The Tea Party in the US and the riots taking place elsewhere spring from a common anger at the fall-out from government attempts to deal with the economic situation. But the differences between these responses, and between each of them and other countries, are revealing. They point to lessons not only for governments and politicians to learn but for civic, social and cultural dispositions as well.
What does the Tea Party mean?
As a foreigner who has not yet visited the US, I have to accept that there are limits to the extent to which I can understand, let alone comment on, what goes on there. But from what I read and hear it seems to me evident that the Tea Party phenomenon can be explained partly by seeing it as more than just anger at present government interventions and proposals. It is also surely the product of a widening discontent with the way things are decided in America and, as such, an indicator of an increasing, and risky, disconnect between citizens and their democracy.
That this doesn’t happen in exactly the same way elsewhere may be because other nations do not have the same immediate concerns, nor wish to react to them in the same way. But it could also point specifically to an underlying factor in United States polity not present to the same degree “in less happy lands” elsewhere. If so, I believe, it has lessons for all of us.
For a foreigner like me, for example, one of the most striking characteristics of the Tea Party phenomenon is its furious claim that all sorts of things are going on in the country, and measures taken, without the people’s knowledge or consent, and that if people did know what was going on they would almost certainly oppose it. One recalls President Reagan’s dictum that government is part of the problem. Many Europeans would find this peculiat: in what sort of democracy, we would have to ask, is there basis or room for such a widely-held supposition to flourish? Why, we wonder, would they ever say that?
Testimony by a concerned citizen
But this is from the standpoint of an observer who is fascinated by politics, has a degree from the best university in the world, reads two or three newspapers every day and listens to the news whenever he possibly can. For me and my perspective, a clue to the source of Tea Party rage is detectable in what Mrs Katy Abram said to Senator Arlen Specter at that famous town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pennsylvania in August 2009: “this is not about health care … this about the systematic dismantling of this country… you have awakened a sleeping giant… we are ticked off… what are you going to do to restore this country back to … what it was according to the Constitution?…” And later, to Sean Hannity, on Fox News: “This should not be a welfare state.”
In her subsequent interview with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC she appeared to be saying that welfare and health care should be left entirely to the private and voluntary sectors, and that government should not concern itself with such things. Flash forward to June this year and we find Ms Abram saying this in her blog: “We stand at a pivotal time in American history. We have had a government that is quick to throw states rights under the bus as it continually rams one program after another down our throats. I suggest we turn this situation around and put the federal government in a headlock.”
Here I must pause and make sure that I cannot be misunderstood or misrepresented or taken to be in any way patronising, condescending or elitist. I am emphatically not saying that Ms Abram and millions of ordinary, decent Americans like her are in the wrong in this and that I, a highly-educated European, am in the right. I am simply seized by the thought that her views are held by many of her fellow citizens. If so, those views represent something important about America, affecting the rest of us, and are therefore worth some attention.
I believe that these views disclose at least three interconnected reasons for the Tea Party’s success and rage: generalised non-awareness; a lack of adequate connection between American ‘governors’ and American ‘governed’; and cultural assumptions about the roles of the individual and the state. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
What do you know?
First, I suspect that, as represented by the man spotted in a California crowd with a placard saying Keep government’s hands off Medicare, there is a general awareness deficit amongst millions of American voters. This has been written about many times in the past. It is probably caused by a mix of many things: the state of education in the US; the absence of a truly national press; individual state characteristics and sociopolitical norms; the sheer size and diversity of the country. It is apparently not uncommon for Americans to get all their information about what is currently happening from irregular and passive sampling of news from one particular, highly partisan, TV source and from talk radio stations with the same take on current affairs.
If this is the case, it might explain why, against their own best interests, angry tea-drinkers appear for example to spurn medical coverage being made easier for them to access and to demand tax breaks for billionaires. It provides clues to why so many Americans believe in urban myths like those attached to President Obama’s birthplace or NHS ‘death committees’ (and the warning of ‘black helicopters‘ enforcing UN world domination over the USA).
