Less taxes! Less government! With simple slogans, the tea party has driven the largest economy in the world to the brink of insolvency. Its position dominated the debate as never before. At the same time, it is neither a party nor an ideological unit. It is also much more than Sarah Palin — this is how the oddest phenomenon of U.S. politics works.
Telephones ring every second. Young people swarm through the open-plan office in which posters and fliers lie in piles. In Suite 765 on North Capitol Street, Number 400, it looks like a party headquarters in the middle of an election.
In a way, the heart of the tea party beats here, in the heart of Washington, a half mile from the Capitol, and yet the office is anything but a party headquarters.
400 North Capitol Street, NW, Suite 765, Washington, D.C. This is the address of Freedom Works, one of the most powerful conservative lobbying groups in America. The neo-liberal think tank has at its core two goals: lower taxes and less government expenditures. But Freedom Works doesn’t stop at thinking.
Hardly any other organization is as aggressive and successful at bringing its message to the common man and woman. Freedom works trains volunteers, collects donations, supports and finances campaigns, and — perhaps its greatest trump — networks the like-minded. As of Tuesday morning, they currently have 120,245 users and 3,596 groups registered on their internet presence, “Freedom Connector,” and at the moment, 5,411 events are planned.
Freedom Works is not the tea party, but a key to understanding this movement. Because the one thing the tea party certainly is not is a hierarchically designed, clearly structured organization. It may have figureheads like the former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin or Representative Michele Bachmann, who would like to chase Barack Obama out of the White House in 2012. Local groups may call themselves tea party and may be networked, Tea Party Patriots as an example. But the tea party does not have a structure, an organization or a leadership.
Reminiscent of the Boston Tea Party
The New York Times once described the organization as a “loosely associated, sometimes not clearly defined, coalition of grass roots-Libertarians and alienated Republicans.”* Ron Paul, whose campaign against Obama found little success in 2008, is deemed the father of the movement; however, he found many loyal followers who helped him to sensational success. Reminiscent of the Boston Tea Party, he succeeded in collecting six million dollars within 24 hours, record contributions for the Republican.
Organizations like Freedom Works give those who sympathize with politicians like Ron Paul and are frustrated with Washington a political home. Among their numbers are whites who suffer under the current economic climate, having lost a job or a house, but also members of the prosperous, mostly religious middle class. Many are united by discontent at the fact that the America they know is being replaced by a multicultural U.S., which Barack Obama represents in their eyes.
On its website, Freedom Works boasts a quote from the president that itself brought the think tank together as one of the first organizations of the tea party movement. Here the quote ends in the middle of a sentence and alleges that Obama sharply attacked Freedom Works in an interview with Rolling Stone. He accuses the organization of being “financed by very conservative industries and forces” that are in principle opposed to everything that would be of use to U.S. citizens. Obama aptly characterizes the movement as “an amalgam, a mixed bag of a lot of different strains in American politics that have been there for a long time.”
Five weeks after the interview, in November 2010, Obama was forced to recognize this amalgam’s capabilities. More than 40 of the tea party supported candidates were elected to the House of Representatives and Senate in the midterm elections and roughly 40 percent of Americans indicated support for the movement in a voter survey; the president lost his comfortable majority in Congress.
Since that time, it has been difficult for the president to govern. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the negotiations to raise the debt limit. According to a media report, Vice President Joe Biden commented at the end of the discussions that the tea party followers had behaved like terrorists — the painfully negotiated compromise had not yet taken on the first and largest hurdle, the vote in the House of Representatives. Not much later, 269 representatives said yes. 161 representatives rejected it, among them 87 representatives with ties to the tea party. Now only the Senate, whose yes vote is considered certain, needs to approve the resulting plan.
That the tea party politicians are a minority in the House of Representatives may be seen as a defeat, but in reality, the debt battle was a triumph. Nonetheless, until Sunday night it appeared as if the radical tax-lowerers and savers could dominate the political discourse of the U.S. to the point of bringing the greatest economic power in the world to the edge of being broke. So much power is not attributed to many political groups.
The unconditional economically liberal part of the movement has managed to make tax raises a taboo. Grover Norquist from the lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform even got 277 of the 287 Republican representatives and senators in Congress to sign a pledge never to vote for tax increases. Before the showdown this past week, Matt Kibbe, head of Freedom Works, appealed to “one of our million-plus Freedom Works members” to call his or her local representatives in order to express displeasure with Boehner’s compromise proposal.
The tax-lowerers and expenditure-cutters from the tea party have constructed a potential for coercion that has Democrats despairing and that moderate Republicans increasingly perceive as a threat. John Boehner, the highest ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, was threatened with losing his reputation in face of the rebellion in his own camp; Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, had to step in, to give new life to the bogged down negotiations.
Socialism — the Killer Phrase
Particularly with a view to the presidential election in 2012, the tea party presents the Republicans with a strategic problem. How should one win back voters in the middle if the radical right cries “socialism” at any mention of balance or compromise.
The truth is, the supporters of the tea party are by no means as radical as some of their representatives in Congress. The majority of angry citizens in the U.S. may reject tax increases; at the same time, they are workers who fear for their jobs or self-employed or employers concerned about economic development. That forces them to insight. A recent survey conducted by the television network CBS showed that 66 percent of the tea party supporters were in favor of a compromise with the Democrats and raising the debt ceiling. They did not name the national debt as the greatest problem, but rather the condition of the economy and unemployment.
For Democrats and moderate Republicans, this is an opportunity. They can remember that this odd new movement is not unified by dogma, but rather the wish to live in freedom and prosperity.
*This quote, while accurately translated, could not be verified.