Tea Party Obsession With Size of Government: Really About Race?

Columbia professor Dorian Warren argues that, in the current heated debate over the federal budget, race deeply shapes our discussion. And it always has, even if no one wants to mention it.

In a piece for ColorLines titled The Long Racial History of the Tea Party's Deficit Trojan Horse, Warren agrees with the popular assessment that the Republican agenda is more about conservative social ideals than it is about spending.

But he says a focus on abortion, the environment or even the deficit actually "misses the long racial history behind the current debate." Instead, he connects what he calls "the political genealogy" of the right's obsession with the size and cost of government directly to America's racist past (and present).

Read some excerpts:

Concern over the size of the federal government has been a rhetorical Trojan Horse for conservatives for centuries. The origins of the American right's hostility to the national government can be found in our young republic's conflict over the institution of racialized slavery. The debate over whether slavery could exist or expand was the defining conflict in American politics from the founding, and its legacy has continued to shape our political discourse ever since.


Supporters of slavery, rooted in the plantation South, sought to defend the wealth their brutality created by limiting the power of the federal government. This gave birth to the euphemistic demand of "states' rights" that would remain a dominant part of national politics all the way through the 20th century. The federal government, they argued, should have limited authority to regulate the South's peculiar institution. It took a bloody Civil War to resolve the issue.

 … The tea party movement's deficit-spending obsession is the ideological grandchild of this limited-government and states' rights ideology. And much like their political ancestors, modern conservatism invokes the bloated government bogeyman to oppose all efforts at racial justice. By undermining the ability of the federal government to raise revenue and targeting what remains of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the right is really seeking to "repeal the 20th century," in Harold Meyerson's apt words.

… So the next time you hear the tea party right arguing for "limited government" and "fiscal responsibility" aimed at reducing the budget deficit, do not be deceived. If conservatives were really concerned, on principle, about the national debt, their silence wouldn't have been so deafening over the first decade of the 21st century, when George W. Bush's tax cuts for the rich and war-making exploded the deficit. Remember that they are the direct political descendants of those who opposed government's role in ending Jim Crow, and the ideological grandchildren of southerners who fought a war to protect the institution of racial slavery. That is the political genealogy of the right's current rhetoric around the purpose and size of the federal government.

Well. President Obama certainly wasn't going to say that in his deficit speech today (although some of us fantasize about a world in which he could do so without risking political devastation).


Did Warren convince you that conservatives continue to fake us out by focusing on the size of government, when their issues have always had a lot more to do with race than meets the eye?

Read more at ColorLines.

In other news: Obama's Big Deficit Speech: 'I Still Believe.'

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