Nothing to fear but fear itself
In all such myths there are obvious indicators pointing to the real fears oppressing those who hold such ‘facts’ to be true. If you are predisposed to believe that you are vulnerable to forces outside your control, with malign secret agendas, and that you are powerless to take any form of resistance against them, and if at the same time you are getting all your information about the public realm irregularly from one or two dubious sources, then you will be angry. But your anger will be bladed by a sharp edge of panic all too evident in Ms Abram’s choking harangue of Senator Specter. And that panic, fuelled by cultural disgust as well, demands action now, before it is too late.
My guess would be that, on balance and for various reasons, Britons are more likely to be better informed than in the US and less swayed by traditional conservative values. The ‘enraged’ among us are most exercised by immigration or hatred for Europe but the parties which represent such views at the ballot box have not done particularly well. In Britain, the mainstream still bears all before it.
The second reason for the tea-drinkers’ rage, surely, is that it flourishes like a weed in the gardens of Americans’ deficient interaction with their political environment in general and their elected representatives in particular. One of Ms Abram’s complaints is precisely that politicians do not listen to her and others like her, let alone answer their mail and phone calls. If you are both uninformed about ‘what is going on’ in the world around you and at the same time you feel disconnected from those who you think should be representing your best interests, then it would not be surprising if your simmering resentment built up over a period of time and manifested itself in many strange but moving ways.
I have relevant testimony of my own to offer here, even from my non-American perspective. Not so long ago, I was communications manager for a district council in SE England. One day, I took a call from a resident in a poorer part of town who sounded desperate but defiant. She had heard, she said, that ‘the authorities’ were making space available in her local neighbourhood for the settlement of gypsies and that the first of these incomers would be arriving that week. Why was this happening? Why had she and her neighbours not been consulted?
I was struck by how deferential but passive-aggressive she sounded. In the formal objective sense I was able to correct her misapprehensions, but I could only do that by clarifying how such a scare story might have arisen and explaining what by the truth of the matter was. To get at the underlying reef of buried resentment, however, I encouraged her to stay on the phone and chat about her local community and her relations with her elected councillor. Not surprisingly, she did not know who this was, nor did she fail to mention how she had got up the “courage” to call the council. At the end of our chat, she sounded quite relieved and said how grateful she was at the opportunity to speak to me. I was, she opined, “a normal person.”
Fear and resentment
I have thought about that conversation many times in the years since that call. What on earth did she mean? It was, alas, obvious. Here was a citizen wanting to speak truth to power; to what she perceived as an oligarchy ruling her town and with no time to spend on her concerns. I remembered how on at least two occasions neighbours of my own had come to me to ask for me to intercede with the local council on matters to do with vehicular access or funding for a childcare group. For God’s sake! I rapidly discovered that not one of them dared, even in their resentment, to pick up the phone on the matter or could write a letter setting out their concerns.
These things I did for them readily enough but it put me in mind of those occasions in India, so I have read, when someone from the slums is pulled in by the police for questioning and fifty or so of his fellow slumdwellers crowd the police station to yell for his release. Safety in numbers? Who speaks for us? Who speaks for you?
Before we ask what kind of representatives we want, and how we want them to behave, we need to scrutinise our own treatment of them. In Britain, MPs are now treated by their constituents as extra social workers, expected to intercede with government in all its forms. As for the US,I once met a businessman from Massachusetts who, when I asked what he thought of Ted Kennedy, told me that every time he had a ‘problem’ he would contact the Senator and ‘his people’ would then ‘fix it’ (and yes, I have seen the movie City Hall).
No doubt the same thing happens in UK, but there are rules against MPs indulging in too much paid lobbying. Crucially, because of the system of campaign funding from the public purse and rationed (free) TV adverts for parties, there is less incentive for them to do so. But do we really want to use our elected representatives as business deal fixers motivated primarily by the need to build a war chest for the next election? No wonder we have such contempt for them.
