southern Democratic populists, who defied federal court orders and civil rights legislation during the 1960s, even as more moderate politicians were moving on. Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama, among others, portrayed himself as a tribune of the working class while championing segregation.

It’s hard not to hear echoes of those eras today. Tea Party candidates have targeted federal taxes and spending, while attacking Chamber of Commerce interests and the leadership of the Republican Party. Racism has been replaced with nativism in their demands for immigration restrictions, but the animosity toward the “other” is the same. And there remains a whiff of the ancient fumes of bitter-end resistance: Chris McDaniel, a state senator who took Senator Thad Cochran into a runoff in Mississippi, still refuses to accept the validity of the election.

Mr. McDaniel had all the bona fides of an old-time demagogue. He was once a conservative radio talk show host who dabbled in ethnic innuendo. He made appearances before neo-Confederate organizations. When Mr. Cochran solicited votes in the runoff from black Mississippians, Mr. McDaniel’s supporters vowed to monitor polling places in black-majority precincts, a move reminiscent of old-fashioned Election Day intimidation.

Tea Party spokesmen, as well as the Republican establishment, complain that the movement was unfairly trumped by a race card. Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster working for Mr. Alexander, says the movement isn’t racist, but rather it represents people “who are economically pressed, who feel betrayed, who feel leaders in Washington caused their housing values to decline, for their retirement accounts to plummet.”

But that’s precisely the point, and the hope, for those worried about the Tea Party insurgency. What looks like a mounting wave may have reached its crest this year, running up against the many Southerners — white and black, liberal and conservative — who know well how such passions were once perverted by demagogues.

It’s trite to recall William Faulkner’s line about the past not being the past, but Southerners do remember their history: A considerable body of literature about the populist rebellion was once required reading in college for a generation of Mississippians old enough to remember the second reactionary period 50 years ago.

In “The Mind of the South,” still in print seven decades after it was published, W. J. Cash wrote that populist forces in the region were driven by “the rage and frustration of men intolerably oppressed by conditions which they did not understand and which they could not control.” And A. D. Kirwan’s 1951 history, “Revolt of the Rednecks,” traced the political rise of the Mississippi racists Vardaman and Bilbo to the disillusionment of white farmers who felt “forgotten” and singled out by “an enemy class” of Wall Street speculators and railroad owners backed by big government. The economic struggle, Kirwan wrote, was “complicated by the Negro,” who became a victim of the politicians’ zeal to prevent blacks from holding any power.

Education became their whipping boy. A century ago, the first wave of populist demagogues withheld funds for poor, segregated schools and tried to purge college faculties of nonbelievers. The second wave, citing “states’ rights,” threatened to shut schools rather than integrate and denounced federal aid to education as a sinister investment. In the Cochran-McDaniel race, you could hear that same strain in Tea Party criticisms of the federal government, of federal aid to education and of the “establishment.”

Over a century ago, demagogues did more than anyone to impose the system of strict segregation that lasted until the 1960s. The second wave, though successful in some places, was turned back in others, by moderate, middle-class Southern whites who were tired of seeing their region isolated and stigmatized. With Mr. Cantor’s loss, Mr. Cochran’s narrow survival and Mr. Alexander’s clear victory, we are faced with an open, and very unsettling question: Which way will the South go this time?


August 14, 2014 Posted by | Racism, Tea Party, The South | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Don’t Count Primaries In The Short Run”: The Tea Party Is Still A Powerful Force In GOP Politics

Liberal-friendly media outlets have been running obituaries for the Tea Party almost from the moment the grassroots conservative movement began in 2009. Tea Party anger over ObamaCare and corporate bailouts helped fuel a surprise Republican wave in 2010, shocking most pundits, as the House of Representatives shifted firmly into the GOP’s control. But then the movement fell short in 2012, and ever since then, much of the media have once again seemed eager to pronounce the Tea Party either dead or irrelevant — missing the larger point, and the larger impact. And the media’s Tea Party misfire will surely continue today, now that longtime Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts has emerged victorious over conservative challenger Milton Wolf in Tuesday’s GOP primary.

