The Washington Post has a lead article today on the nascent Tea Party’s struggle with its “racist” image. As the saying goes, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your facts – and for the Tea Party, the fact is that its political boundaries unfortunately are blurred with extremely racist and offensive elements. Given that the wider PR narrative of Tea Party political and militant extremism is all but written in stone, separating bigotry from the movement’s desired image of fiscal discipline and individual/sovereign independence is a tall order. As the Post article succinctly states, the loosely defined elements of the Tea Party have “no national communications strategy.”
In more practical terms, the movement has yet to score a major political victory. Whether it’s railing against government bailouts, to standing against healthcare legislation, to alienating political candidates it once supported, the Tea Party still seeks that elusive big “win” to generate strong momentum on the political stage.
These setbacks haven’t stopped its members from identifying future opportunities to sway political and policy debates, but here’s the problem – the past political fights have essentially centered on financial reform and entitlements. The legislation or laws in question were more focused on money than social issues – i.e., “we can’t afford bailouts… we can’t afford healthcare…” and so forth.
But the next big policy fights are ones rife with race and ethnicity. Immigration reform is so racially charged that the state of Arizona has become a lightning rod of criticism and boycotts because of its perceived heavy-handed and racist laws. Terrorism and racial-profiling are thrust back into the spotlight thanks to the failed Times Square bomb plot and no-fly list breakdown on Emirates Airlines.
If it can’t scrub its racist image, how can the Tea Party expect to be taken seriously if it attempts to join the debate on these two high-profile issues? And if its members do talk, what risk does the movement run if the bigots within are the ones whose voices speak loudest?
In politics, shedding racist baggage is next to impossible. Indeed, many states in the American south still continue to deal with the ugly and terrifying images of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation. Unless the Tea Party leaders conduct a transparent, thoughtful, sincere soul-searching process that insists on zero tolerance of racist elements, the movement is doomed to novelty status. Purge now, or forever hold your peace.
P.S. One PR tactic that guarantees failure for the Tea Party is claiming that so-called “plants” (i.e., opposition operatives) purposely show up and exhibit cartoonish racist behavior to make Tea Partiers look bad. Appealing to conspiracy theories is a terrible PR strategy and only helps to cement the lunatic, reactionary image of the movement.