Thoughtless politicians, who don’t realise how elitist and exclusive they appear to become, especially if, in the US, they have to consort with big business and lobbyists to get funding for their campaigns, are the ones to blame most for the disconnectedness. Any sign that they do not understand the plight of the average citizen is a mark against them; and I suspect that the Tea Party would not mind being described as an anti-elitist movement. The long-term risk is that over time this process of mutual ignorance, antagonism and resentment – many politicians resent their voters – widens as an expanding torrent in which the innocent perish as much as the thoughtless guilty do.
The people with the greater responsibility to prevent this are the politicians themselves. As one who has worked at the task of putting statements into politicians’ mouths, I can only say that it is a minefield. But a good deal of the anger felt by the Tea Party could have been averted if politicians like Senator Spector had communicated properly, sensitively and informatively with their constituents. Part of their mission, surely, must be to help educate their people in the realities of power in politics: the “art of the possible.” Informed voters are influential and effective ones.
What is government for?
Third, the fear: I have to say that, judging by what I have read, much of the Tea Party’s burden of complaint seems to be that government is on a continuing mission to ‘take over’ areas of American life where it has no right to be. The banking crisis, which was difficult to understand and which none but the administration was equipped to handle, has not helped. More than that, it has begged the question: if government has so much power, how come things are so bad? Why is the country not governed now as lightly and effectively as it was in the days of the Founding Fathers?
This last point has been dealt with on air by Lawrence O’Donnell in his interview with Ms Abram (see above). Nations and cultures evolve and change. We have to adapt. For some people, however, that is precisely the problem, particularly if they are more than usually concerned about ‘moral standards.’ They do not believe that these should ‘evolve.’ Seeking someone to blame, they fasten their attention on government: smug, elitist, non-consultative, who else but the government could have allowed such things to happen and not use its power to stop them? What is government for if not for this?
I repeat what others have written: a basic factor is that the American experience of government has been very different from Europeans’. Almost all Americans are, or are descended from, people fleeing countries where government was absent, despotic, weak or basically a criminal organisation. No wonder they hoped that government in America would be found to be effective, honest and ‘light-touch.’ More, they were encouraged to see it as that “city on a hill” – a level of idealism for civic virtue that we cynical Europeans have lost a while back.
We Europeans have been tinkering with our systems of government since the 12th century CE, lost a lot of blood along the way and have still not got it entirely right. And we have often been compelled to stare into the abyss. We certainly know how bad government can be and we acknowledge that in many cases it was our own fault. The experience has taught us what constitutes good government in a modern, socially-aware democracy and what rules are needed to keep it in check. Good government can be entrusted with social and regulatory responsibilities delegated by us, the citizens, and we accept that good government should be allowed to do certain things in the service of the community.
Americans have been debating the matter for a shorter period, after a head start. As late as FDR’s second term, there were Americans still alive for whom the Civil War – the struggle to define the republic – was a living and painful memory. Within my parents’ lifetime, it was possible to see the President of the US as a mere figurehead, lacking even a staff in the modern sense. President Reagan did much to reinforce Americans’ conviction that government should be minimalist: let it be acknowledged, so this mantra goes, that free citizens have the liberty to act responsibly in the interests of themselves, their families and others, without a government. This, the Tea Party believes, is the whole point: the true meaning of the society that the Founding Fathers envisaged. And they can make this point without rioting in the streets and burning cars.
As I have said, foreigners can only make observations. Mine is the feeling that although there are logical reasons why the Tea Party exists at this juncture in US and others’ history, it is doomed to fail. The tipping point has been reached already: a majority of Americans quizzed by pollsters recently said they approved of President Obama’s healthcare legislation.
That makes me think that citizens of those states whose governors refuse to sign up for Obamacare will soon notice and deplore the difference with their neighbouring states who did accept the reforms. Experience in London teaches us, too, that insurgent movements which get elected unexpectedly fail to shine in council or legislature. They do not know how to operate the levers of power and, although proud of this ignorance, soon find themselves becoming more and more ineffectual. The establishment swallows them up and they gradually fall by the wayside. But the establishment has learned its lesson from the insurgency.
For the moment.