Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Mike's Letter from America No19

Storm in a Tea Cup?

So, what’s the story with the Tea Party? The US media talks about little else in this year’s mid-term election season, amid stories of incumbent Republican senators and congressmen being overturned in primary elections by candidates from the ultra-conservative Right. If the more alarmist predictions are to be believed, the USA today is somewhere near where Germany was in 1932.

The latest story that has caught the media’s attention is the victory of Christine O’Donnell in the Republican primary elections for the Delaware senate race. O’Donnell is the craziest of crazies, who believes that creationism should be taught in schools, masturbation is a sin, and that genetic engineering has produced ‘mice with fully-functioning human brains’. The likes of O’Donnell provide comic relief, and she has given the satirists the kind of material not seen since Sarah Palin’s run for vice-president. But her victory comes in the wake of more serious mobilizations such as the Islamophobic campaign against the Park51 community centre in New York, and the ‘Restoring Honor’ rally in Washington DC organized by Palin and the increasingly-unhinged Fox News pundit Glenn Beck.

So what is the ‘Tea Party’, and is it a serious threat? It began in April last year as a series of rallies against (imaginary) Obama tax rises, in which participants were invited to send tea bags to their congressmen in imitation of the Boston Tea Party. (Of course, had these people been around in the 1770s, they would probably have condemned the original Tea Party as an act of wanton destruction of private property by a bunch of terrorists). Since then, having dropped the original, embarrassing title of ‘teabaggers’, the movement has formed itself into a large, rather unfocussed, but undeniably real presence. It embraces criticisms of federal government taxes and spending, a visceral dislike of Obama that borders on (and usually crosses into) racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia, and an exaggerated fear of ’socialism’. Although some of their leaders would deny it, the Tea Party usually embraces right-wing conspiracy theories that Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim, or that climate change is a hoax. It would be easy to dismiss them as kooks, but they have successfully overthrown more moderate Republicans, their ideas are promoted to a mass audience by Fox News, and they influence more traditional conservatives such as former Republican House Leader Newt Gingrich, who gleefully whipped up the racist frenzy against the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’.

But beneath the media hype the Tea Party is not all it seems. Far from being a popular mass movement, it receives massive corporate funding, especially from the oil-billionaire Koch brothers, who have an obvious personal interest in low taxes, weak regulation of industry, and continuing reliance on fossil fuels. The average Tea Partier is over 40, of above-average income, white and male, a demographic that is increasingly unrepresentative of the USA. Polls suggest that only about 25% of the population support the Tea Party and even more worryingly for them, 50% have not even heard of them. A movement that has failed to even enter the consciousness of half the population is hardly on the verge of seizing power. They have also exposed cracks within their own movement and within the Republican Party as a whole. ‘Mouse-brain’ O’Donnell was roundly attacked on Fox News by ‘Bush’s Brain’ Karl Rove, and there was talk of the official Republican Party denying her support or funds. In Alaska and Florida there are ‘moderate’ Republicans running as independents against the official party candidate. The Tea Party itself is an amorphous mishmash of ideas and prejudices, and the libertarian (pro-free market, but also pro-civil liberties and anti-war) section of the movement is not an easy ally for ultra-conservative homophobic religious fanatics such as O’Donnell.

It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the threat from the Tea Party entirely. As we have seen with the BNP in Britain and the Front National in France, a minority far-right movement may not be able to gain power, but it can still poison the well by pulling the whole political spectrum to the right. If, as everyone expects, the Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives in November, it will be to a Republican Party which is farther to the right than ever before. Laws such as Arizona’s racist SC1070 (which allows the police to question anyone they even suspect is an illegal immigrant) are a taste of what could happen at a federal level. The Tea Party may not be fascists, but sections of this new Right movement talk and act in a fascistic way. The campaign against Park51 was the classic example of racist divide-and-rule at a time of economic recession, and its leaders have links to the EDL and Dutch racist politician Geert Wilders, who spoke at their 9/11 hatefest in New York. Glenn Beck, who is so quick to accuse Obama of being Hitler, uses some of the same rhetorical devices as the Fuehrer – appealing to the lower-middle classes’ sense of alienation, presenting his white gentile audience as victims of conspiracies by non-Christians (Muslims, this time), while presenting himself as a messianic deliverer who will ‘restore honor’ to his country.

One other ingredient is necessary for the far-right to thrive – a lack of opposition. The Democrats’ timidity has allowed the Tea Partiers to flaunt their prejudices almost unopposed, but the USA’s small socialist left was central to the inspiring opposition to the racists’ anti-mosque and Qur’an-burning antics on September 11th. The prospect of a conservative victory in the elections is depressing, but it will not be a disaster so long as there is resistance from outside the walls of the Capitol.

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