Amid the chaos, a few kind words for the Tea Party

The American electoral scene has been swamped by disillusionment

Amid the chaos, a few kind words for the Tea Party

Win McNamee/Getty Images

From a call for hope in 2008 to a cry of anger in 2010. The politics of the United States is nothing if not malleable.

After Barack Obama’s historic and hope-filled ascension to the presidency two years ago, the American electoral scene has been swamped by disillusionment over the policy direction of the federal government, massive increases in public spending, persistent unemployment and a sense of unfulfilled national promise. The surprising success in this week’s mid-term elections of the Tea Party movement, a loosely organized group of mostly Republican voters, has revealed a legitimate and deep-seated anger among American voters. It may be flawed, but the Tea Party cannot be ignored.

Inspired by an on-air rant in February 2009 by CNBC business editor Rick Santelli, the Tea Party has quickly grown into a political movement with very specific interests. Its supporters are hyper-focused on limiting the powers of the federal government, lowering taxes and bending Washington’s ear to these demands. Critics contend, with some justification, that such simplicity ignores the complexities of the real world. And a few high profile Tea Party candidates are clearly not ready for prime time. But simplicity sells. Grassroots populist movements such as the Tea Party have a long and respectable history in North America because of their ability to express popular sentiment. And anger seems a perfectly understandable emotion for Americans to be feeling in 2010.

It is difficult to overstate the size of the financial crisis facing the U.S. According to the IMF, the U.S. federal debt has almost doubled since 2007 and now stands at 64 per cent of GDP. By 2015 it is expected to hit 80 per cent. Government bailouts and spending programs, such as the $700-billion Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP) and Obama’s $800-billion stimulus plan, have had the appearance of delivering substantial benefits to an undeserving corporate sector while failing to make a dint in unemployment, which remains high by historic standards. Meanwhile, the prestige of America is slipping, along with its economic credibility.

It’s from this cauldron of grim news that the Tea Party movement has sprung. Supporters look at the large, intrusive government fashioned by the Obama administration—bailouts and stimulus as well as policies in health care and the environment—and consider it to be at odds with their traditional American values of self-reliance and limited control by Washington. Despite the historical reference to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, however, this is not the precursor to a second revolution. While French voters may express their displeasure through riots and barricades, Tea Party supporters have proven themselves to be far more civil. They simply took over the Republican nomination process—tossing out long-time Republican incumbents and installing candidates with a more singular focus on taxes. While the Republican party was sorely in need of revitalization after its humbling defeat in 2008, the Tea Party’s political energy should be recognized as a good thing for the country as a whole.

It is clear that the Tea Party, in the main, is not a collection of fringe extremists or anti-government nuts. According to a New York Times poll, Tea Party supporters tend to be somewhat older and wealthier than the general population. A majority of them send their children to public schools and support social programs such as Social Security and Medicare. This is no backwoods militia. Putting an end to unsustainable increases in public spending and limiting the role of government seems a perfectly mainstream platform with the best interests of the country at heart.

Equally noteworthy is that the Tea Party has gained its momentum and clout through spontaneous self-organization. There’s no central headquarters or single recognizable leader of the movement. In many instances it has found itself at odds with the Republican party elite. It exists as an independent expression of popular will. And for every electoral embarrassment, such as Delaware’s Republican Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, famous for running ads claiming she’s not a witch, many more Tea Party candidates were elected on the basis of hard work, solid credentials and a savvy recognition of the zeitgeist.

In fact, there appears to be little difference between the success of the Tea Party and Rob Ford’s win as Toronto mayor last month on an equally simple promise to “stop the gravy train.” Both tapped into the public’s frayed patience with government and a desire to make that point in dramatic fashion.

Now, however, having given voice to the heated emotions of American voters and rewritten the political map of America, the Tea Party faces a much more difficult task: soothing that anger it has unleashed.

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