The Tea Party has dramatically changed US politics in just two years. In the run-up to the crucial midterm elections, Andrew Neil went on a whistlestop tour to assess the mood of the nation
It’s 2am on a balmy August morning in Lexington, Kentucky, and the hotel car park is a flurry of activity as people arrive in cars and scurry on board two hired coaches, which rev up their engines in expectation of a long drive through the night. There is excitement in the air but also some apprehension: these are ordinary folk from the American heartland on a mission that will take them into the heart of enemy territory — Washington DC. America’s Tea Party is on the move.
Soon we’re gliding in the dark through bluegrass country. On the coach, the talk is of retaking the country from those who currently run it, taking an axe to big government and returning to constitutional basics, when federal government was limited and power resided largely with the states. It’s all said with an evangelical fervour.
“America needs a spiritual renewal,” says a genial man everybody calls Mario because of his spectacular handlebar moustache. “Amen to that,” says an elegant, middle-aged woman sitting next to me. Cutting government down to size will clearly be God’s work.
Like almost everyone else on the bus, both are political novices. Never much thought about politics or even much cared. Now they’re riled up and fully signed up to the Tea Party. They’ve been summoned to the nation’s capital by, of all people, a TV presenter called Glenn Beck who hosts a daily show on Fox News, which has become, in effect, the broadcasting arm of the Tea Party.
He has urged them to flock to a rally to “Restore Honour” to America and my fellow passengers are committed enough to oblige, even if they have to lose a night’s sleep and pay their own way. It’s been billed as a non-political gathering, just a tribute to patriotism and Christianity. Nobody’s much fooled by that.
On the coach, everybody seems an expert on the US Constitution. One man, a blue-collar worker, points me to the 10th Amendment: “The powers not delegated to [the federal government] … are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Another takes me to Article 1, Section 8, which delineates the powers of the federal government. On a strict interpretation, they are pretty limited: largely tax, defence and foreign affairs, though it also tasks the federal government with providing for the “general welfare”, which would seem a get-out-of-jail card for those who think the constitution does sanction big government.
Tea Party activists approach the Constitution the same fundamentalist way they approach the Bible: literally. The words are sacred and must be taken at face value. They should not be reinterpreted for modern times. Indeed, it is time to return to the original interpretation, in which, supposedly, the federal government knew its place and the individual states mattered more.
Tea Party folk tend to be social conservatives with an evangelical Christian bent, but it’s not all about opposition to abortion or gay marriage. Far from it. These days, it is the evil of Big Government rather than the goodness of God’s way that really gets their juices going.
As dawn comes up, we’ve already reached the forbidding forests of West Virginia. We stop by the roadside for a very early morning coffee. This is Tea Party country: solid, simple, unpretentious, self-reliant. On the other side of the mountains the heart of the Evil Empire beckons. A couple beside me shiver. It might not just be the morning cold.
Though the Tea Party is barely a couple of years old, nobody can quite agree how it started. But it was certainly given impetus in February last year by an on-air rant from Rick Santelli, a reporter for CNBC, a financial channel, who gave an impromptu speech from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange railing against the Obama administration’s plans to bail out people in trouble with their mortgages.
‘We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party’
“This is America,” exclaimed Santelli. “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbour’s mortgage who have an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise your hand. President Obama, are you listening? We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m going to start organising.”
Not many people watch CNBC. But a clip was posted on YouTube, where it quickly gained a much wider currency. And it struck a chord with many Americans, especially in the heartlands, where a financial meltdown in far-off Wall Street had turned into a recession on their Main Street. While the federal government bailed out the bankers, plain folk had to fend for themselves.
In the wake of the financial crash in the autumn of 2008, US unemployment soared to almost 10%, where it has stubbornly stayed, despite various fiscal and monetary stimuli. Perhaps another 10% have had to accept pay cuts and part-time working, so one in five of the labour force has been directly affected. The cause of the crash — the collapse of sub-prime mortgages — has naturally taken its toll on house prices. Foreclosures rocketed (100 000 last month alone) as people couldn’t keep up the mortgage payments and tried to sell, only to discover their houses were now worth less than their mortgages.
This is a recession in which many Americans have lost their homes as well as their jobs. It has also been a recruiting sergeant for the Tea Party.