Or take, for instance, this year’s Mississippi Senate primary. The Republican incumbent, Thad Cochran, has a long reputation for pork-barrel politics and down-home pandering, neither of which has endeared him to small-government conservatives. The competitive challenge from Chris McDaniel came as a shock to Cochran and his supporters, who believed they could get one more easy ride back to the Senate from the seven-term senator in one of the friendliest states for Republicans. Instead, McDaniel narrowly edged Cochran in the initial vote, and narrowly lost the runoff — although McDaniel is contesting the results. To win the runoff, Cochran had to appeal to an unusual constituency: Democrats.

But in most states where incumbents faced challenges from Tea Party activists, the incumbents have had to defend their conservative credentials. Two key Senate GOP leaders had to fend off challengers with more effort than they have probably expended in several cycles put together. National Republican Senatorial Committee chair John Cornyn defeated a sitting House member, Steve Stockman, in the March primary in Texas, but it wasn’t easy; Cornyn got 59 percent of the vote, a decent enough showing, but hardly a ringing endorsement, even after Cornyn vigorously defended his brand of conservatism in the Lone Star State.

Mitch McConnell in Kentucky found himself in the hot seat, too. The Senate minority leader often runs afoul of Tea Party activists for his efforts to find compromise on issues when the grassroots want confrontation. McConnell won his Senate primary by 25 points over a first-time challenger, whose campaign ended up collapsing under its own weight. But first, Matt Bevin forced McConnell to shift to the right and get more defiant, at least rhetorically speaking.

Most Republican incumbents knew to move to the right well before the primary campaign; Lindsey Graham began laying the groundwork two years ago for his re-election effort, which paid off this spring in an easy win over six challengers. But not everyone got the memo. The biggest surprise came in the primary for Virginia’s 7th congressional district, where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was expected to win easily. Cantor certainly expected it, spending most of his campaign fundraising outside of the district and barely engaging in his own race. Dave Brat, a local college professor with no electoral experience but with plenty of grassroots support, spent less on his whole campaign than Cantor spent on steakhouses — and ended up beating Cantor by double digits.

This dynamic — of conservative challengers, win or lose, forcing longtime incumbents to be more conservative — seems to be lost on the media. This week, both CBS News and The Hill ran Tea Party obituaries. CBS called this week’s primaries “the Tea Party’s last gasp this year,” while The Hill said that the movement’s Senate hopes will surely “fade.” And in the moment, that might well be true.

But look: The true test of the Tea Party won’t be in primary victories this week or this year, but in the impact of the conservative grassroots movement on the Republican Party. We have already seen incumbents who have rarely if ever had to deal with intraparty challengers shift their focus and message in response. The lack of banner wins in 2012 certainly didn’t persuade most of these incumbents to dismiss that pressure — in fact, the ones who succeeded most were the ones who prepared soonest and most vigorously.

When the New Left brand of progressivism arose in the 1960s, its candidates didn’t win a lot of elections at first either. It took two decades for the pressure of the movement to shift the center of the Democratic Party away from its traditional, blue-collar liberalism. In the late 1980s, the trend worried Democrats enough to form the Democratic Leadership Council to push back and recruit moderates to run for office, the most successful of which was Bill Clinton in 1992. By 2008, his wife blew her opening for the presidential nomination in part by falling short of the progressive credentials of Barack Obama.

The lesson here is not to count primaries in the short run. Look for the way incumbents have to defend their record and wait for the grassroots to produce change organically over the long run.


By: Edward Morrissey, The Week, August 6, 2014


August 11, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Right Wing, Tea Party | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Wins When It Wins, Wins When It Loses”: The Tea Party May Be Losing Races, But It’s Actually Winning

While there are still a few primaries remaining this year, yesterday saw one of the last seemingly vulnerable prominent Republicans, Kansas senator Pat Roberts, prevail over his Tea Party opponent by eight points — not an easy victory, but not a nail-biter either. GOP House incumbents facing challenges from the right also won their races. Over the course of this primary season, the Tea Party has been able to claim only one significant victory, unseating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

From that, you might conclude that the Tea Party is waning, beaten back by a Republican establishment determined to rid itself of this meddlesome faction. But the truth is that in some ways the movement continues to get stronger.

The Tea Party wins when it wins, and it wins when it loses. Five years after it began and long after many people (myself included) thought it would fade away, it continues to hold the GOP in its grip. For a bunch of nincompoops prancing around in tricorner hats, it’s quite a remarkable achievement.

