Tea Party Politics

‘Why do grown men in the Tea Party dress up as George Washington?’

What ails America today? Is the world’s only superpower in decline? When you live in America, these worries are as common as moaning about unreliable trains or the National Health Service in Britain. And yet, in recent weeks there was a peculiar urgency and a sombre tone to the question, detected whether you were walking between the glittering skyscrapers of New York or along the grand avenues of Washington. 

How one remembers a past incident as a moment with deep and decisive implications for the future is always a marker for the inner workings of a society. The ninth anniversary of 9/11 was marked by the usual memorials and prayers at the sites where the planes struck. 

Something was different, however. The demonstrations a few blocks from Ground Zero were as audible as the political and religious tensions were tangible. The unity was suddenly split by a sharply partisan undercurrent. The photographs of victims were being held by relatives, the reciting of names, the tears, were intermingled with the intemperate debate over plans to build a Muslim community centre and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. Suddenly, the day was no longer only about loss — of nearly 3,000 lives, of a sense of security, of America’s shared values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — but about politics.  

Whether the country is indeed going anywhere at the moment was the question for some of its most influential columnists when Newsweek magazine published a list of the “100 best countries of the world” — and the US ended up a disappointing 11th. Finland came top, with Germany 12th, Britain 14th and France 16th. Such lists are inherently imprecise and often downright silly — there must be some reason why millions of immigrants flock to the US, Britain and Germany while Finland is hardly a desired destination. Yet journalists love these lists. 

Debunking the aura of the superpower, Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate and oracle of the New York Times, identified a problem Americans hadn’t faced up to yet: “We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism.” This wasn’t the usual lame, envy-led flagellation of bankers. Rather, it was a reminder of the Greatest Generation, who grew up in the Depression of the 1930s and then won the war; of leaders who were not afraid to ask Americans to make sacrifices and of a generation that was ready to do so, for the good of the country, thus earning a capacity for global leadership. Krugman called on his fellow countrymen to show “a willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy”. For a moment, the Princeton professor sounded like a Revivalist preacher.

A similar call for pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps could be heard from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Over the past year, the Tea Party has forced its way into the American political mainstream. The movement has made headlines in Europe, mainly because it involuntarily feeds the stereotype of the crude American from the flyover states: cheap jeans, ill-fitting baseball caps with corny slogans, truck-driver facial hair; someone who is either inexplicably fat or skinny and in any case belongs to a section of predominately white lower-middle-class people filled with rage, racism and religious bigotry. (Some of the placards crudely accused President Obama of being a “Kenyan reject”.) The groomed-senator look is not theirs, nor do they communicate in the rhetoric of the East Coast political intelligentsia. Nor is it merely a matter of image. To my European sensibility the Tea Party’s simplistic stance on abortion, immigration and religion will probably always remain alien.

And yet, observing a recent small-scale gathering of Tea Parties in Washington, I couldn’t help but think that a movement like this isn’t so much a terrifying phenomenon as a telling one. Most of them had less in common with Terry Jones, the Koran-burning pastor of Florida, than with James Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Large parts of their agenda are determined by bread-and-butter issues: taxes, states’ rights, dislike of political bigwigs, held together by an uninhibited will to engage in the citizen’s right to speak to power without feeling inhibited. (Is this the reason why grown men coyly dress up as George Washington?)

“Dissent is patriotic,” read a poster at the gathering. Somehow, this is the most upbeat indication of America’s habit of reconstituting itself in bad times. It certainly is a good sign that this is coming as much from the fringes and grassroots of American consciousness as from the intellectual and political elites.

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