IT IS not hard, if you really try, to find good things to say about America’s tea-partiers. They are not French, for a start. France’s new revolutionaries, those who have been raising Cain over Nicolas Sarkozy’s modest proposal to raise the age of retirement by two years, appear to believe that public money is printed in heaven and will rain down for ever like manna to pay for pensions, welfare, medical care and impenetrable avant-garde movies. America’s tea-partiers are the opposite: they exhale fiscal probity through every pore. In their waking hours, and in bed at night, they are wracked by anxiety. How is a profligate America to cut borrowing, balance the budget and ensure that its billowing deficit will not place an unbearable burden on future generations?
The tea-partiers do not just have less selfish motives than the pampered French. They also have better manners. Let the French block roads and set things on fire: among tea-partiers it is a point of pride that their large but orderly rallies leave barely a crumpled candy wrapper behind them. Though some wear tricorn hats, and the movement takes its name from the Boston Tea Party, tea-partiers are peaceful folk. They take the view that one revolution was enough, and that the one America had in the 18th century established a constitution and form of democracy so near to perfect that they can get what they want without taking to the streets and just by working within the rules.
Whether they have worked hard enough they will not know until votes are counted after next week’s mid-terms, but in one way their labours have already borne fruit. In primaries all over the country they have secured the election of Republican candidates who are “true” conservatives, not the big-spending counterfeit Republicans whom they blame for leading the party astray under George Bush. The impure have been purged without mercy. Senator Bob Bennett, who has represented Utah for
three terms, earned a lifetime rating of 84% from the American Conservative Union. He was turfed out for having voted in favour of the TARP, the Bush-era bail-out that may have staved off a financial collapse but has become a tea-party anathema.
America’s pontificating class is not yet sure how to take the measure of this strange new movement. Puzzled academics gathered last week at the University of California, Berkeley, to ask, among other things, how tea-partiers were “tapping into and/or managing the populist, libertarian and radical currents on the right, as well as fear, anger and resentment among segments of the American public”. The New York Times has published research suggesting that tea-partiers are mostly richer and better-educated than the average. The Washington Post spent months trying to contact every tea-party group in the nation. Having got through to 647 out of 1,400 it had identified, it found that some consisted of only a handful of members, if they existed at all.
Some call the tea parties an “Astroturf” phenomenon – not grass-roots types at all but the dupes of big business. To others they are merely the most recent incarnation of an ugly right-wing and sometimes racist populism that has surfaced before when times are hard. Such allegations are misplaced. Corporate money has indeed found its way into tea-party coffers, but if you attend a tea-party event you will generally find that it is indeed a self-organised gathering of citizens dismayed by what they see as the irresponsible behaviour of an out-of-control government.