The Tea party has focused public anger at Obama's reforms and forced the political establishment to take note in the run-up to the midterm elections. But is it any more than a knee-jerk response to a Democrat president?by / October 30, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Very conventional: in Michigan, a Tea Party alliance member votes for a candidate to run in the midterm elections on 2nd November
Click here to find out what America would look like if it was run by the Tea party
On 12th September 2009, hundreds of thousands of people gathered for a “taxpayer march” in Washington, DC. Many of them brandished signs: “Socialism is not the answer,” one read, using the style of Barack Obama’s campaign livery. Others painted Obama as the Joker from the Batman movies. Still more quoted the founding fathers, or the US constitution. Handmade, multicoloured, sometimes poorly spelled; all the signs raged at the collapse of America. Welcome to the Tea party.
In the year since, this rabble of libertarians has joined forces with America’s conservative media to build a powerful movement, which has deepened the sense that Obama is an unpopular, failing president. The Tea party claims no formal party allegiance, but it is having an enormous effect on the Republicans. American conservatives saw their onward march checked in 2008, when Obama’s election seemed to herald a liberal moment. But as this prospect has faded, Republican leaders have struggled to respond to the fiscal crisis and rising economic insecurity. The Tea party stepped into the gap.
The movement now exerts a gravitational pull on Republican leaders, who are eager to tap the energy and money flowing from its ranks in advance of the midterm elections on 2nd November. Commentators are even entertaining the notion that the Tea party might propel a hardliner, possibly 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, to the next Republican presidential nomination. So how has this seemingly amateurish, incoherent cause elbowed aside the traditional religious, cultural and business Republican elites in only two years to become the most talked-about force in US politics?
Earlier this year I attended the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC. Held in a grand hotel, CPAC is a must-attend for several thousand sober-suited right-wingers. Stars-and-stripes flags deck the walls, while a golden bust of Ronald Reagan sits near the entrance; there were even two life-size cardboard cutouts of Reagan for those who wanted their photos taken with him.
The conference is a magnet for Republican presidential hopefuls, keen to place well in the straw poll, which asks attendees who they would like to see as the next nominee. The poll was surprisingly won by Ron Paul, a libertarian with Tea party leanings who ran for president in 2008. But even he wasn’t the star turn, and nor was former candidate Mitt Romney or any of the other dozen who think they have a shot at the 2012 Republican nomination. The real draw was a portly, emotional, teetotal Mormon: Glenn Beck. A vastly popular Fox News talkshow host, Beck has done as much as anyone—perhaps even Palin—to champion the Tea party movement.
Elsewhere, the slightly crazed tinge this group has brought to US politics was evident. In the atrium, one delegate wore revolutionary war-era clothing and carried a musket. I chatted to a family of regular CPAC attendees. One of them told me he met Beck last year and the talkshow host hadn’t heard of CPAC; 12 months on, he is the keynote speaker.
The mood is different this year too, I was told. In 2009, Obama had recently taken office and the Republicans were demoralised. People were resigned to “ten years of tyranny,” as one attendee put it. Not so in 2010. The president has pushed through a stimulus plan, a bank rescue, a car industry bailout and is on the way to passing healthcare reforms. But his popularity has sunk, the economy is stagnant and the right now hums with energy—driven by the Tea party.
This summer, the Tea party forced itself further into the political mainstream. In the US, even incumbent senators and congressmen must resecure their party’s nomination before they face the election proper. Those already in office usually win their primaries—but this time, candidates associated with the Tea party have caused upsets, and seven establishment Republicans have been ousted. Most recently, the Tea party’s Christine O’Donnell won the Republican senate primary in Delaware. O’Donnell is a Palin lookalike with no experience in elected office and an embarrassing past (she has dabbled in witchcraft and has said masturbation is a sin). The defeats have left Republicans both rattled and enthused.
In the midterms, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, the lower body of congress, are up for election, along with one third of the 100 senate seats. Both houses of congress are in Democratic hands; the Republicans aim to capture both, and thus be in a position to stymie Obama’s legislative programme in the second two years of his term. Even by America’s standards this has been a staggeringly expensive election, with recent estimates that $5bn (£3bn) will be spent by candidates and campaigning groups. The Tea party has boosted fundraising and attracted excitement, energy and attention to the right—and yet it has probably decreased the chances of a Republican triumph. Taking back the senate was always a long shot, but by electing unpolished, staunchly conservative candidates associated with the Tea party, the Republicans are likely to win fewer seats overall than they might otherwise have done.
