Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Tea Party phenomenon - a view from inside the Beltway

My friend Sam is a Brit who has lived in the United States for thirty years – for the last decade or so in Washington DC. He knows his way around and is a shrewd observer of the US Political scene. I asked him about the Tea Party. Here is his response:

Sir Christopher Meyer is on his way shortly to America to investigate the Tea Party. I read his Tweets and as much as I admire him from his time here - very funny, very able - I fear he will not find the answer to the Tea Party in the salons of Georgetown. He needs to go to pretty much any city or town outside of DC to stand a chance - and I hope he plans to do that. Here my view of the Tea Party:

Who are they?

Predominately Independents, some Republicans and even a few Democrats. A sobering fact - a poll last week showed more people identifying themselves with the Tea Party than either Republican or Democrat

Why have they emerged?

They have certainly emerged from the bottom and in that respect scare both Republican and Democrat elites). Frustration and disgust with the dysfunctionality, corruption and incompetence of the Senate and the House. Surprisingly Obama himself holds up quite well. And fear of excessive deficits and exponentially expanding debt - and what that means for the middle class and for their children in terms of living standards etc. Probably also fear of losing the US's preeminent position in the world to China.

What do they stand for?

A difficult one to answer - it's a sort of value system - individual vs. big government and a desire to rebalance the public and private sector. Government may be an enabler and supporter but should not intrude into every aspect of one's life. It's not that different from what Cameron/Clegg are saying - if I understand them correctly - essentially changing the mindset of the average Briton from turning to Government to ask what are they going to do about it - to saying what can I do about it. Now the Americans are nowhere near as far down that road as the UK but the tea partiers think they are moving in that direction.

If I may paraphrase Tony Blair "The only way we progressives win is by being the party of empowerment, and that requires a state that is more minimalist and strategic, that is about enabling people, about developing their potential but not constraining their ambition, their innovation, their creativity."

The politician - Republican or Democrat - who convinces the voter that he/she stands for the above will prevail in the mid-term elections. I would also add - stop the spending.

Could a similar movement develop in Europe? - unlikely. The only way I see it happening is if there is a sense that the EU has become less and less responsive to the wishes of the people, the economy stagnates, the debt piles up and standards of living stagnate or fall. And that is not totally inconceivable.

I think what the Tea Party would support - at least in concept - are the Cameron/Clegg spending cuts. It will be very interesting to see the reaction when the details are fleshed out later this month.


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