Éditoriaux de l'Ifri Chroniques américaines

The Washington Tea Party Chroniques américaines, October 2013

The near meltdown of the United States government evoked worldwide dismay and confusion. Both reactions were especially acute among America’s well-wishers. For not only would they have suffered the consequences of a global economic crisis but they also feel dependent on the probity of American leadership. That dependence may stem in part from their own failures to assume their reasonable share of responsibility for sustaining an orderly international system - a state of affairs remarkably unaffected by the costly flaws in Washington’s custodianship over the past several years. It is nonetheless real.

The Washington Tea Party

The element of confusion deepens their sense of vulnerability. They are simply confounded by the transformations in the nation’s political culture and public life. So, too, are most Americans despite their being participant observers in this steady degradation. Disorientation all around owes much to the absence of serious political discourse - whether in electoral contests, media analyses or the pundits" endless commentaries. Never has there been so much verbiage; never has there been so little illumination from engaged minds. We skate along the surface of events absorbed in personalities and their doings in a manner reflective of our celebrity/pop culture generally. This titillates the public. It also distracts from the importance of what is transpiring under their noses. The reductionist impulse to meld everything into a stew of happenings is not entirely coincidental or innocent. Some obviously gain - entrenched interests whose advantages and machinations thereby elude scrutiny, e.g. the super-rich, the business community (financial sector above all), the security establishment, and all those peripheral beneficiaries of the established order whose comfortable lives dull both conscience and mind.

A full explanation of the American system’s decline into recklessness and juvenilia would require the genius of an Alexis de Tocqueville. The multiplicity of factors at work in producing elaborate causal chains does not lend itself to summary interpretations. Simplistic answers do abound and some have gained wide currency. Their repetition, though, does not validate what are facile formulas and thin theories. They are worth noting for the very reason that they occupy so much of the intellectual terrain.


Let’s begin with the popular notion that the United States has been experiencing a polarization between left and right. That supposed polarization fuels uncompromising partisanship. A neat formulation with no grounding in reality. What we have experienced is a radicalization of one party, the Republican, which has fallen sway to Tea Party militancy. Hence, it has become dogmatic, obsessed with asserting its claim to dictate the country’s affairs, and ready to use any means within reach to achieve that end. The Democrats, by contrast, are pure milquetoast: attached to no philosophy whatsoever, lacking conviction even as to their New Deal inheritance, compromised by reliance on deep pocket contributors, and lacking any visible appetite for a fight. They shy from combat and pale at the sight of blood - especially if it is their enemy’s. Those traits are personified by Barack Obama whose program, such as it is, is to the right of Richard Nixon’s by every meaningful measure, and whose life-long modus operandi is to seek common ground wherever it most easily can be found. The ensuing asymmetrical encounter is a more passionate replay of what transpired under Bill Clinton’s two administrations. There is no political “left” in the United States - except in the sense that we call “left” any position on the liberal side of the Tea Party-dominated Republicans. [1]

Bipartisanship is impossible under these circumstances - as evinced by the Republicans" rejection of Mr. Obama’s unilateral concessions on everything from Social Security to the Bush tax giveaways and his ceaseless entreaties to reason together. The ruling Tea Party mentality and audacious ambition generate behavior that risks critical damage to the manifest collective interest of the country for the sake of a revolutionary cause aimed at changing the very character of the federal government - and, thereby, the very condition of American society. [2] That has been starkly on display these past two weeks. They aim to destroy the good works of the past century; they do not aim to conserve anything except a fanciful image of a “true” America which, if it ever existed, was embodied in the pre-income tax Gaslight Era of the 1890s. Therefore, the label “Conservative” that has placed on the movement is a gross misnomer. The apt descriptive name is Radical Reactionary. It is the Democrats who today are the conservative party - in both senses of the term. Indeed, its leadership fits the model of the now extinct “moderate” or Rockefeller Republicans two generations back. Most certainly, that holds for Obama whose instinct is to turn a cold shoulder to the advocates of progressive government activism - the private sector grounded health care innovation notwithstanding.

