Opinion: The Tea Party – lessons for the Liberal Democrats

The Tea Party movement is even now preparing for its first big electoral test.  Banners are being printed, bumper stickers peeled, computerised push-pollers tested.

They are a frightening prospect for European liberals.  Perhaps any foreign radical movement looks bizarre to outsiders, but the combination of Sarah Palin, red-neck fundamentalists and the shadowy Koch brothers with their billions is a fearsome prospect.

Yet the Tea Party has lessons for us, even if it doesn’t make its way over here – which in some form or another it seems likely to do.

Sarah PalinBecause it may not be quite what it seems.  I spent the first few months of this year in the USA trying to categorise the phenomenon, and what seems obvious now was not at all obvious then.

In fact, as recently as January, one New York Times columnist was arguing that the Tea Party was actually a potentially progressive movement of revolt against corporate power.

I heard Professor Gar Alperovitz, one of the most articulate prophets of local economics, saying something similar a month later.

Not only did the movement emerge in disgust at the bank bailout and the other state support for corporate failure, it also borrowed its name from the incident in 1773 when revolutionaries threw monopolistic East India Company tea into the harbour.

As late as the summer, one researcher found that the registered republicans in Tea Party groups were outnumbered two to one by independents and Democrats.

It doesn’t look like that now.  But the Tea Party would not be unusual in making a journey from progressive to intolerant populism.  The Social Credit movement went anti-semitic; the Populist Party became white supremacists.  It has just happened much faster this time.

The progressive roots of the Tea Party may be a clue to its power.  It is also a clue to what we should do in Europe to tackle that kind of movement at birth.

Particularly if the Tea Party really had a chance to go in a different, more radical direction, in its early stages as a revolt against corporatism.

There is a particularly important lesson for Liberal Democrats here, because we sometimes wrap ourselves too easily in the cloak of the political establishment.

This is not a criticism of the coalition.  It is a criticism of the way we borrow the language of the status quo.  Despite our own history, we are sometimes too fearful of people power when it threatens one of our favoured bureaucracies – local education authorities, the European Commission.

We forget sometimes that it is the ideal we are committed to.  Public service broadcasting, European peace, local democratic control over education, not necessarily the flawed institutions designed generations ago to deliver them.

We need, in short, to sharpen our own radical edge, so that we are instinctively on the side of individuals against the big bureaucracies – especially those who want to use their energy to house or educate themselves.

So we stand up for small business against monopolists.  For neighbourhoods against the big corporates (Tesco’s sponsorship of our annual candidates shindig is hardly going to keep the Tea Party at bay).

We also need a policy overhaul that recognises the days of trickle down economics is truly over.  You don’t have to be a Tea Party apparachik to be sceptical of handing over wads of cash to bankers, grocery and road-builders while the rest of us get repossessed.

Unless we allow ourselves some of the power of populism, then we offer that power on a plate to our political opponents.

Jean-Marie Le Pen famously claimed to represent the only anti-technocratic political force in Europe.  It is entirely our own fault if it he is right.

David Boyle is the co-author of Eminent Corporations: The Rise and Fall of the Great British Brands.

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This entry was posted in LDVUSA and Op-eds.
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10 Comments

  • If Le Pen is the only anti-technocratic force, perhaps that should make us question anti-technocracy as a philosophy. Ultimately, we get to the Gandhian extreme, at which we reject such products of large bureaucracies as railways, hospitals, and the rule of law.

  • There’s a very good Britain Votes Guest post at Who Rules Where on the subject here:

    http://whoruleswhere.com/2010/10/26/guest-post-united-states-mid-terms-%E2%80%93-congress/

  • The tea party ‘movement’ (I use quotes because movement implies some sort of grassroots groundswell, rather than the artificial creation of a deep-pocketed right-wing media empire) was never progressive in any sense. It began immediately after Barack Obama’s 2008 election, and prior to his inauguration. Its roots are in the sense of shock that comfortable right-wing Americans found on waking up to find that Obama had won the election; it violated their assumptions that the Republican party had a lock on the White House, and even more importantly, their assumption that no black man could every succeed in American politics. Behind the tea party is a combination of elite entitlement and raw racism. The wealthy elites provide the money and the organization; the racists provide the foot soldiers. There is nothing even slightly ‘populist’ about the tea party agenda either; their program of greater tax cuts (this in a country with remarkably low tax rates) and removal of business regulations is simply a copy of the Republican Party platform of the last thirty years.

  • Tom Papworth 30th Oct '10 - 5:40pm

    ” European liberals” are generally considered to be an anti-state, low-tax kinda’ group. That’s why liberalism has such a bad name in socialist-leaning countries such as France. I don’t think that the Germans or Greeks would currently associate liberalism with the Democrats in America. They’d be more likely to see liberalism as embodied in the FDP.

    Also, you need to be a bit careful about characaturing the Tea Party as “the combination of Sarah Palin, red-neck fundamentalists and the shadowy Koch brothers with their billions is a fearsome prospect”. It was a grassroots movement first-and-foremost, consisting of low- and middle-income earners who were sick of being mulct by Washington insiders who thought that every problem could be solved by throwing money at it – including the problem of a lack of money.

  • Tom Papworth 30th Oct '10 - 6:08pm

    “caricaturing”, even!

    “Tea Party would not be unusual in making a journey from progressive to intolerant populism”

    Not to mention the Labour Party! Actually, the problem with the Tea Party is that it isn’t ideological enough. Thus, a liberal distrust of state-socialist solutions is combined with a thoroughly Conservative line on immigration.

    “Liberal Democrats … we sometimes wrap ourselves too easily in the cloak of the political establishment”

    Sometimes? I’d be inclined to say all-too-often. I agree with your list of examples but it just scratches the surface. But we need to be careful as well: “neighbourhoods against the big corporates” sounds great, but remember that it is individuals that lie at the heart of liberalism, and it is individuals who choose to shop in the Tesco Local (with its wider choice, higher quality and lower prices) than in the local shop that cries “unfair” when competition drives it to the wall. We should be championing consumers, not producers. That doesn’t mean protecting Tesco, but it doesn’t mean protecting it’s (inferior) competitors either.

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