Is the Tea Party More Than a Flash in the Pan?

A Party With no platform, no Headquarters and Without a Real Leader: An Attempt to Explain the Tea Party Phenomenon.

What are we supposed to make of a party that has no headquarters, no platform and no real boss or even a secretary general? Sarah Palin is the would-be head of the party, and Glenn Beck is its would-be ideologue. A party that functions with no head could easily go the way of all other third parties in American history. Just recall Ross Perot. A bright but short-lived flash in the pan and that was about it.

But one can’t dismiss the tea party that lightly. Among the 60 new Republican representatives and six Senators who will take their seats in the new Congress in January 2011, one-third of them represent the tea party and will be financially supported from the murky depths of this movement. They will be in office for at least two years in the House and six years in the Senate, giving voice to the discontent from the provinces in the hallowed halls of Congress.

But who are these tea party people? One might describe them as a conglomeration of enraged activists from white, middle class America. They’re mainly male, although candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware played prominent roles in the recent election. Both, however, lost to Washington insiders on election day. The most prominent representatives of the tea party are the newly elected Senators Rand Paul from Kentucky and Florida’s Marco Rubio. They are both driven by anti-Washington fervor.

Sarah Palin “Twitters”

The tea party is much more a grassroots movement than a conventional political party. The flames of public anger are being stoked daily by prominent talk show hosts like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity of Fox News, as well as Rush Limbaugh, whose syndicated radio program has millions of faithful listeners. The communications lines among tea partiers don’t run through a party headquarters but rather along looser lines such a regular sprinklings via new communications media including digital social sites. Sarah Palin, for example, sends regular “tweets” to her followers.

The movement is made up of thousands of small local cells that have little national cohesion but are loosely interconnected by new social media. It’s appropriate that the tea party grew out of what amounted to a dramatic outburst against Barack Obama’s economic policies by economics correspondent Rick Santelli during a CNBC report broadcast in February 2009.

In his rant, Santelli referred to founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin who, he said, must be turning over in their graves because of Obama’s Wall Street bail out. He advocated a modern-day tea party similar to the one staged by the citizens of Boston in December 1773, when they dumped a cargo of tea into Boston Harbor in protest of taxation policies.

Scarcely two months later, on April 15th, the deadline day for filing income taxes, “tea parties” were held nationwide protesting a wasteful Washington government that refused to listen to the will of the people. That marked the birth of the movement that would eventually prove to be such a thorn in Obama’s side.

What motivates its members? First and foremost, it’s national economic misery. The economic crisis in the 1890s spawned the radical People’s Party and the Great Depression saw the birth of a number of radical third parties.

The Rich-Poor Gap is Widening

Millions of Americans lost their jobs and their livelihoods. In the absence of social relief in the minimalist American welfare state, such people quickly fall into poverty where they are easily radicalized. The gap between rich and poor in the United States is greater than ever. One percent of Americans own 25 percent of the national income, up from just 10 percent during the Reagan administration.

Unemployment exceeded 10 percent in 2009 and was still hovering around 9.5 percent at the time of the midterm elections. Millions of people lost their homes when the real estate bubble burst, and another two million currently live in houses where the mortgage exceeds the total value of the property.

The country takes on billions of dollars of new debt every year. Obama is the one blamed for the trillions of dollars of national debt, not George W. Bush, who, with his horrifically expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his Wall Street bailouts in 2008, laid the groundwork for the populist anger over “saving the rich.” Obama stumbled into this economic crisis; as president, he’s being held responsible for ending it.

“Government is the Problem”

The tea party’s platform may be reduced to “lower taxes, less government and more freedom.” It’s already predictable that the Bush tax cuts that primarily benefited the wealthiest Americans and are due to expire at the end of this year will be extended, and that Obama’s planned tax increase on those earning in excess of $250,000 won’t be tolerated by next year’s new congress.

Successful tea party candidates who will make up the new congress have yet to explain how massive tax cuts and balanced budgets in Washington might be achieved.

“Less government and more freedom” is meant to signal the withdrawal of the federal government from many policy areas. This concept harks back to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration speech of 1981 when he stated, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Sharron Angle, who failed to unseat Senator Harry Reid in Nevada, intended to abolish the departments of energy and education had she been elected. And Obama’s healthcare reforms, as well as his planned immigration and environmental policy reforms, are anathema to tea partiers in any case.

Willing to Compromise?

For those tea party followers who consider the U.S. Constitution to be divinely inspired, judicial activism on the part of liberal judges concerning social issues is a big concern. They insist that not a single comma in the Constitution should be changed. They are skeptical of liberal historians whose interpretations of the Constitution they condemn as forgeries, blasphemies and conspiracies.

So the question will be whether those tea party followers elected to office will be able to harness their rage and be willing to compromise as they take up their political duties. To do so, they will have to rise above the incoherent individual interests of their grassroots movement if they are to be anything more than a flash in the pan. They must do so if they intend to become a new third party with creative potential.

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