Outside what used to be a massive General Motors car plant in Dayton, Ohio, I stand with two women who used to work there. It’s closed now, a victim of the recession and globalisation. Road signs and overhead traffic lights swing in the wind. The only sign of life inside the derelict factory, which stretches as far as you can see, is a security guard in a truck who eyes us warily through the perimeter fence.
The women, who worked on the assembly line, are bitter. They’ve worked hard all their lives and played by the rules: striking was anathema to them, restrictive practices unknown, bolshie behaviour alien. Now they’re on the scrapheap through no fault of their own. The older one, just turned 50, doubts she’ll ever work again. Both believe their children will have an even worse time than them.
Making ends meet
They say the Obama stimulus — in total around one trillion dollars and counting — has only benefited construction workers who already had jobs. Even the federal bailout of GM failed to save their factory. They face a future struggling to make ends meet doing part-time jobs on the minimum wage. They don’t think the government cares about them and have no faith in it. Indeed, they don’t want its help any more; they’d rather it just went away. As I listen to their story it is hard not to shed a tear. For them, the American dream is over. They’ve joined the Tea Party.
Dayton used to be a prosperous blue-collar town. Now it is withering on the vine. I walk with Jim and Randy from a housing organisation through a once-prosperous neighbourhood where most of the houses are boarded up. Jim holds a thick sheaf of paper: the foreclosed properties up for that month’s auction. Some won’t sell at any price. Randy tells me an Australian recently bought one on eBay for $5 000. It might not be a bargain: Ohio has fierce summers and brutal winters. Its big wooden houses quickly disintegrate without care and attention. All around, whole streets are already crumbling.
Colorado is my favourite state in the Union, with constantly changing weather and glorious vistas. It was once the Wild West and on the western slopes of the Rockies it still feels like the frontier.
In recent years, the Democrats have pretty much swept the board come election time. But voters are now flocking to the Tea Party: one-third of the state’s registered voters say they identify in some way with the Tea Party, the highest of any state.
The Tea Party is obsessed with myths about America’s past. The Founding Fathers are revered as gods, the Constitution is sacrosanct, America was uniquely established to be the land of the free. This reverence for the late 18th century might explain why some of its members like to dress up in colonial garb, trying to look like Mr and Mrs George Washington. In Colorado, they even go in for pioneer re-enactments, where the women and children are in period dress, the men spend the weekend dressed as Davy Crockett wandering around with muskets and everybody lives in tents (but with portable lavatories nearby).
I went to one such camp near the ski resort of Crested Butte, where I came across Bob McConnell, a veteran action man who’d served in Vietnam and climbed Everest. Another political virgin, he was running for the Republican nomination for his local congressional district.
‘That’s America. That’s freedom’
“Breathe that air in,” he instructs me as we walk towards the re-enactment camp. “That’s America. That’s freedom.” Washington did seem another country. But Bob says it’s everywhere, controlling Colorado’s land, farming, minerals, even the air they breathe. He will fight to get the federal government off the state’s back, he says, if he gets to Washington.
Bob is running with the enthusiastic backing of the Tea Party (and the much-treasured endorsement of Sarah Palin). The Tea Party isn’t out to be a traditional party in its own right. Its explicit aim is to infiltrate the Republican party and shift it sharply to the right, recreating it in its image and returning it to the true faith of limited government and fiscal conservatism.
The Tea Party is clearly conservative but it is no fan of the Republican establishment, which it blames almost as much as the Democrats for presiding over the inexorable rise of Big Government. Even George Bush is seen as a villain because he was a Big Government conservative who hugely increased federal spending on domestic programmes — and in the Tea Party lexicon it doesn’t get worse in the traitor stakes than that.
Tea Party stands for “Taxed Enough Already”. But it’s also a nod to the famous Boston tea party, a tax revolt that sparked the American Revolution. And just as the tea party of old was reacting against an imperial government in London, so today’s Tea Party sees itself taking on an imperial government in Washington. For Bob, President Obama doesn’t seem much of an improvement on George III. Even the Obama healthcare reforms have become a negative. You might think the ordinary members of the Tea Party would welcome an extension of health cover to those previously lacking. But it’s dismissed as just another example of Big Government in action.