Does this reconfiguration of the political map reflect momentous changes in public attitudes? No. Every opinion survey clearly shows that the locus of opinion on domestic issues lies to the “left” of the Obama administration. [2] The White House’s and Democratic Congressional leadership’s failure to build on and to exploit electorally this distribution of sentiment is a major cause of the skewed politics that now is imperiling the nation’s well-being. Whether the discrepancy is due to a selling-out to moneyed interests, political timidity, or - in the case of Mr. Obama - a fatal misreading of where the locus of the “real” America’s sentiment lies, the result has been to enable the unbounded aggressiveness of the most radical elements in the Republican Party. If the other side is not fighting back, if it allows you to define the issues and shape the agenda, if the media thereby are encouraged to distance themselves from the momentous shifts that are happening, if there is no expectation of harsh consequences at the polls - militancy wins out.


The analysis to this point leads to the posing of the key question: why and how the Tea Party phenomenon? The explanation must be offered in two parts: proximate causes, and facilitating factors embedded in the American experience. The former are easier to identify. The Tea Party arose in the midst of the great financial crisis of 2008-09 simultaneously with Obama’s entering the White House. At first, it was but one manifestation of grievance and fear about the predations of Wall Street and the blow struck against pervasive, commonplace assumptions of a bright economic future. Its initial target was Wall Street rather than the federal government. The two were merged when a panicked Washington introduced the much-disliked TARP bail-out.

It is a feature of American populism that it draws upon a latent distrust of both. Each is felt to be a latent threat to individual liberties. Much of American politics has to do with rival efforts to harness these sentiments to a program of constraining one or the other while advancing one or the other. In this instance, the contest was swiftly won by the business interests, by the Republican Party, by the anti-government ideologues. Obama’s great failing was his cluelessness that there was such a contest and his insistence on the role of disinterested mediator acting in an unspecified national interest.

Money and organizational skills were poured into the Tea Party by the Koch brothers, self-styled conservative foundations, and elements of the mainstream business community. The last was quite content to let the Tea Party militants, Republican activists for the most part, serve as shock troops in their campaign to fend off any attack on their privileges. Not for the first time did business interests allow their pecuniary concerns to create a Frankenstein - one whose menace did not enter their consciousness until four years later. Their miscalculation was understandable. The Tea Party’s militant agenda features every item on their wish list. Moreover, their dominance of the public discourse had made the deficits, curbs on spending on social programs, and tax relief the order of the day for the Democratic leadership as well as the Republicans. In short, big business and the Tea Party have been in alliance as to policy while only now disagreeing on the extremity of the former’s methods. The alliance was sealed by Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan, the Tea Party darling, as his Vice-Presidential running mate.

Where does the Tea Party passion come from? How widespread is it? True blue Tea Partiers amount to only about 15% of the electorate at most. [3] That translates into roughly 30% of habitual Republican voters. Since the turnout in primary contests is rarely above 25 - 30%, the arithmetic is in their favor. They are in a position to threaten just about any Republic incumbent. That was demonstrated in 2012 when they unseated very conservative Senator Robert Bennett of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana. Since the taking of these two scalps, political terror grips all Republican legislators.


The Tea Partiers should not be called “populist” in the sense that the term is used to refer to cultivating the concerns of the average man-in-the-street who is feeling economically stretched or insecure. That may be true in Western Europe; it is not true now in the United States. Indeed, the typical Tea Party activist has an income that is above the national average. Whatever insecurities they might feel, these people typically are not your stereotyped low salary wage earner. So we have to look elsewhere for what animates them. The place to look is the collective memory book and imagery of Americans. Some of its contents are shared by everyone; some of it is peculiar to certain segments of society. Suspicion of government, and of Wall Street, as noted earlier, is a common feature - one that has various modalities and intensities, though. So-called “social issues” create sharper divisions and cut deeper.

