Want to Understand the Tea Party? Look to How They See Themselves

This map comes from the U.S.Census Bureau (and thanks, Rodger Cunningham, for alerting me to it). It is based on self-reporting on the 2000 census. What is fascinating to me is the number of people who identified themselves simply as “American.” Their location covers almost all of Appalachia and, I suspect, if you took out “African American,” would dominate the entire old Confederacy (except for Texas and the south of Florida).

These are primarily people of European ancestry who see themselves as simply “American,” with no ties to other nations or other cultures. They do not descend from post-Civil War immigration; ties to any “old country” were broken long ago, probably even before the age of steam. Many of them are associated with the Borderer culture that rose between Scotland and England and that was hardened on Ulster Plantation in the 17th century, either by descent or incorporation–and all of them see themselves as being the “real” Americans who created the United States.

They do not feel that they have been treated well by the federal government, of late. In fact, they may never have felt themselves treated well (they were the rebels of the War of the Regulation in the 1760s and the Whiskey Rebellion thirty years later–not to mention, many were the stalwarts of the Confederate States of America, though few would have been counted among the rich slave owners). In The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth, I quote Albert Votaw, writing in Harper’s about them in 1958, at a time when a number of them had moved north to work in the factories of Illinois, Ohio and Michigan:

These farmers, miners, and mechanics from the mountains and meadows of the mid-South–with their fecund wives and numerous children–are, in a sense, the prototype of what the “superior” American should be, white Protestants of early American, Anglo-Saxon stock; but on the streets of Chicago they seem to be the American dream gone berserk. This may be the reason why their neighbors often find them more obnoxious than the Negros or the early foreign immigrants whose obvious differences from the American stereotype made them easy to despise. Clannish, proud, disorderly, untamed to urban ways, these country cousins confound all notions of racial, religious, and cultural purity. (quoted in Cult 193)

Faced with attitudes like this (and it was–and is–commonplace), is there any wonder that the Borderers have turned the tables, rejecting anyone but themselves as the “real” Americans? I think not.

To them, America has never consisted of a federation of states but was forged by the white people who escaped the financial and social tyranny of the East Coast and, as they moved West, created a new culture and new land. From their first arrival in the 18th century, they were the people of the backcountry–which in those days included almost all but the coastal parts (and the areas along the major rivers) of Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas. They weren’t welcome in Philadelphia (the biggest number of them coming to America through the Delaware Valley) or in any of the established cities or towns, so they quickly moved West. Though their “base” remains in the Appalachian Mountains, they were among the first moving farther west throughout the 19th century, often establishing the communities that were soon further populated by newer immigrants.

Their descendants today are proud of this heritage, but have seen themselves demeaned by the powerful intellectual and financial elites of the East for generations–their very value as Americans denigrated while newer immigrants–and African Americans–get (in their eyes) the fruit of their own hard labor through government largess–largess made possible through their own taxes (or so they believe). America is being stolen from them, they imagine. Congressman Pete Sessions’ declaration to President Obama, “I cannot stand to even look at you,” is nothing more, in fact, than a declaration of the frustrations so many Borderer descendants feel in face of a President who, through his very appearance, brags (it seems to them) of the theft of America from its “real” inheritors.

These are not simply racists, the contemporary Tea Party, and to call them that continues to process of denigration that has now gone on for three centuries. Their attitudes are much more complex and do, at times, come from real grievances–and not just the imagined ones we know so well. In the East, for example, it is commonplace to speak of “white privilege.” But “white privilege” is not something many of the Borderers have ever experienced. Yes, many of them were better off than the African Americans in their communities, but not much more so. Just look at images from James Agee’s and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; many Appalachian counties did not see indoor plumbing until the 1950s or later. Yes, Borderers could blend into the dominant white culture of the East (and many did–my family among them) and gain “white privilege,” but for many others life was (and is) one of deprivation and desperation.

We’re going through a time, right now, of real cultural divide and hatred. It is showing up in our politics, making our government more and more unworkable. The tendency is, from our nice perches in New York City, Washington, San Francisco, Minneapolis… wherever… to see the Tea Party as the “Other,” as the vicious and horrible. That’s not going to solve anything.

Remember, the Tea Party sees us, the ‘secular-liberals,’ African Americans, Latinos, Jews, and everyone else who has not joined with them, as the “Other,” as the vicious and horrible.

Which side is right? Neither.

Until both can get off their high horses and start seeing things from the perspectives of their enemies, both will continue to be wrong.

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