It was perhaps natural for those organising protests against the newly inaugurated Obama in early 2009 to co-opt the name of the Boston Tea party—the iconic 1773 event when colonists objected to the British taxation of tea by throwing three shiploads into Boston harbour. Yet the protests last year may not have marked the real beginning of the Tea party; some people credit Ron Paul and his supporters. Paul, who would abolish income tax, had invoked the anti-tax sentiments of the Boston tea party before.
Jenny Beth Martin has a more precise moment in mind: Friday 20th February 2009, at 7.30pm. The day before, journalist Rick Santelli launched into a tirade on the television channel CNBC, mocking Obama’s proposals to prevent property foreclosures as a plan to “subsidise losers’ mortgages.” Santelli said that he would organise a tea party in protest.
To Martin, a 39-year-old mother who used to work in a DIY store, and her circle of friends in Georgia, Santelli’s words were a call to arms: “We decided we should have a conference call that night. There were 22 of us on that call, and we said we were going to ask people to host tea parties.” She was taken aback by the response: “We thought we would be able to organise between five and ten, but we organised 48 in the next five days, with 35,000 people in attendance.”
Martin ended up as co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, perhaps the most intriguing of the myriad organisations that have sprung up. In April 2009, some 750 Tea party protests were held on the day on which Americans pay their income tax. More were held on independence day in July, with the taxpayers’ march in Washington following in September.
Santelli’s attack is credited as the spark for a middle-class protest movement forged in response to the economic crisis. A New York Times/CBS poll in April found that the 18 per cent of Americans who backed the Tea party were wealthier and better educated than average, and largely white, elderly conservatives. As polling from the Pew Research Center shows, they are united in the view that government has “too much power and control over their lives.”
Some of the Tea party’s supporters are orthodox libertarians. But most are less ideological, united instead by a distrust of America’s political and business elite. Their demands show little coherence: lower taxes, but also lower government debt; worries about jobs, but protests against government action to boost demand and preserve the banking system. The combination of economic hard times and bank bailouts, stimulus packages and healthcare reforms, was the catalyst for action.
David Frum, a former speechwriter to George W Bush and an eloquent voice for moderate conservatism, explains to me that the Tea party offers “an explanation of President Obama’s failure that makes sense within pre-existing US ideology. The mainstream of this country never absorbed the Keynesian revolution, so these are people who think that if you have lots of debt, it doesn’t make sense to make more of it.” Equally, the movement’s potency stems from broader failures in a US economy which has been generating declining real incomes for the majority, creating a deepening gap in income and esteem between the educated bicoastal professional elite who voted for Obama, and the middle Americans who did not.
Yet it would be a mistake to see the Tea party in purely economic terms. Below the surface, the movement shares much of the worldview of its conservative predecessors. Few Tea partiers, and virtually none of those Republicans claiming their mantle, think the government should be neutral on abortion. Race, too, plays a part. Some notable early attendees were the “birthers,” who believe that Obama was born outside the US and is therefore ineligible to be president—a view that polls suggest close to one fifth of Americans might harbour. These are not the old-fashioned racists of a generation ago, but resentment remains a factor. A University of Washington survey found that three quarters of Tea party supporters agree that “if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites,” compared to just a third of the US population as a whole.
All of these economic, cultural and racial factors create anxiety; a feeling of a changing country exacerbated by a black president, a rapidly diversifying ethnic make-up, an uncertain footing within the social hierarchy, and a weak economy. Against this backdrop it seems less surprising that the Tea party cleaves to traditional symbols: an extraordinary veneration for the constitution, a belief in investing in gold, and a cold war-era suspicion of socialism.
But disconcertingly for those Republicans trying to channel this anger, this is also a movement that has no obvious leaders. America’s old religious right organised in mega-churches, headed by charismatic televangelists, and spawned wealthy institutions such as the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family. But Jenny Beth Martin says neither she nor her organisation’s cofounder, Mark Meckler, should be seen as leaders of their movement. The Tea Party Patriots, she says, merely co-ordinate a network of 1,500 activists, and they in turn have involved some 15m Americans: “That is who our leaders are. We aren’t leaderless—we have anywhere from 1,500 to 15m leaders.” In September, journalist Jonathan Rauch argued in the National Journal that “a political movement based on such radical decentralisation has never been tried on so large a scale.”
Although known for protesting in parks, the Tea party is a technologically savvy organisation that conducts business through Skype and the social networks Facebook and Ning. Ralph Benko, a conservative internet guru and Tea party supporter, explains: “There are 200 regional leaders who gather by conference call once a week, and they discuss ideas and see if there is genuine enthusiasm for doing things. These regional leaders then get in touch with different chapter heads, and they are the ones who are getting together the meetings and rallies.” And rather than seeking involvement in national politics, these groups focus on local campaigns.
