Tea Party and American populism

Tea Party and American populism

The leading candidates of the party that expects to ride to victory in next year’s U.S. presidential elections think climate change is a hoax and don’t believe in evolution. In the minds of most voters favoring that party – the Republicans – that’s fine. Among the world’s advanced industrial nations, it is only in America that a good half of the population is ready to dismiss some of the givens of basic science. Alongside the science skeptics are isolationists who want to junk the United Nations. Many of these people align themselves with a recent populist phenomenon, the Tea Party.

What is the Tea Party? What brought America to the point that a third of its voters say they support it?

The Tea Party is a loose, leaderless grouping of mainly right-wing political activists who in 2009 began to protest against big government and multiculturalism, and demand a return to the “core American values” of individual self-reliance. They named themselves after an iconic patriotic event, the Boston Tea Party in 1773, which saw indignant colonials dump chests of tea into the harbor to protest British taxes. Today’s Tea Party is known for its rowdy, costumed stunts, but it is a serious political force. In last year’s mid-term elections the candidates it backed gave the Republicans the biggest gain in House of Representative seats that either they or the Democrats had had since 1938.

The Tea Party’s freshman congressmen are now going door to door in their districts with the message that President Barack Obama must go. If the party can be said to have spokesmen, they are the Fox TV hosts Glen Beck and Bill O’Reilly. The Republican presidential candidates liked best by the party are Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and the current front-runner, Rick Perry, who has called the country’s post-employment old-age pension plan, Social Security, “a Ponzi scheme,” and declared that America “is a Christian country.”

How did America get here? The answer is that the kind of refusal voiced by the Tea Party has been there all along, since British colonists arrived with the 18th century Enlightenment conviction that the common man could grasp political and scientific truths, and that the leadership elites, including elected leaders, could not be trusted, since their policies would favor their own interests. Out of these populist convictions came some worthy things, such as the free family farmland and universal male suffrage laws enacted by President Andrew Jackson. However, populists also opposed anti-lynching laws from the mid-1800s onward; a flavor of this seems to have fast-forwarded to the racism noticeable in Tea Party ranks today.

In mainstream America a distrust of experts and a resentment of the “cultured” classes have always been strong. Today it comes out in the mockery the Tea Party and others aim at the Harvard-trained Obama and his Ivy League associates. It’s instructive to recall that not long after Andrew Jackson, the Know-Nothing Party, a proudly anti-intellectual and xenophobic grouping, was able to crowd prominently onto the American political stage.

Right now the Tea Party’s anti-establishment rhetoric is playing well amid America’s joblessness and economic stagnation. Whether its appeal can last until election day, 14 months from now, is anyone’s guess. The influence of the Know-Nothing Party evaporated in less than five years.