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Can the Tea Party save the American Dream?

The right-wing Tea Party movement is, according to some commentators, turning into a mass, ‘grassroots’ movement and revolutionising politics in America. Is it?

If the ‘lame-stream media’, to steal an appropriate phrase, is to be believed, then there has been a ‘massive’, indeed ‘historic’, change in the biggest economy and the most powerful country on the planet. The United States’ mid-term elections, held last month, midway between the four-yearly presidential elections, saw the biggest swing to the Republican Party for 72 years. The Republicans now hold a majority in the House of Representatives, and fell just short of control of the Senate, only four years after voters handed both chambers of the US Congress to the Democrats. A conservative revolution has swept the nation. At least, that’s the lame-stream view. But in truth, nothing much has changed.

The Republicans and the Democrats are essentially two wings of the same party – the Business Party – and there’s very little to choose between them. During election campaigns, significant policy differences are downplayed or ignored completely – largely because they don’t exist – and which wing wins depends on which has succeeded in attracting the most investment from sections of the capitalist class, spent the most money, and delivered the most effective PR/advertising campaign.

As for what voters themselves might be thinking, the election results don’t tell us all that much, as Stefan points out on our American party’s website (http://wspus.org/2010/11/the-meaning-of-the-u-s-midterm-election-results). The truth is that most voters, and a disproportionate number of Democrat voters, stayed at home, and that the success of the more ‘progressive’ Democrats was at least as noteworthy as the success of the more-right-wing Republicans – in fact, a lower proportion of Americans voted Republican in 2010 than in 2008. In any case, as a result of the way the electoral system works, the votes of just 3 percent of citizens make all the difference between a Democratic and a Republican landslide. So much for the rise of conservatism.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the election, and the campaign leading up to it, was the growth of the so-called Tea Party movement. This is a network of hundreds of supposedly ‘anti-establishment’ conservative groups across the US, which, if nothing else, energised the Republican Party and made the election campaign slightly more interesting. No one knows just how many Tea Partiers there are – it’s not a single organisation with a membership or leadership – but it has had a significant impact on American politics, if only because the lame-stream media has obligingly given it a voice and credibility.

The relatively lame performance of the Tea Partiers in the election would seem to draw into question the common claim that the Tea Party represents a significant popular force, with a mass ‘grassroots’ following. But last month more than half of Americans in a Rasmussen poll said they view the Tea Party favourably – that’s despite the fact, or perhaps because of the fact, that the Tea Party has no manifesto, no clear policies, and no clearly expressed ideas about what it would do should it win power. Instead, the party makes its stand on reducing the deficit without specifying how, cutting taxes, ‘taking back’ America from a supposedly corrupt ‘establishment’, and abolishing vast swathes of government, including such evils as environmental protection legislation, subsidised healthcare for the poor and elderly, and unemployment benefit.

To the extent that this is a grassroots movement, then, it is a movement of people organising against their economic interest. The reasons why this happens are many, not least of which is that people have been conned into it by a PR campaign funded by billionaire businessmen. But the Tea Party is also saying things – about the bankruptcy of the economy, about the rottenness of government and other institutions – that ordinary people are increasingly interested in hearing.

Why has the Tea Party risen to prominence now?
The context for the rise of the Tea Party is a profound and deep crisis – economic and ideological. Let’s take the economic aspect first. It is certainly true, as apologists for capitalism will be quick to tell you, that capitalism has continued to be very good at creating massive amounts of wealth. But whose wealth? The wealth of the nation is now concentrated in fewer hands than it has been for 80 years, says Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, and former secretary of labour under Bill Clinton (http://robertreich.org). Almost a quarter of total income generated in the United States is going to the top 1 per cent; and the top one-tenth of one per cent of Americans now rake in as much as the bottom 120 million. In 1973, chief executives were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now the multiple is 300. That’s what they mean when they say nothing can match capitalism for creating wealth.

At the other end of the scale things are getting pretty desperate. Wages for the majority of the population have stayed flat since 1973, while work hours and insecurity have increased. And that’s for those ‘lucky’ enough to have a job. America is facing ‘the worst jobs crisis in generations’, says Andy Kroll in a report for TomDispatch.com (5 October), with the number of unemployed exploding by over 400 percent – from 1.3 million in December 2007, when the recession began, to 6.8 million this June. As a result, 11 million borrowers – or nearly 23 percent of all homeowners with a mortgage – now find themselves ‘underwater’, that is, owing more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. In June of this year, over 41 million Americans were relying on food stamps from the Federal government to feed themselves. That’s an 18 per cent year on year increase. Thirty cents of every dollar in personal income now comes from some form of government support.

In short, capitalism is in its biggest crisis since the Great Depression. This means that wealth is returning to its ‘rightful owners’, the capitalist class; the workers, meanwhile, must make do with austerity.

