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More tea, anyone?

interior-teaThis article was published in the Sunday Herald on February 7, 2010.

The Tea Party Convention, which ended last night in Nashville, was an exercise in contradictions. The grassroots movement it sought to formalise is, by definition, anti-establishment, with a disdain for choreographed political theatre. Its energy cannot be captured, nor its rage expressed, by a slick, manifestly corporate event at the Gaylord Opryland hotel.

Tickets cost $549 each, a large chunk of which went straight to the keynote speaker, Sarah Palin, who received a reported $100,000 appearance fee. Influential conservative activist Erick Erickson, who runs the Red State website, said the convention smelled “scammy”. American Majority and the American Liberty Alliance pulled their sponsorship. Congresswomen Michele Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn withdrew at the last minute.

As a result, this intended christening of a third force in American politics turned out to be something of an anti-climax. The opening day account on Fox News sounded a suitably defensive note. “Don’t let anyone tell you this is not a big deal,” reporter Carl Cameron said. “If this gathering is unimportant and this movement is a mirage, why are its detractors so upset and its participants so upbeat?”

Palin justified taking part in a USA Today editorial. “I look forward to meeting many Americans who share a commitment to limited government, common sense and personal responsibility,” she wrote. “The soul of the Tea Party is the people who belong to it – everyday Americans who grow our food, run our small businesses, teach our children how to read, serve the less fortunate and fight our wars. They’re folks in small towns and cities across this nation who saw what was happening to our country and decided to get involved. Thank God for them.”

A few core principles – small government, low taxes, national security – serve as a loose ideology, adaptable enough to bring together socially moderate fiscal conservatives, evangelical Christians, nativists, disciples of Ayn Rand, advocates of the gold standard, conspiracy theorists, libertarians and “birthers” who passionately believe that Barack Obama is an illegitimate president. Their implacable opposition is succinctly expressed in the chant of “no, you can’t” that is often heard at demonstrations.

Until recently, Democrats downplayed the threat posed by this coalition, suggesting that it stood more chance of splitting the Republican party than upending their majority. Scott Brown’s shock victory in Massachusetts, propelled by a million dollars a day in small donations and boundless grassroots enthusiasm, changed all that. America’s first right wing street protest movement of the modern era has earned the right to be taken very seriously.

The Tea Party’s image has been shaped by partisan cable news reports. Fox News host Glenn Beck – along with Palin, the nearest thing to a national figurehead for the insurgency – promoted a march on Washington the day after the eighth anniversary of the World Trade Centre terrorist attacks. In his network’s coverage, the crowd was estimated at two million people.

MSNBC, the ideological negative of Fox, suggested there were more like 60,000 demonstrators. Its reports focused on racist placards depicting Obama as a witch doctor “parasite-in-chief” and making wild accusations of communism or fascism. Presenters observed that in every shot, the faces were as white as Irving Berlin’s Christmas.

In his opening address to the Tea Party Convention, former congressman Tom Tancredo lived up to this derogatory stereotype, calling for a “counter-revolution” against Democrats in Washington. “People who could not spell the word vote or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House – name is Barack Hussein Obama,” he said. “The revolution has come. It was led by the cult of multiculturalism aided by leftist liberals all over who don’t have the same ideas about America as we do.”

Because Obama is the first ever African-American president, the definitive Tea Party refrain of “take our country back” has racial overtones, but to dismiss the movement as a prejudiced fringe group underestimates its appeal and misunderstands the source of its anger. House speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate leader Harry Reid and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel are all hate figures, as to a lesser extent are George Bush and his Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, architect of the Troubled Asset Relief Programme that bailed out banks.

Tea is both an acronym – Taxed Enough Already – and an evocation of the Boston Tea Party: a precursor to the American revolution in which colonists boarded three ships and threw their cargo into the ocean to protest against British import taxes. In this analogy, the stimulus bill, TARP and a proposed expansion of Medicaid represent the out of control spending of a decadent, disconnected elite, paid for through unjust levies on hard-working Americans.