Tea Partiers get angry at the imagined prospect of some alien government body encroaching on what they see as their God-given rights. Gun control is seen as perhaps the gravest danger to their sense of freedom from dictation and control by alien Washington since it deprives them of the ultimate means to rebel if necessary. Few imagine themselves actually taking up arms; many are moved by the symbolism. Other dangers to their conception of the American way of life are a “liberal” school curriculum that encourages licentiousness, disobedience to parental authority, and a rejection of perceived biblical teachings on homosexuality and abortion. There is, too, an undeniable strain of racism in the mix. Obama’s election has brought to the surface ugly bigotry that many thought had passed from the American scene. Its resurfacing has something to do with the other threats to these people’s belief in the “true” America, with the free floating anxieties provoked by 9/11 and then the financial crisis, with the leniency of the media and other public institutions in failing to condemn gross slanders and expressions of hate of various kinds. Tolerance of loudmouths slandering Obama as a “socialist,” a “Communist," or a “Muslim” inevitably liberates the impulse to expressions of outright racism. Then, there are those who have come to terms with the general integration of American society but who simply cannot stand a “black” man being in the White House as the ever-present public symbol of their America.

Revivalist religion - especially evangelical churches - is another ingredient in the brew. [4] The Tea Party is overwhelmingly Protestant with a disproportionate number of its activists associated with non-mainstream denominations. At the extreme are the Millennialists (like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas) who believe that they have a Heaven-mandated mission to turn the United States into a fundamentalist Christian nation. Others are devout believers in the prophecies of the Book of Revelation who strain to purify themselves and their country in the anticipation of Armageddon. These American salafists may be a relatively small percentage of Tea party voters. But they do infuse the movement with a passion and an unbending righteousness that are defining characteristics.


Every group in the United States has its own nuanced image of America. For the most part these images are compatible because the most prominent features are held in common. When one group, attached to a warped and parochial vision of American identity, comes to feel that they have a right and a mission to make that vision a reality for everyone, in other words, to impose it - the way is open to the kind of political behavior we now see in Congress. [5] Its occurrence at this time, in this form, with this degree of success has much to do with other trends in American society - the flight from accountability, the pervasive and perverse celebrity culture, a rampant individualism that is lapsing into self-absorbed narcissism, a drastically skewed distribution of national wealth that undermines hopes for the future that always have been America’s pressure release valve while it also reinforces an ethic of all-against all.

These broad trends are strong. However, the Tea Party itself is not necessarily on an upward trajectory. Its standing in national polls has fallen sharply in the wake of the budget hostage-taking crisis. It does remain the dominant force within the Republican Party where two-thirds of its Representatives in the House voted against last week’s compromise that allowed the government to reopen, albeit temporarily. Containing it, though, dissipating and channeling its energies, will require a kind of exertion by the country’s political elites - in and out of government - whose diffidence until now is the saddest commentary on the current American predicament.

Michael Brenner is a Senior Research Fellow at the Energy Institute of the University of Texas at Austin and a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS-Johns Hopkins.


[1] The most incisive interpretation of the transmuting of American politics is the insightful and rigorously argued work of the two respected Washington-based analysts Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute: It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (New York: Basic Books, 2012). The authors provide an account of the Tea Party’s virtual takeover of the Republican Party between 2009 and 2012.

[2] See the authoritative Pew Research Center’s Beyond Red Vs. Blue: The Political Typology, Section 8: “Domestic Issues and Social Policy”, May 4, 2012.

[3] For a snapshot in time taken at the Tea Party’s popular peak, "CBS/NY Times Poll: National Survey of Tea Party Supporters", New York Times, April 12, 2010.

[4] Williams, Daniel K. God's Own Party, (Oxford 2010); David E. Campbell, Robert D. Putnam "God and Caesar in America", Foreign Affairs, March April 2012, pp. 34-43, p.38. An appraisal of the Tea Party’s Christian connection was offered contemporaneously with its upwelling by Jim Wallis, “How Christian Is Tea Party Libertarianism?”, Huffington Post, May 27, 2009. A more dire reading of the Christian Right is offered by Chris Hedges, “The Radical Christian Right and the War on Government”, Truthdig, October 6, 2013.

[5] On the Tea Party’s ultra-Libertarian interpretation of the Constitution, see Ilya Somin; The Tea Party Movement and Popular Constitutionalism” Northwestern University Law Review; December 6, 2011.

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