The founder of one of the country's largest tea party groups* is on a quite roll, refusing yesterday to back down from earlier Islamophobic statements about Rep. Keith Ellison. In his stubbornness, Judson Phillips has cemented beyond any remaining doubt that the tea party is a movement grounded in the most base kind of racist politicking.
On Saturday, Phillips posted on his blog calling for voters to oust Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison in part because he's a Muslim. In an email to his supporters yesterday Phillips, who leads the Nashville-based Tea Party Nation, wrote that Ellison's religion was not itself reason enough to vote him out, but then went on to argue the opposite, writing that Ellison's "beliefs define his character" and "[d]o we want someone who supports and defends the Constitution or someone who supports the imposition of a theocracy?"
Ellison responded to the claims in a short Washington Post piece, writing:
I know that some don't share my political views. This is OK. In America, we cherish our diversity of views. But an American's religion is their own business and no one should be excluded based on considerations like religion, race, sex, etc.
In September, I interviewed Ellison for Colorlines. He told me that he sees the recent surge in Muslim bashing as just the latest iteration of a kind of scapegoating that's always been a feature of American politics. "In the early 1960s," he said:
you had people scapegoating Catholics, saying we can't have Kennedy be the president because then the pope will running the country. Of course we have a long history of scapegoating Jews as well. And we have a long history of racial discrimination and scapegoating. We've seen conservatives and people who want to keep America for people who have traditionally benefited. We've seen these elements scapegoat. We remember Reagan talking about welfare queens. He scapegoated single moms who are poor and tried to say that America's problems are because of them. And then George Bush said, "Well no, the problems are not because of them, but because of black men like Willie Horton and liberals like Dukakis, who let these guys run around." And then we went from there to, "Well the problem is with the gays, they're the problem. They're trying to get married and they're causing the problem." And then it's because of the Latinos, they're taking our jobs.
There is always a scapegoat de jour when fearful people blame the problems of society on a distinct groups that usually does not have much political power.
Ellison's perspective and calm are a welcome counter weight to the raging tea party hate that's been allowed to enter legitimate political debate.
*A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Tea Party Nation as the largest tea party group.