No doubt reports that the Tea Party movement is splitting are premature, and it’s possible that here in Britain, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) will continue to grow if voters find they still don’t trust the Conservatives’ attitude to Europe. So why is it that in advanced democracies, people still display a willingness to vote for these protest movements, at the expense of more established parties ostensibly working in their interests?
It often comes down to tax; or rather, the feeling that taxation revenue is excessive and is being misused. John Kenneth Galbraith says somewhere that the middle classes resent having to pay for any public services other than defence and security. Politicians who want to draw water from this particular well, like Congressman Ryan, lose no opportunity to demand that taxes be cut, however much risk that poses for the more vulnerable amongst us. Governing parties have to be pretty careless to let this happen.
Often, though, these protest movements spring up in response to fears about ‘others’, especially immigrant workers, penetrating the host society and endangering its most revered features. Other times, it is simply about resisting change itself. The threat of change – anywhere, anytime – is felt most keenly by those who have not been educated, formally or informally, to handle change and benefit from it. They fear change because they cannot work out how and why it happens; or rather, happens to them.
Selfishness, prejudice and vulnerability: these seem to be the three well-springs. But each represents something are only too human in any society. Sometimes the only way to express it is by demanding to be hear and listened to, by voting for side-parties that know how to stoke all this anger and confusion, articulate the grievances and exploit the dynamic.
For a time, they flourish as Poujadism did in France in the 1950s and gain seats in the legislature. But they never last, so long as the basic sensible assumptions of democracy reassert themselves in the public’s mind and memory. That way, democracy learns how to survive such insurgencies by noting what they want and then using that knowledge to derail them.
It’s already happening in the US and the UK. The bad old parties will, ultimately, never lose; but they endure, and renew themselves in the process. The others become footnotes.