The American Dream
Meanwhile, the related ideological crisis is presenting itself as the ‘end of the American dream’, or, as Edward Luce in the Financial Times (30 July) puts it, a crisis in the consciousness of the middle class. Lame-stream media commentators often have lots to say about the ‘middle class’, but they will very rarely define what they mean by the term. This is very wise on their part, because it would quickly become obvious that the ‘middle class’ includes just about everybody, which would make people think about just what it is they’re supposed to be in the middle of. The ‘middle-class’ couple Luce interviews for his article work as a ‘warehouse receiver’ (he lugs stuff around a warehouse) and an ‘anaesthesia supply technician’ (she makes sure nurses and doctors have the stuff they need) – surely working-class jobs by any definition. Hilariously, Luce cannot even bring himself to describe the woman’s father – an uneducated miner – as working class without wrapping scare quotes around the term. ‘Working class’ is clearly a taboo term – the working class is not supposed to exist.

Still, it’s not a taboo socialists respect. As working -class people, with jobs, living in the richest country on the planet, and with a joint income about a third above the US median, Luce’s interviewees could think themselves not too badly off, relatively speaking. They lived in a house on a nice, tree-lined street, never went hungry, and turned on the air-conditioning when it got too hot. Once upon a time, says Luce, ‘this was called the American Dream’. Now, it’s a different story. Their house is under threat of repossession, their son was kicked off his mother’s health insurance and only put back on at crippling cost, and, as the couple say themselves, they are only ever ‘a pay cheque or two from the streets’. Who isn’t? We’re all middle class now, after all. This ‘economic strangulation’, as Luce puts it, began long before the recession – as we pointed out above, wages have been flat since 1973 – but is only now being really felt as the credit cards are cut up, jobs lost, and state spending on social services cut back.

But it’s not just that things are bad. Americans are also losing confidence that things will get any better: a growing majority of parents do not think their children will end up better off than they are, for example. Another important ingredient in the American Dream has gone off. It is this growing majority of disaffected working-class people, who had been convinced that they were middle class and doing pretty well, who are looking for answers. And unless they look very hard indeed, beyond the lame-stream, the only answers they’re hearing with any coherence at all are coming from the Tea Party.

The appeal of the Tea Party
It can’t be denied that Tea Party ideas have some superficial appeal. The Tea Party was described by Ben McGrath in The New Yorker as a collection of, among other things, “Atlas Shruggers”. No doubt McGrath could be confident that his American audience would understand what he meant by this. Atlas Shrugged is a novel by Ayn Rand and, according to an often-quoted American survey of readers, was ranked second only to the Bible as a book that had most influenced their lives. It was a tiny, unrepresentative and biased survey, but still, there’s no doubt that the book provokes strong feelings among its readers and admirers and is a best-seller in the US – no small achievement given the book’s length and the fact that it is explicitly a novel exploring abstract philosophical ideas. The strong feeling it provokes in most socialists is revulsion – it is a manifesto for unrestrained capitalism, proclaims the virtues of selfishness, and the characters we are supposed to look up to as models of human moral virtue are vile, self-serving monomaniacs and workaholics.

But it’s not hard to see the appeal of Rand’s ideas either. She is committed, at least in theory, to individual freedom, independence from all authority, and writes inspiringly of human achievement – in Rand, human life is not a pit of despair, but an exciting adventure, full of possibility. The best social and economic system for realising human potential, according to Rand, is capitalism. But not really-existing capitalism – more a utopian vision of what a free market, laissez faire future might be like if only people acted rationally and according to their own interest, and the state got off people’s backs. Rand was interesting, but wrong. Marx’s Capital shows that capitalism – even when it is operating perfectly well, without corruption or unnecessary state interference – must necessarily produce misery and exploitation; and that the state, far from standing in the way of free markets, was an absolutely essential tool for creating and maintaining them.

The truth is that, whatever the appeal of the Tea Party or Ayn Rand to working-class people, the ideas are unlikely to have the desired impact for one good reason: the business elite and the capitalists, who Rand and the Tea Party hold up as models of human virtue, don’t like them either. As Lisa Lerer and John McCormick put it in a cover story in Bloomberg BusinessWeek (13 October), Tea Party ideas:

“… may sound like a corporate dream come true – as long as the corporation in question doesn't have international operations, rely on immigrant labour, see the value of national monetary policy, or find itself in need of a subsidy to boost exports or an emergency loan from the Fed to survive the worst recession in seven decades. Business leaders who favour education reform, immigration reform, or investment in infrastructure can likely say goodbye to those ideas for the short term as well.”

So there’s little danger of capitalists going too far in supporting “free market” or “laissez faire” capitalism – they understand their own business interests too well. The only remaining danger is that these ideas will continue to have a poisonous appeal for the working class, and to radical movements genuinely searching for answers to social problems. It’s up to socialists to provide better answers and get them out there. Can the Tea Party save the American Dream? Probably not. Socialists certainly hope not. The American Dream has always been just that – a dream. Now, though, the dream is turning into a nightmare. It’s time to wake up.

STUART WATKINS