America’s mad-hatter politics

The rise of the populist Tea Party movement is dominating the United States's mid-term election campaign. Yet its significance escapes the country's political and media class, says Godfrey Hodgson.
Godfrey Hodgson
18 October 2010

 "Up above the world you fly / Like a tea-tray in the sky / Twinkle, twinkle"'
          - Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

The Boston Tea Party describes the moment on 16 December 1773 when the Sons of Liberty, thinly disguised as Native Americans, tipped tons of East India tea into Boston harbour in protest against the onerous taxes imposed by their colonial masters. The modern Tea Party movement that has seized hold of politics in the United States self-consciously adorns itself in ideological garb borrowed from that founding event in the American revolution. But it is impossible to look closely at the movement without thinking of that other tea party: the surreal feast of illogicality thrown by the mad hatter in Alice in Wonderland.

After all, politicians who in the same breath recommend closing down whole departments of the federal government, denounce masturbation and propose 18th-century solutions to 21st-century problems are seem both absurd and irresistible. It’s understandable, then, that reporting of the mid-term elections in November 2010 has been mesmerised by the Tea Party’s extraordinary rise and range of characters (see Max Blumenthal, "Days of rage: the Tea Party and America's right", 17 September 2010).

The conventional wisdom is that President Obama’s administration - now experiencing a rapid turnover with the departure of some key figures - has failed to meet the hopes invested in it. True, it can claim some significant legislative successes, but these are outweighed by strategic misjudgments (such as the priority choice to focus on healthcare rather than fixing the economy). The expected outcome is that the Democrats will be punished in November by losing control of the House of Representatives and perhaps even of the Senate (or at least, in the latter case, of the “super-majority” of sixty that can enforce cloture); though the president is still given an even chance of winning a second term in 2012.

The talk of the town

There is, however, a starker reading of the situation. It goes like this. The Barack Obama administration is falling apart. The economy remains in very poor shape. The stock-market has done reasonably well. But the question is less whether there will be a “double-dip” recession (a homely ice-cream metaphor whose cold reality would be mass misery) than why the great majority of Americans are worse off while a small elite is doing just fine.

The Obama administration’s foreign policy (continues this version) is a disaster. Hillary Clinton dreams of a dyarchy with China, which (as the closeness of outright currency/trade war indicates) sets a new high for naiveté. America is locked into a policy towards Iran that almost guarantees a humiliating failure. Its sales of $60 billion-worth of weaponry to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may bring profitable contracts for US manufacturers, but it increases the danger of war in the middle east.

The president is anxious to get an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but that outcome now seems very remote. The military withdrawal from Iraq has required an increase in US combat there; and Afghanistan’s strategy of military surge combined with the promise of evacuation from 2011 makes no sense at all.

There are other signs of internal disintegration. The president’s chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel, is leaving to run for mayor of Chicago. His most trusted political guru, David Axelrod, is secluding himself to head the re-election effort. Several other leading officials - among them General Jim Jones, national-security adviser; Lawrence Summers, economic adviser; Christina Romer, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers - are moving on. True, presidential aides often stay only a short time in the White House before cashing in that experience in the private sector. But President Obama may find it hard to recruit aides with the calibre and loyalty he will need in the stormy times ahead. 

The logic of the second position is that for the president to minimise the prospective electoral damage in November (let alone win re-election) he must define his political situation anew with ruthless clarity. The Tea Party is not the main issue. A New York Times/CBS poll suggests that 18% of voters identify themselves as Tea Party supporters, and they “tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45”. By way of comparison, Ross Perot received 19% of the popular vote in 1992, George Wallace 13.5% in 1968 - and Theodore Roosevelt, a former president running as a Third Party candidate, won 27.4% in 1912 (and became the only outsider ever to come second).

The promise of the Tea Party movement having a significant impact is thus real, yet to understand what it might be requires a focus not just on the Tea Party itself but on the demographic groups whose choices in coming elections will have an even more important effect. 

The downwardly mobile

The voting destination of two groups in particular are of intense concern to political strategists. The first is the old industrial working class, the once unionised factory and service workers who provided the backbone of Democratic support outside the south from 1932 to 1968. They are the chief victims of the decline of American manufacturing, the collapse of the automobile industry, and successful competition from Asian and European manufacturers. Their political mood in 2010 is anger, in particular over the decision of the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations to bail out the banks - but not (except for Detroit) manufacturing industry. 

The second group is one that is beginning to attract some attention, though is harder to define by routine sociological categories. This is the new lower-middle class, composed of people who saw the promised land of financial security just within their grasp only to see it floating out of reach with the economic collapse.

Some bought homes in the distant outer suburbs of growing conurbations (Los Angeles, the Bay area of San Francisco, northern Virginia, around Phoenix and Las Vegas, and within a punishing commuting distance from Houston or Atlanta). They were often the direct victims of the sub-prime mortgage collapse: attention has focused on the impact of sub-prime derivatives on financial markets, but the ruthless selling of variable-rate mortgages in the first place was a disaster for millions of aspirant American families, many of them African-American or Hispanic (see "America divided: the politics of inequality", 16 July 2010).

Others were trapped in what were seen, and unscrupulously promoted, as modern expanding businesses (such as routine IT jobs), only to beached by the receding tide; or in service jobs in businesses that are no longer affordable. For them, fear - of unemployment, of negative equity and foreclosure - is the more prevalent emotion. Few will turn to the Tea Party.

The last party

Many metropolitan reporters attend Tea Party events and offer richly textured portraits of the outlandish beliefs on display. But they are too often ill-equipped to understand the political rage that swirls through what the media elite calls the “flyover states”. Most national commentators, whether right or left, share a demographic profile and its attitudes with political and business elites.

Even Barack Obama - Harvard Law ’91 - revealed a tendency to patronise when he explained to small-town voters in Pennsylvania when on the campaign trail in 2008: “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them...as a way to explain their frustrations.” Many media stars - twinkling, as it were, like tea-trays in the journalistic firmament - have a similar difficulty in understanding their fellow-citizens. 

Now, Barack Obama and his Republican opponents alike have to understand those unfamiliar “ordinary folks out there”. Millionaire journalists, comfortably ensconced in the Upper West Side of Manhattan or Montgomery county, Maryland, will not be much help. Republican national politicians and Fox TV news celebrities may like to think of themselves as gruff tribunes of the people, while Democratic politicians in the Nancy Pelosi mould and their journalistic counterparts certainly see themselves as progressives. The partisans on both sides belong to a select national caste in a society that has become sharply striated by class.

The twin political parties, and the journalists who have grown up in symbiosis with them, barely grasp the alienation of a people who believed viscerally in the effortless superiority of the American way, and are desperate to make sense of what - from Detroit to Kabul - has gone wrong. That, not the retro-nationalist fantasies of the Tea Party, is what American politics are now about (see "America's political-emotional moment", 19 August 2010).

The Tea Party clings to the comfortable nationalism of the years of American dominance - military, ideological and economic. The leading politicians and their journalistic sounding-boxes are familiar enough with the rhetoric of crisis, but less supple in explaining the great national failures that are the underlying cause of the country’s interlocking crises.

The Republicans are even more bereft of leadership than the Democrats, the Congress even more unpopular than the presidency, politicians in both houses even more concerned with fundraising than with the state of the union. In November, the mad-hatters’ tea party will be the least of the adventures in wonderland.  

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