Republican incumbents found a variety of ways to overcome Tea Party challenges this year. Roberts did it with some old-fashioned opposition research — if his opponent, a radiologist, hadn’t posted gruesome X-rays of his patients on Facebook, he might well be on his way to the Senate. Lindsey Graham got conservative primary voters to look past some occasional moderation by going on TV every day to enact a kabuki of outrage at Barack Obama’s alleged betrayal of America on Benghazi, Syria, and whatever else he could think of. Thad Cochran expanded the electorate, exploiting a quirk in Mississippi election law that allowed him to convince Democrats to vote in his runoff.

The only one who didn’t succeed was Cantor, and that was largely because he ignored the threat until it was too late. But just about every time, what the incumbent had to do in order to win ended up strengthening the Tea Party, usually because it involved moving to the right (at least rhetorically, if not substantively) to survive. Even Cochran could end up helping them in the end, by convincing them that the only way they can be beaten is through sneakiness and ideological treason. Tea Partiers now look at Mississippi and see only a reason to keep up the fight.

That’s the magic of an insurgent movement like the Tea Party. A win strengthens it by showing its members that victories are possible if they fight hard enough. And because the movement has organized itself around the idea of establishment Republican betrayal, its losses only further prove that it’s doing the right thing. Furthermore, if ordinary Republicans have to become Tea Partiers to beat Tea Partiers (even if only for a while), the movement’s influence is greater, not less. Ed Kilgore noted a couple of the things Roberts had to do in order to win:

He voted against an appropriations measure that included a project he had long sought for his alma mater, Kansas State University, and opposed a UN Treaty banning discrimination against people with disabilities over the objections of his revered Kansas Senate predecessors Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum.

So they may not have replaced Roberts with a Tea Partier, but by making him afraid enough to move to the right, they did the next best thing.

As I said, I used to think this movement was going to wither and die. Today though, it’s hard to see its power waning anytime soon. If it ends up winning even when it loses at the polls, there’s no reason why it can’t go on for a long time, so long as it finds enough support within the Republican base and enough incumbent Republicans who fear it.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; Published at The Plum Line, The Washington Post, August 6, 2014

August 7, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Right Wing, Tea Party | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“They’ll Be Waiting A Long Time”: The Illusory Conservative Campaign For The “Right” Minority Voters

I’ve been pretty harsh about the racial aspects of Team Chris McDaniel’s argument that the MS GOP SEN runoff was “stolen” from him. But let’s bend over backwards to be fair and adopt Dave Weigel’s interpretation of what hyper-conservatives mean when they complain about the “wrong kind” of appeals to African-Americans:

The Tea Party, a movement that helped elect Allen West to Congress and helped make Herman Cain—Herman Cain!—a presidential contender, and wants to elect Mia Love to Congress in Utah, believes that conservatives can win black votes while remaining conservative. When West talks about escaping “the liberal plantation,” that’s what he means. The “racist” party is the one that wins black votes by promising largesse, and the colorblind party aims to win them by talking free markets and social values.

Taking this seriously, of course, means ignoring the thousands of dog whistles blown during the endless Tea Party efforts to demonize “looters” and “food stamps” and “voter fraud”–and of course, the first African-American president. There’s no binary choice on the table either to offer minority voters “largesse” or to attack their integrity, work ethic, and even patriotism for participating in federal programs when they qualify for them. The whole “plantation” meme beloved particularly of African-American conservatives is an ongoing insult bordering on a blood libel, which is why you don’t find many African-Americans supporting Allen West or Herman Cain.

But intentions aside, if conservatives are waiting for the “right” kind of Republican appeal to attract the “right” kind of minority voters, they’ll be waiting a long time. The simple fact is that the already-meager Republican share of the minority vote has been steadily sliding since the GOP began its latest lurch to the Right. George W. Bush won 11% of the African-American vote and 44% of the Latino vote in 2004. In 2008 John McCain won 4% of the African-American vote and 31% of the Latino vote, and in 2012 Mitt Romney won 6% of the African-American vote and 27% of the Latino vote. That’s a pretty calamitous decline, and any conservative unwilling to admit that endless GOP attacks on “redistribution” and “illegal immigrants” and “welfare” has nothing to do with that is either dishonest or smoking crack.

