Daniel McCarthy

The trouble with tea parties

British conservatives should beware of emulating the American right, says Daniel McCarthy. The truth is that grass-roots activism does little to influence government policy

The trouble with tea parties
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For many Tory voters, a change of government on 6 May will not be enough. What Britain needs, they think, is little less than a revolution — against skyscraping taxes and personal debt, a corrupt parliament, and a surveillance state that is stripping away liberties as old as Magna Carta. In short, Britain needs what America has: tea parties, a grassroots movement willing to take to the streets in protest against state power. Daniel Hannan and his Freedom Association lit the fuse for such a rebellion, or so they hoped, in February with a Brighton tea party. And Hannan is not alone, there are signs everywhere of a longing for a populist backlash.

And odd as it might seem for Britons to take up a symbol of colonial rebellion, the UK has reasons every bit as good as America for staging tea parties. Both countries have lately suffered from the same malady: spendthrift centre-left governments with a preference for the well-connected over the common man — for Wall Street over Main Street or the City over the high street.

What can a populist backlash hope to accomplish? Superficially, the right-wing tea parties in America seem to be going great guns. Barack Obama’s poll numbers have slumped from a little over 60 per cent support last year to 50 per cent or less in recent surveys. The tea party protests have articulated and dramatised a widely felt dissatisfaction with the president. They have also galvanised the Republicans. Last year the party won elections for governor in New Jersey and Virginia and — in a startling display of the Democratic party’s crumbling support — this January seized the US Senate seat formerly held by Edward Kennedy. The tea parties had claimed the throne of American liberalism’s crown prince, if not yet its king.

Suddenly the future looks bright for Republicans, who eagerly await November elections in which they are sure to make gains and may, with a bit of luck, retake one or both houses of Congress. However unfashionable tea parties may seem among the chattering classes, they’ve boosted Republican chances at the ballot box and may be pushing the party in a libertarian direction on questions of spending and government power.

But those who pine for a more populist style in British politics would do well to take a second look at the object of their infatuation. It may be an unpopular thing to point out, but it’s a fact that American experience with anti-establishment, grass-roots movements is less encouraging than a moment’s glance would suggest.

Think back to 1993, when the Republicans were in a predicament very similar to the one they faced early last year. They had a hangover from an unpopular president named George Bush, who had done much to discredit the party. The country was slowly pulling itself out of recession, and Democrats controlled Congress and the White House. Then, as now, resistance arose in Middle America as Bill Clinton sought to use his legislative majorities to reshape the US healthcare system. Clinton’s support for free trade and high levels of immigration contributed to the impression that he had little sympathy for the blue-collar workers of the Democrats’ traditional base. His cultural liberalism also seemed out of touch with the values of Main Street. These sources of irritation led to the rise in 1994 of a class of voters whom the enlightened media dubbed ‘angry white males’ — but were in fact tea parties, by another, less appealing name. Their archetype was the character Michael Douglas played in the film Falling Down, a sort of suburban Death Wish.

The angry white males of 1994 swept Republicans to power in both chambers of Congress for the first time in over 40 years. Yet the election did not derail Clinton’s presidency. Far from it: his opponents had more passion than brains, and he easily outmanoeuvred them in a 1995 appropriations duel that briefly shut down much of the United States federal government. Republican attempts to impeach Clinton in 1998 for perjuring himself in testimony about his affair with Monica Lewinsky also backfired, with Clinton again emerging more popular than ever. Meanwhile, the Republican party itself steadily lost interest in the populist issues that had propelled it to power. A constitutional amendment to limit the number of terms congressmen could serve failed to pass the House of Representatives. Budgets for programmes Republicans had pledged in 1994 to eliminate increased instead. And in 1996 when Republicans chose their next presidential candidate, they opted not for the populist firebrand Patrick Buchanan but the septuagenarian Kansas Senator Robert Dole, an establishment politician so grey as to make John Major seem Technicolor.

So, yes, the grass-roots revolution of 1994 succeeded in electing Republicans, but (and this is where Daniel Hannan and his supporters need to take note) it failed to transform the party’s leadership or enact a populist platform.

And lately the American left has also run headlong into the limits of grass-roots politics. Before the tea parties, there were the ‘netroots’, much-discussed left-wing internet activists who helped push the Democrats to victory in Congress in 2006 and who proved indispensable to Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic party’s 2008 presidential primaries. What has been their reward for fuelling the Democrats’ comeback? The back of Obama’s hand, as he has reneged on pledges to close the prison camp at Guantanamo and release documents relating to torture under President Bush. The American left has even had reason to rue Obama’s healthcare legislation, which solved the problem of millions of Americans lacking medical insurance not by creating a national insurance plan but by mandating that individuals buy insurance from private companies.

If that idea does not sound like something dreamed up by a progressive academic, or a lefty tea party, that would be because it was not. It was first proposed by the right-wing Heritage Foundation think tank, which in the early 1990s saw an ‘individual mandate’ as a pro-business alternative to Bill Clinton’s plans for national healthcare. All the exertions of the netroots ultimately led to passage of a law that took its inspiration from the Republican right.

However potent angry voters, netroots and tea parties may be at the ballot box, they are largely useless at changing government policy. That task is left to intellectuals at think tanks closely allied to business interests and the political establishment. The most dramatic changes in US politics over the last 30 years have come not from grass-roots agitation but from the carefully laid plans of neoconservative and neoliberal insiders: the experts and insiders who conceive of deregulation, re-regulation, pre-emptive wars and nation-building wars. Ironically, to the extent that populism trades on class resentment and anti-intellectualism, it guarantees its own failure. The grass-roots activists who supported Patrick Buchanan in 1996 had few egghead allies who could influence policy in the Republican administration. By contrast, neoconservative thinkers who have never had a mass base of support have always been able, by dint of their credentials, to secure a place for themselves near the levers of power.

Critics of Britain’s over-regulated big state should heed the lessons of America’s experience. Rather than whipping up populist frenzy, they would do better to pour their resources into crafting policy recommendations that can be pressed upon David Cameron from above — from the high ground of intellectual politics rather than the sea level of populism. Tea parties might be great fun and helpful at election time, but when it comes to changing the course of government, they amou nt only to sound and fury.

Daniel McCarthy is senior editor of the American Conservative.

Written byDaniel McCarthy

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review.

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