The Left Still Thinks the Tea Party Was All About Racism

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On Wednesday, The New York Times ran a thoughtful retrospective about the tea party movement for its tenth anniversary. Perhaps I should say “obituary,” rather than “retrospective.” The piece suggested the tea party was effectively dead and attacked some tea party leaders as hypocrites, but at least it dealt with the real issues the movement chose to focus on: cutting deficits and government largesse. But liberals claimed even this negative story wasn’t accurate, because it didn’t portray the tea party as racist.


“This [Jeremy Peters] retrospective on the Tea Party’s ‘summer of rage’ ten years ago makes not a single, solitary reference to race or racism. Nor does it acknowledge the reality that a good deal of it involved opposing President Obama because he was black,” Rolling Stone‘s Jamil Smith tweeted.

The Washington Post‘s Wesley Lowery went so far as to call the Times story “journalistic malpractice.”

“How do you write a 10 years later piece on the Tea Party and not mention – not once, not even in passing – the fact that it was essentially a hysterical grassroots tantrum about the fact that a black guy was president?” Lowery asked.

“A fundamental flaw in this analysis is there is no mention of race and how much racism drove the Tea Party movement. You can’t talk about the rage politics and leave out race,” argued NBC News’ chief political analyst, Matthew Dowd.


After all, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has accused the tea party of supporting white supremacy.

Naturally, The New York Times caved to pressure.

Of course, that wasn’t enough. Smith noted that it added one “rubbish” sentence. That sentence:

And as Mr. Obama’s allies saw the movement, its outrage over the debt and deficit had another purpose: giving cover and a voice to those who wanted to attack the first black president — people who in some cases showed up at rallies waving signs with racist caricatures and references.

The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple wrote a story attacking the New York Times article. Wemple, the Post‘s media critic, went so far as to ask the Times if they had any black staffer edit the article!

The Erik Wemple Blog asked a New York Times spokeswoman whether any African American staffers had reviewed the piece prior to publication. She responded that the newspaper would not “get into the process.”


Here’s how The New York Times responded:

Our intent with the story was to look at the spending and deficit policy failures of the Tea Party 10 years after its rise, especially those failures under a Republican president and Republican Senate. The federal budget deficit is growing faster than expected because of President Trump’s spending and tax cut policies; this month the CBO projected that the deficit will widen to $1 trillion for the 2020 fiscal year.

After publishing, we heard from readers who made the point that in a story about the Tea Party and history, race and racism within the Tea Party movement needed to be addressed. While our story was chiefly about deficits and spending, we decided to add context about the Tea Party attacks on President Obama and the racist displays at some Tea Party rallies. We updated the story and sent out a tweet about that update.

In my opinion, Jeremy Peters should have asked the former tea party leaders he interviewed whether or not they thought the movement was racist. They would have told him — flat out — that it was not.

The tea party movement was about holding Washington, D.C. accountable to the people. It was about holding establishment Republicans accountable to decreasing the size and scope of government. It was about fiscal responsibility and reining in the monstrous federal deficit and federal debt. Some of us still believe in these principles, and are sad to see President Trump fail to shrink the deficit, even as he cuts regulations and fulfills other conservative promises.


As the Federalist’s David Harsanyi rightly pointed out, tea party activists were just as angry with the wealthy white leader of Congress — Nancy Pelosi — as they were at the black president, Barack Obama. They were also angry at the white former president, George W. Bush, for selling out on fiscal conservatism. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) accused a tea party crowd of calling him ugly names and spitting on him while he walked with Pelosi. There were cameras that day, and no one was able to find evidence to back up his claim.

I raised money for tea party candidates in 2014, hoping those small government candidates would beat the Republican establishment sell-outs who kept the deficit high and refused to stand up for the Originalist plain meaning of the Constitution. Every single one of the Republicans we hoped to unseat was white.

The tea party movement helped energize Republicans, leading to victories in the House and Senate, and ultimately the White House. Many of the promises of that movement have remained unfulfilled — even Obamacare stands today, and The New York Times was right to note the mounting deficits. True change in Washington is hard, and while Trump has fulfilled many important promises — Originalist Supreme Court justices, cutting regulations, defending the sanctity of life, reversing the Obama administration’s rejection of science on transgender issues — he has so far failed to curb the growth of the federal debt.


The New York Times may have published an obituary for the tea party, but I don’t think the movement is dead. Time will tell, but I suspect we fiscal hawks will come back at some point. One thing is certain, however: the tea party was never racist, even if the left is anxious to paint it that way.

Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.


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