Bob didn’t win the Republican nomination. The party plumped for a more mainstream candidate. But across America this summer the Tea Party made its mark. In Republican primary after Republican primary, Tea Party-backed candidates won the day. According to a New York Times analysis, 33 Tea Party-supported candidates in Tuesday’s crucial midterm elections are in seats that the Republicans are likely to win — or are too close to call; eight are given a “good or better chance” of winning a place in the Senate.
No wonder the Republican establishment is running scared. The Tea Party has given the Republicans a range of exotic candidates for the midterms, from Sharron Angle in Nevada, who wants to phase out social security (pensions), to Joe Miller running for the Senate in Alaska, who wants the federal government out of education, to Ken Buck in Colorado (who is anti-abortion even in rape cases), to Christine O’Donnell, running for Joe Biden’s old seat in Delaware, who is passionate in her fundamentalist views but whose strong stand against masturbation is not necessarily a vote-winner.
The Democrats are hoping that some of these candidates are so exotic as to be unelectable. And no doubt some are. But the Tea Party has energised the Republican base and for too long the Democrats refused to take it seriously. Now they do — but in some seats perhaps too late. The Tea Party takeover of the Republicans could be unstoppable. Next stop: the takeover of America.
It’s a searing hot Saturday and Mario and his Kentucky Tea Partiers have arrived in Washington for the Glenn Beck rally, along with several hundred thousand like-minded folk who camp alongside the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall.
The date — 28 August — and the location — in front of the Lincoln Monument — are no accident. Beck has chosen to “Restore Honour” on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and on the exact location where he delivered it 47 years before. The symbolism is clear: King fought for the civil rights of black people in the days when the south (including Washington DC) was still segregated and explicit racism was rife. Now the subliminal message is that these decent, ordinary, largely white Tea Party folk are the victims of an overbearing, godless government and they too must fight for their civil rights. As part of the warm-up they even run footage of King’s stirring words on huge screens.
It’s a clever attempt at what you might call white minority politics — if not entirely convincing. King, after all, wanted the federal government to overrule the states and desegregate the south. The Tea Party wants to restore states’ rights. And much as it affects to love Abraham Lincoln, widely regarded as America’s greatest president, that doesn’t quite add up either: Lincoln fought a terrible civil war to enforce the will of the federal government on the south. That’s hardly in the Tea Party playbook.
None of this matters on the day. Beck has them eating out of his hand in a beautifully choreographed display of words, music and pictures. He doesn’t call the president a socialist or a Marxist, as he has in the past. He doesn’t liken his economic policies to those of Nazi Germany, which he’s also done. Nor does he repeat his speculation that detention camps are being prepared for Tea Party followers who challenge the government (the Tea Party continually frightens itself with fears of imminent tyranny). Today, the man who’s made millions by exploiting what divides Americans concentrates on what unites them.
It’s all a build-up to the star turn. The crowd is in a frenzy by the time Sarah Palin takes to the stage, a diminutive figure in a square white jacket. The Tea Party says it has no leaders but it certainly has a heroine in Palin. The Tea Party doesn’t have a presidential candidate but it will certainly try to force one on the Republican party when Obama runs for re-election in 2012. Palin is not everybody’s cup of tea, even in the Tea Party, but for the moment she is the only national politician they have. If the signs are propitious, she will run.
The Tea Party pretty much takes it for granted that its Republican favourite sons and daughters will do well on Tuesday. It expects to take control of the House of Representatives and at the very least savage the Democrat majority in the Senate.
It likes to portray itself as a ramshackle, grassroots movement, and maybe it was, but it’s already become a pretty well-oiled machine, mentored, tutored and organised by established conservative advocacy groups such as FreedomWorks. And if it started out as a movement of Middle Americans with a burning commitment and bare bank accounts, it hasn’t taken long for America’s wealthy conservative benefactors to give it a generous helping hand.
The big prize, however, is 2012: if they do not remove Obama from the White House they will regard themselves as failures. After his victory in 2008, Obama looked like a two-term president; now, nobody’s sure, especially if the economy stays in the doldrums.
But whatever happens in 2012, the core of the Tea Party’s big idea could stick. If Republicans win big on Tuesday, then even Obama and the Democrats will be talking about more limited government in the run-up to 2012. Two years ago, when a black man took the White House and the Democrats swept Capitol Hill, it looked as if a new era of American liberalism had dawned. Then came the Tea Party and with it the prospect of a new age of conservatism. Who would have thought it? – guardian.co.uk