Tea Party topography


This month’s mid-term elections in the United States will show us the direction the country will head in the coming two years and indicate the future shape of American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.

One factor determining electoral outcomes will be the fate of the disparate Tea Party movement, which has disturbed the Republican Party hierarchy and liberal-left America alike. And yet shorn of its more troublesome qualities, including its embrace of the opportunistic, demagogical former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the shift toward the religious right and its increasingly nativist reflexes, the Tea Party is somehow a healthy initiative. Many American voters are understandably worried about the potential tax burden imposed by the rescue package for the financial crisis of 2008, as well as the high cost of Obama’s healthcare policy.  

The Tea Party — a loose gathering of groups sharing a dissatisfaction with government as it is being run today — was named for the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when American colonists protested being taxed by a British parliament in which they were not represented. The mantra “no taxation without representation” has entered the American political lexicon and is at the heart of the democratic capitalist social contract. Congressional elections will show whether President Barack Obama passes that test.  

But where the Tea Party will be tested, and where it must pass its own test, is in the particulars of a capitalist culture. Will the movement be able to avoid the pull of its extremes and defend free minds and free markets? And what will this mean for the United States in the world?  

Populist and progressive movements have a venerable legacy in the US. The notion of reform, like the implicit mistrust of state power, is a recurring theme in American history, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the US was transformed from an agrarian society into an industrial-capitalist one. As Richard Hofstadter observed in ‘The Age of Reform,’ many of the demands of the American reform movement ended up being implemented even if the political parties that gave rise to such demands disappeared without a trace.

But there was always a nativist quality to these movements standing against what Americans have regarded as part of their national character: domestic inclusiveness and an urge to spread liberal values and freedom abroad. Likewise, the Tea Party movements have tended to look inwards. They have supported limiting immigration into the US; their fear of government over-expenditure has made them increasingly wary of costly foreign adventures, not least the wars in the broader Middle East; some polls suggest they are mistrustful of Obama’s engagement of Muslim countries; and on social issues Tea Party groups lean toward the conservative.  

The significant role played among Tea Party groups by Palin and other right-wing spokespersons, like the organizational power of the religious groups, means the movement is not likely to veer greatly from this path. However, to reduce everything to right-wing, left-wing terms is to over simplify. The Republican establishment has also been a target of the Tea Party. In that sense, the movement doubles as an anti-elite phenomenon.

America is unlikely to be overcome by the Tea Party, and the movement’s haphazard structure may ultimately prove to be its downfall, unless it can be reorganized behind a presidential campaign. This seems to be Palin’s aim. However, even if the movement were to concentrate on advancing legitimate demands for greater fiscal discipline, the outcome would be a more modest America abroad, both militarily and in the spread of liberal values.

 Oddly enough Hofstadter’s observations about American reform movements of the past may apply once again. Though the Tea Party is hostile to Barack Obama, the president appears to have largely accepted the fiscal restraint argument to justify cutting American foreign expenses, especially in Iraq and even Afghanistan, where he has sought mightily to avoid an open-ended conflict that would dramatically drain American resources. The US is changing, and not surprisingly, the Middle East is changing as a consequence.