Check out the language in this tweet over the weekend from McDaniel campaign manager (and state legislator) Melanie Sojourner, made in the course of saying she’d never endorse the “race-baiting” Thad Cochran:

Throughout my campaign and since I’ve repeatedly made comments about how I felt the Republican Party was doing itself a disservice by not reaching out to conservative African-Americans. Where I’m from, in rural Mississippi, I grew up knowing lots a [sic] God-fearing, hard-working, independent conservative minded African-American family’s [sic]. On the McDaniel campaign we had two young men from just such family’s on our staff.

Sojourner’s idea of “outreach” seems to be to wait for minority voters to develop sufficient character to vote for the GOP exactly as it finds it today. That presumably means accepting conservatives have been right all along–dating back to Jim Crow–about the evil nature of the Welfare State and a federal government large and strong enough to support civil rights laws.

Do people like this really believe in their heart of hearts they’re being “color-blind?” I cannot peer into their souls, but it’s no more or less plausible than the constant complaints from southern white conservatives I heard growing up that segregation was good for both races. Lord knows anything’s better for African-Americans than being consigned to the plantation of dependence on Washington for help in feeding one’s kids and gaining access to health care and keeping open threadbare public schools and securing the right to vote. Perhaps if the GOP becomes even more conservative the great minority voting breakthrough will finally occur.


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, July 8, 2014

July 9, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Minority Voters, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Running Ethically In Mississippi”: With So Much At Stake, Can Travis Childers Walk The Tightrope?

Travis Childers, who served as a Democrat in Congress from May 13, 2008 to January 3, 2011, was never my kind of Democrat, but I am okay with that. I would not expect great things from him if he were to win a six-year term in the U.S. Senate representing the state of Mississippi. On most contentious issues, I’d expect him to vote with the Republicans in a (probably) vain effort to save his hide in his bid for reelection.

What interests me about this race is the ethics. It’s pretty clear that the Republican Party is badly split between supporters of incumbent Thad Cochran, who is a decent fellow, and his challenger state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who runs in neo-confederate circles and has the support of an extreme Tea Party faction. This wedge pre-exists anything Childers might do to exploit it. If Childers can convince a significant percentage of McDaniel supporters to vote for him, he can actually win this seat, but it is not clear how he can go about doing that without leveraging the racism that is at the core of opposition to Cochran.

Cochran was expected to lose his run-off with McDaniel but exceeded expectations by convincing a not inconsiderable number of black voters to back him. The Tea Party faction is claiming that a lot of these black voters violated the law by voting in the Republican run-off after voting in the Democratic primary. That issue can be settled in court, but regardless of legal merits, Cochran’s open solicitation of black votes is seen as dirty pool by McDaniel’s supporters who think that a Republican primary should be decided by exclusively Republican voters regardless of what the law specifies.

Travis Childers has the option of exacerbating this racial tension for his own political advantage, but this would be the wrong thing to do. Yet, if he doesn’t do it, he will almost certainly lose. In fact, even if he does do it, he will probably lose.

Democrats in Washington are watching the feud cautiously, not yet convinced it will put even Mississippi in play. The Democratic nominee, Mr. Childers, has raised little money and was always seen as a good candidate against Mr. McDaniel but as a marginal one against Mr. Cochran.

Conservative activists are not so sure. Dwayne Hall, vice president of the Miller County Patriots, a Tea Party group in Texarkana, Ark., says he has set up a Google alert for the McDaniel-Cochran fight and emails his network of fellow activists all the news from Mississippi.

“I’m no longer a member of the Republican Party, and I’d expect a lot of my fellow patriots to resign, too,” he said, adding: “I’m perfectly willing to do a protest vote in November if that’s my best option. I’m keeping that option open.”

So, how can Childers convince people like Dwayne Hall to advocate on his behalf without dirtying himself with the racial politics of it all? Childers needs to nurture that “protest vote,” but he doesn’t want to shame himself in the process. So far, he’s walking the tightrope.

The turmoil has given Mr. Cochran’s Democratic challenger, former Representative Travis Childers, an opening to exploit the divide in what is otherwise seen as a race in which he trails badly. “Senator Cochran does not have the confidence of his state, let alone his own party,” Mr. Childers said.

It won’t be easy to maintain that kind of balance with so much at stake. I hope Childers will be able to look back at his campaign and be proud of how he ran it regardless of the outcome.


By: Martin Longman, Washington Monthly Political Animal, July 6, 2014


July 7, 2014 Posted by | Mississippi, Politics | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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