The movement’s first electoral test was in New York’s 23rd congressional district, in a race to succeed congressman John McHugh, who had been named Secretary of the Army. The Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, was undermined by several prominent conservatives, including Palin, who assailed her for being too moderate and supported a third-party nominee, Doug Hoffman, instead.

She withdrew and endorsed the Democratic candidate Bill Owens, who went on to win a seat that Republicans had controlled for more than a century, prompting premature liberal catcalls. “This race was a damaging setback for the hard right,” wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich, pointing out that the 23rd district is overwhelmingly white and rural. “If the tea party right can’t win there, imagine how it might fare in the nation where most Americans live.”

Last month, in Massachusetts, Democrats found out how potent the protest vote could be. Scott Brown’s upset victory demonstrated that in the right circumstances an energetic group of disaffected citizens could beat the party machine. “There’s not a single office in this country that’s safe if they want to fight against this movement,” claimed Dale Robertson, founder of the teaparty.org website.

Ardent conservative backing for Brown suggested a previously unexpected degree of ideological flexibility. As a believer in abortion rights and a supporter of the Massachusetts health programme, he is exactly the kind of moderate Republican that many hardliners want to kick out. Beck has already disowned him.

“Scott Brown was a tactical move, not because he’s the best candidate that respects our values,” Robertson said. “The idea was to stop health care reform and let Washington know that we have the ability to effect change even in the bluest of blue states.”

In a national Rasmussen poll last December, voters were asked which candidate they would support if a new, independent conservative party was on the ballot. 36% said Democrat, 18% Republican, 23% Tea Party, with 22% undecided. Although this is indicative of the extent to which Republicans have forfeited the public’s trust, it also represents a huge opportunity.

House minority leader John Boehner has claimed that “there really is no difference between what Republicans believe in and what the Tea Party activists believe in,” but harnessing their enterprise is easier said than done. Despite concerted efforts from mainstream conservative organisations such as Freedom Works, the Club For Growth, Americans For Prosperity and the Campaign For Liberty, who have all supplied money and logistical aid, the movement remains defiantly local in character and suspicious of attempts to impose a top-down structure.

Tea party support has, with the exception of Massachusetts, generally come with demands for ideological purity that threaten to tear the “big tent” Republican coalition assembled by Ronald Reagan. Although a resolution requiring candidates to submit to a ten question test of conservative principles was dismissed at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting, moderates are facing primary challenges from the right across the country.

The most keenly watched contest is taking place in Florida, where popular Republican Governor Charlie Crist is running for Senator. A year ago, he was cruising to the nomination, but the primary has since become a desperate battle against upstart candidate Marco Rubio, who accuses him of being insufficiently conservative. A video clip of “the hug” showing Crist briefly embracing Obama has been Rubio’s most effective recruitment tool.

Rubio has been endorsed by Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh. Crist has the establishment support of John McCain and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. Palin is keeping her counsel, for now. Although Rubio is ahead by around 10% in the latest polls, Crist enjoys a substantial lead in fundraising.

Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee told the New York Times that “this race has become a real classic encounter between whether the party is going to be a let’s-be-all-things-to-all-people party or whether we’re going to be a principled conservative party that espouses things out of genuine conviction.”

McCain faces a primary challenge in Arizona, from former congressman JD Hayworth, who has attacked him for introducing campaign finance laws, voting for the economic stimulus and opposing water-boarding. In Kentucky, Rand Paul is taking on insider Trey Grayson. Candidates running under the unofficial Tea Party banner have no shared legislative platform, beyond tax cuts, but they do have momentum.

“The spark of patriotic indignation that inspired those who fought for our independence and those who marched peacefully for civil rights has ignited once again,” Palin wrote this week, equating her cause with the nation’s great liberation struggles. Holding no elected office, freed from the responsibilities of governing, she has found her constituency on the sidelines. With the effects of recession being felt in cuts and high unemployment, serving politicians in both parties are fighting for survival.