More than three centuries ago, the residents of America staged a rebellion against an oppressive ruler who taxed them unjustly, ignored their discontents and treated their longing for freedom with contempt. They are about to revisit that tradition this week, when their anger and exasperation sweep through Congress like avenging angels. This time the hated oppressor isn't a foreign colonial government, but their own professional political class.
In New York last week I was struck by the startling shift of mood since my last visit, during Barack Obama's first year in office. This phenomenon took varying forms, of course, depending on the political orientation of my interlocutor, but the underlying theme of despair and disgust was almost universal. Liberal Democrats (who hugely outnumber most other factions in that city) were despondent and disappointed with the collapse of Obama's popularity. A few of them (remarkably few, actually) were ready to blame this on a "Right-wing conspiracy" of vaguely racist motivation. But most of them were frankly critical of the strategic mistakes they believed the White House had made, and the baffling inability of their President to connect with the people in an engaging way. His shocking lack of emotional expression during last month's commemoration of 9/11 – a point of particular significance to New Yorkers – was remarked upon by a number of people I met.
There was a general sense that his personality was over-controlled and repressed, and that this was perhaps a function of his self-invention: the effect of having made a conscious choice to adopt an identity and a history (the Chicago black activist) which was unconnected to his real past. It occurred to me that, in an odd way, he was a Gatsby-like figure who had reinvented himself but whose new persona could be sustained only with a tremendous act of will. This psychological analysis seemed not unconnected to the political one, which revolved around his peculiar inability to sense what most Americans would regard as alienating and contrary to their own values and culture.
My Republican friends, perhaps surprisingly, were not gloating. They were too furious. But contrary to the superficial British assumption (heavily promoted by the BBC), they were not devoting their excoriation exclusively to the Obama Administration – or even to its clique of Congressional henchmen, led by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. That they were opposed to the Big State, European social democratic model of government which Obama had imported to Washington went almost without saying. But they were at least as angry with the leadership of their own party for having conceded far too much of the argument.
And this anger – again, contrary to the general understanding in Britain – is not new: it goes all the way back to the Bush presidency. It was widely known in Europe that the American Left hated George Bush (and even more, Dick Cheney) because of his military adventurism. What was less understood was that the Right disliked him almost as much for selling the pass over government spending, bailing out the banks, and failing to keep faith with the fundamental Republican principle of containing the power of central government.
So the Republicans are, if anything, as much in revolt against the establishment within their own party as they are against the Democrats. And this is what the Tea Parties (which should always be referred to in the plural, because they are not a monolithic movement) are all about: they are not just a reaction against a Left-liberal president but a repudiation of the official Opposition as well.
Nor are they simply the embodiment of reactionary social conservatism, which has been the last redoubt of the traditional Republican Right. There were plenty of people in New York who wanted to believe that Tea Partiers were just a new incarnation of the gun-totin', gay-bashing right-to-lifers whom they found it so easy to dismiss as risible throwbacks. This is a huge political miscalculation, which quite misses the point of what makes the Congressional midterm elections this week such an interesting and historic political event. This is so much more than the predictable to-ing and fro-ing of party control midway through a presidential term. What the grassroots rebellion is really about is an attempt to pull the Republican party back to its basic philosophy of low-tax, low-spend, small government: the great Jeffersonian principle that the best government is that which governs least.
One of the more electorally far-reaching effects of this is that Republicanism could become the home once again of a plausible political and economic programme, rather than simply an outpost for those who seem to reject many of the features of modern life. The gun-toters and gay-bashers and pro-lifers may have jumped aboard the bandwagon, and Sarah Palin may be frantically attaching herself to the parade, but this is not their show: the Tea Party protests began (as their name suggests) as a campaign against high taxation and the illegitimate intrusiveness of federal powers. That is what they are still about.
As some astute commentators have observed, the ascendancy of the Tea Parties has meant that fiscal conservatism can replace social conservatism as the raison d'être of the Republican cause. So rather than being a threat to Republicanism, the election of Tea Party candidates might be its salvation. It represents a rank-and-file rejection of what many Americans see as a conspiracy of the governing elite against ordinary working people. All of which makes clearer the appeal of even the naivety and inexperience of some of the Tea Party contenders who have challenged incumbent Republican candidates. If what you are rebelling against is a generation of smug, out-of-touch professional politicians, then a little dose of amateurishness or innocence might strike you as positively refreshing. (In a poll last week, more than 50 per cent of voters said that they would be more willing this year than usual to vote for someone with little political experience.)
The Democrats, too, are experiencing internal turmoil, with the Blue Dog congressmen (who represent conservative Democratic states) having to fight all their natural instincts to support Obama's healthcare and cap-and-trade policies. If they are annihilated in these midterm elections, their resentment against the White House will be terrible to behold. This could be a seminal moment in American post-war history, when popular rage against the political elite brings about realignments within parties which change the whole nature of the country's democratic choices.
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