Racists, The Tea Party, and Why This Anger Isn't Going Anywhere

As of the NAACP’s recent report on racism in the Tea Party, the media is again abuzz with concern that bigotry is a prime motivator of the movement. We are also being told that the wise American today should worry about a new onslaught of racism.

I doubt both claims. What should depress us most about the Tea Partiers is that they, complete with racist freeloaders as well as an airheaded tantrum masquerading as a political ideology, may never be going away.

Racists in the Tea Party—such as the hate groups that have climbed on to their boat—cling to it like barnacles. It is one of many things that makes the movement distinctly unpretty. But the barnacles are not the boat. Even NAACP head Benjamin Jealous, and Trey Ellis in a representatively alarmed column, cannot avoid admitting that the vast majority of Tea Partiers are not racists. Ross Douthat has chronicled a study showing a mere 5% of placards at a Tea Party rally even referencing the President’s race or religion—and obviously only a fraction of them could be analyzed as specifically “racist.”

Some have supposed that Obama’s race must have something to do with why this aggrieved concern with the size of the government and calls for “taking our country back” whipped up under his administration. Indeed, it didn’t exist under the previous one, even though the bailout began under George Bush, who had also enacted a prescription drug bill that was anathema to small-government free market adherents. But obviously, what has happened under Obama has vastly exceeded those things in degree, with the health care bill especially iconic. An alternate universe scenario is perfectly plausible.

Imagine if John Edwards—with his infidelity problem unrevealed—had won the election and done exactly what Obama has. A similarly aggrieved Tea Party could easily have arisen complete with Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, and endorsements from Sarah Palin – just minus the racially tacky T-shirts, and of less interest to racist hate groups.

The key factor is not racism but the Internet. It allows rapid communication, and more to the point, instant video. It is already easy to forget how new it is to be able to call up video clips instantly. This technology knits like-minded people together across vast distances in a fashion unprecedented in human history, devoid of fact-checkers or space for reflection.

Consider, for example, how avid the support for Howard Dean was so very few years ago—and how hard it can be to recall just what about him in particular led to all of the hype. What created that groundswell, where there was none among the same kinds of people when they were equally appalled about Ronald Reagan, was the Internet. Pointedly, what we recall most about Dean now is The Scream—because it was endlessly re-playable on line.

And the Internet is not going away, which leads me to think about something social scientists have called path dependence, and the way in which it will impact both how Tea Party racism affects our future (not much) and how much of a future the Tea Party overall will have (likely open-ended).

Path dependence refers to how something that now seems normal began with a choice that made sense at a particular time, but has survived despite the eclipse of its original justification. It survives because external factors discourage going in reverse—i.e., habits die hard.

The paradigm example is the clumsy QWERTY keyboard, which started as a way to discourage fast typing when original models tended to jam easily. By the time new typewriters could manage rapid-fire use, no one wanted to learn a new system. Custom dies hard.

Path dependence, I suspect, means that no amount of tacky T-shirts and louche eruptions from people like Carl Paladino will spark a backstep to open bigotry as an American norm. Racism exists, indeed—but “out there,” “underneath,” condemned as morally equivalent to pedophilia when it raises its head. This ideological victory is so deeply embedded that I venture that the past will not come back. There will remain hate “groups,” in contrast to the old days when America was a hate country.

However, path dependence will also mean that this endlessly magnified anger at big government will have no reason to die down, regardless of changes in circumstances. The Tea Party ideology is not, after all, a sober engagement with particulars, as we see from the dearth of meaningful suggestions as to what parts of government could actually be cut, the hazy command of what the Founders believed, and the cartoonish ignorance of the movement’s brightest lights. The Tea Party is a mood, a cathartic kvetch-in, a cyber-conniption.

In a key work on path dependence, sociologist Ronald Aminzade noted its foundation upon “collective memories and rituals,” and those are exactly the kind of thing that an echo chamber of tweets and video clips can keep alive more implacably than was ever possible before.

We must be ready, then, for the Tea Party ideology to congeal as a posture. It will rage on regardless of the state of the economy. It will rage on regardless of taxation rates (given that they will never be maximally low) or the size of the government (given that no electable Republican has ever shrunken it significantly and never could). The Know-Nothings and Father Coughlin knew no Internet; only this is why their followers faded away. We’re in a new world.

The Internet is permanent. Thus, in the logical sense, there is no reason to assume that a movement based on the visceral pleasures of unfocused cynicism and fanned by round-the-clock on-line pep rallies will ever subside. Racists will always be willing fellow-travellers. But in the grand scheme of things, I am more dismayed by the fact that our political discourse will be distorted for good by a contingent who elevate sloppy thinking and playground witch-hunting as progress.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at City Journal and The New Republic and is a lecturer at Columbia University. His latest book is Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: Untold Stories in the History of English.