by New Worker correspondent
IMAGINE an organisation somewhere between the right wing of the Conservative Party and the British National Party, with 220,000 enrolled members, hundreds of thousands of active supporters and backed by an estimated 17-19 million people. Welcome to the Tea Parties.
Imagine a state where the police can stop and question anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant or a town where illegal immigrants are now formally “banned”. Welcome to how the immigration debate is playing out in the United States.
Imagine a society where there are uniformed and heavily armed gangs of racist extremists patrolling the streets and the border areas, seeking out and sometimes shooting people they suspect of being illegal immigrants. Welcome to the Minutemen.
Imagine a country in which 932 hate groups were active last year. Welcome to the Unites States of America in 2010.
American anti-fascist and human rights campaigner Devin Burghart recently toured Britain speaking to anti-fascists on the growth of the extreme rightwing and racist mass anti-Obama movement that has mushroomed in the United States and how American anti-fascists intend to counter it, with a mass grass-roots campaign based on the same principles as the Hope Not Hate campaign in Britain.
The speaking tour was organised by the Hope Not Hate/Searchlight anti-fascist group and the meetings, in Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester and London were chaired by Searchlight leading campaigner Matthew Collins.
Devin began by explaining differences between US and British politics. Firstly, he said, the US came into being with the original sin of racism – the slavery, especially of the southern states: “It is woven into the fabric of our culture; slavery was written into our original constitution.
“Since then, there has always been a sense of guilt among progressive political activists and a continuing effort to make up for that bad beginning.”
Secondly, he said, religion plays a far greater role in politics and life generally; the majority consider themselves to be religious and Christianity is the main religion. Religion in the United States has a political dimension that it does not have in Britain.
Thirdly, the dominance of the two-party political system creates an insurmountable barrier to aspiring third parties. Special interest groups and single-issue campaigns spend most of their efforts as pressure groups trying to influence the big two – the Democrats and the Republicans.
And that is why those two big parties both encompass a wide range of political views and are often internally divided on issues.
And fourthly, money plays a far bigger role in US politics than it does here. Each of the main parties spends many times as much on local state election campaigns than all of Britain’s political parties together spent on the last general election here.
In nationwide elections they spend billions of dollars – but all that spending brings very little change.
“The big problem is,” said Devin, “That the ultra-Right have out-campaigned the Left at grass-roots level. They have beaten the Left in the areas where they should be strongest – trade union rights, environmental issues, women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights and Native American rights; where they have been plugging their anti-immigration policies with some success.
“At the same time, like your New Labour here, the Democrats have virtually abandoned grass roots campaigning and door-to-door local work.”
The notorious racist Governor George Wallace of Alabama in the 1960s, 70s and 80s failed to get elected as President despite putting himself forward four times – but he did teach the extremist racist Right how to use the white middle class, and how to avoid overtly racist language but use a coded language instead.
The racists abandoned lynchings and cross-burnings and set out to re-invent themselves in a more acceptable form. The Ku Klux Klan took off their white sheets and put on suits and threw themselves into face-to-face campaigning – picking up on the issues that mattered to local communities. And they started to use the new media to win recruits.
Former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke succeeded in being elected as Louisiana State Representative for a partial term, though he failed to be elected as State Senator.
At this point Devin recommended to the meeting the book Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream by Leonard Zeskind and published by McMillan, which covers the efforts of the racists and fascists to make themselves acceptable to the mainstream – much in the same way that the British National Party tried to do here.
Devin continued, saying that progressive immigration policy in recent decades has changed the US demographic and the ultra-Right has used this to create a new nativism based on anti-immigration policies. Their favourite slogan is: “We just want our country back,” though they would be hard pressed to explain just who is supposed to be taking it from them. It is a slogan that appeals to the right-wing middle-aged and elderly, nostalgic for the half-remembered days of their youth.
The events of 11th September 2001 gave a big boost to ultra-Right recruitment and there has been a remarkable growth of the Christian Right. The evangelists have turned religion into a powerful political force.
The TV evangelists, like Jerry Falwell revolutionised the organisation and the fundraising. Their campaigns target abortion rights, gay rights and the teaching of evolution. They attack women’s groups and oppose all liberal gains. And they are getting their candidates elected – with published advice sheets on how to campaign and fight elections.
They now influence national politics and divide the nation on issues such as abortion and gay rights. They have changed the electoral terrain in the mythical Middle America, by preaching to those who have hitherto been outside of politics.
They appeal mostly to the white, middle-aged and middle class. Though they put the odd plumber or other worker on their platforms, they do not really appeal to the hard-up working class.
They have taken control of school boards and banned the teaching of evolution in favour of creationism. They are changing the text books to eliminate the word “slavery” and replacing it with “triangular trade”.
They are portraying the US and its history as exclusively Christian and trying to obliterate all other kinds of thinking. Like the Taliban, they are intent on creating a militant theocracy.
It was this culture that allowed the election of Ronald Reagan and later George W Bush.
The Democrats failed to put in the grass roots work to counter this. There was a bit of a shift when Bill Clinton was elected but he never got a total majority in the Senate; Ross Perot split the Republicans. That is why Clinton could not get his health Bill through.
There was a lot of grass roots work done in the run-up to Obama’s election but this was not done so much by the Democrat Party as by all sorts of pressure groups who wanted Bush out.
And when Obama was elected the far right immediately began working on how to undermine his presidency; the far Right had a resurgence and the political scene polarised.
The extreme Right began the Tea Party movement in 2008 during the presidential election primaries as a protest against the big banking bail-outs – begun under Bush and continued under Obama.
Congressman Ron Paul invited supporters to a tea party in Boston in protest at paying taxes to bail out failing banks. He raised $6 billion in 24 hours.
Then in February 2009, just after Obama’s inauguration, Rick Santelli of CNBC news posted an invitation to a commemorative tea party at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on the website FedUpUSA.
In his rant he blamed the economic crisis on the poor, on people of colour and others he described as “losers” for the economic crisis. He blamed them for creating the housing crash by failing to keep up with their extortionate mortgages. He had the effect of making moderately well-off white people afraid of a malevolent, multicultural mob, seething uncontrolled below them
After that the Tea-Party movement mushroomed. It was supported by the Murdoch-owned Fox News channel and before long thousands of Tea Parties were happening everywhere. The movement has some 220,000 enrolled members and between 17 million and 19 million informal supporters. They have called Obama a “Nazi”, a “socialist” and many other things. They came out in droves to protest at the progress of Obama’s health bill through the legislature – even though that bill will rescue many of them from destitution as the illnesses of old age take hold.
Devin said they were like the vuvuzelas of US politics – making a cacophonous noise of racism and intolerance aimed to drown out intelligent debate and discussion. They shout down all progressive thought.
The US has several different types of right-wing groups – the Christian nationalists, the nationalist and racist supremacists and the anti-immigration groups. But they overlap; they are all demanding they “want their country back”. And they now comprise 16 to 18 per cent of American voters.
Now the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights is working to create a mass grass roots movement to do what Hope not Hate has done in Britain – to campaign door-to-door at grass roots level, taking up local issues and countering the lies put out by the racists and fascists.
This will take a lot of effort but already, among the counter-demonstrations to the Tea Party rallies, there are banners carrying the Hope not Hate logo. It is a good campaign because it appeals to a very wide spectrum. And there is now a small “Coffee Party” movement directly opposing the Tea Parties.