This grassroots model, embodied by the Tea Party Patriots, is the story the movement likes to tell about itself. But there is another side; one much closer to the formal institutions of the Republican party. Tea Party Express, a fundraising organisation run by Republicans in California, has raised an estimated $5.2m for its candidates. Another, Tea Party Nation, ran a glitzy national convention the week before CPAC, charging attendees $549 each, and reportedly paid Sarah Palin $100,000 to be the keynote speaker.
And even these more professional groups are overshadowed by another established player crucial to the Tea party’s success: the media—especially Rupert Murdoch’s television channel Fox News. Along with talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Fox has supported the Tea party since its early days by talking up its public meetings and provides a steady stream of material to fuel the indignation of its members. Its power was shown starkly this September when Glenn Beck hosted a “restoring honour” rally in Washington. Estimates of the size of the crowd varied from 75,000 to 1m—no other Tea party event has attracted anything approaching those numbers.
It is this combination of a technologically-enabled protest movement and partisan media outlets that gives the Tea party a power not wielded by its right-wing antecedents. Both sides reinforce each other—the protestors give Fox a popular grievance to champion; the channel provides the protestors with a platform they would otherwise lack. As Frum says: “America is seeing the rebirth of something we haven’t seen since before the second world war, a party press in which powerful media organisations exist only to promote one party.”
Yet even with the support of Fox, the likelihood of the Tea party becoming a permanent fixture of America’s political scene seems slim. Economic recovery will see the anger subside. An independent Tea party presidential candidate is plausible, but the electoral system is heavily biased against third parties. More likely is a gradual absorption into the Republican mainstream. The US right has a track record of integration. The party of Eisenhower made room first for Barry Goldwater’s conservative revolution, then the Christian coalition. Now the same thing is happening again—with politicians like Palin styling themselves as leaders of, and beholden to, this new movement.
Despite its origins in the recent recession, the Tea party has a familiar feel; it is an example of what sociologist Richard Hofstader, writing in Harper’s magazine in 1964, called “the paranoid style in American politics.” Hofstader noted how right-wing movements often coalesced around the feeling that “the old American virtues had already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism had been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers”—just as the Tea party rages against Wall Street or plans to make citizens buy health insurance.
Plus, conservative uprisings reliably emerge in the years after Democratic presidential victories. John F Kennedy’s win in 1960 was followed by the rise of Goldwater’s movement, the spirit of which is the closest antecedent to the Tea party. Jimmy Carter’s 1976 victory coincided with the first flowering of the religious right, while Bill Clinton’s 1992 election brought the mountain militia movement. And just as Ross Perot’s independent run for president was partly a response to the failures of the first President Bush, so the Tea party is also a response to the failures of the second.
In the hotel bar back at CPAC I talked to Republican Grover Norquist, known for his weekly strategy meetings that bring together Washington’s bigwig conservatives. Norquist told me the Tea party has become “a huge asset” in his push to get more Republicans elected. But he backs the idea that the movement began because the mainstream party was no longer the authentic conservative voice of protest against Obama—a problem he blames on the previous Republican president.
“We started to win again only when we got Bush out of the way,” said Norquist. “Bush was a rat head in the Coke bottle. It damages your brand when you are saying ‘Buy Coke!’ but people know the last one had a rat head in it.” Citing the president’s expansion of government and occupation of Iraq, he continued: “Bush was not a conservative, which is kind of surprising, because he led us to believe that he might be.” This is a widely held view in conservative circles. Amid the many bumper stickers for sale at the conference, one that caught my eye read: “George W Obama.”
It seems the long-term impact of the Tea party will be twofold: the Republican party will move right, and the US government will work even less well. If the Republicans do take the House, congress will be even more divided than over the past two years. And if the Tea party and its media backers stay vocal, the chances of a moderate winning the 2012 Republican presidential nomination will be diminished too. Candidates will have to tack to the right, as Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have already done. And behind them stands Sarah Palin, who over the past year has built up an impressive record of endorsing winning candidates and raising money. She also has a communication style—a blend of Facebook and Fox News—which is ideally suited to the Tea party moment.
But perhaps those who will find life most difficult will be Republican moderates like David Frum, whose ideas look to outside eyes like the obvious future for the American right: marrying smaller government with social tolerance and a willingness to engage thoughtfully on the environment, immigration and globalisation. At the time of Obama’s victory Frum published a book, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, against a backdrop of Republican reverses. “Through much of the time I was writing I felt like a financial writer trying to cover the 1929 crash: the bad news kept overtaking my grimmest predictions,” he admits. In the age of the Tea party, the bad news is likely to keep coming—and a comeback for moderate Republicanism looks some way off.
Click here to find out what America would look like if it was run by the Tea party