It is not hard,if you really try,to find good things to say about Americas tea-partiers. They are not French,for a start. Frances new revolutionaries,those who have been raising Cain over Nicolas Sarkozys modest proposal to raise the age of retirement by two years,appear to believe that public money is printed in heaven and will rain down for ever like manna to pay for pensions,welfare,medical care and impenetrable avant-garde movies. Americas tea-partiers are the opposite: they exhale fiscal probity through every pore. In their waking hours,and in bed at night,they are wracked by anxiety. How is a profligate America to cut borrowing,balance the budget and ensure that its billowing deficit will not place an unbearable burden on future generations?
The tea-partiers do not just have less selfish motives than the pampered French. They also have better manners. Let the French block roads and set things on fire: among tea-partiers it is a point of pride that their large but orderly rallies leave barely a crumpled candy wrapper behind them. Though some wear tricorn hats,and the movement takes its name from the Boston Tea Party,tea-partiers are peaceful folk. They take the view that one revolution was enough,and that the one America had in the 18th century established a constitution and form of democracy so near to perfect that they can get what they want without taking to the streets and just by working within the rules.
Whether they have worked hard enough they will not know until votes are counted after next weeks mid-terms,but in one way their labours have already borne fruit. In primaries all over the country they have secured the election of Republican candidates who are true conservatives,not the big-spending counterfeit Republicans whom they blame for leading the party astray under George Bush. The impure have been purged without mercy. Senator Bob Bennett,who has represented Utah for three terms,earned a lifetime rating of 84 per cent from the American Conservative Union. He was turfed out for having voted in favour of the TARP,the Bush-era bail-out that may have staved off a financial collapse but has become a tea-party anathema.
Americas pontificating class is not yet sure how to take the measure of this strange new movement. Puzzled academics gathered last week at the University of California,Berkeley,to ask,among other things,how tea-partiers were tapping into and/or managing the populist,libertarian and radical currents on the right,as well as fear,anger and resentment among segments of the American public. The New York Times has published research suggesting that tea-partiers are mostly richer and better-educated than the average. The Washington Post spent months trying to contact every tea-party group in the nation. Having got through to 647 out of 1,400 it had identified,it found that some consisted of only a handful of members,if they existed at all.
Some call the tea parties an Astroturf phenomenon not grass-roots types at all but the dupes of big business. To others they are merely the most recent incarnation of an ugly right-wing and sometimes racist populism that has surfaced before when times are hard. Such allegations are misplaced. Corporate money has indeed found its way into tea-party coffers,but if you attend a tea-party event you will generally find that it is indeed a self-organised gathering of citizens dismayed by what they see as the irresponsible behaviour of an out-of-control government. Strands of racism can be found on the movements fringe,but most tea-party groups have done their best to snip these off.
Along with the liberal disparagement comes a dose of wishful thinking. Some Democrats hope the tea parties will drag the Republicans so far to the right that mainstream voters will be scared away. That looks increasingly unlikely. Few tea-party candidates are as hapless as the overexposed Christine ODonnell,the former campaigner against masturbation and present ignoramus whose selection as the Republican candidate in Delaware will probably cost the party a precious extra seat in the Senate. Other Senate candidates who were once deemed too radical to win,such as Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada,have adjusted the volume if not the content of their messages and now look eminently electable. Here and there in Florida and Alaska,for example tea-party pressure has split the conservative vote,but in the grand scheme that is a small price for Republicans to pay for the revivifying energy the movement has imparted to a party that looked dead in the water two years ago.
Not French,not fabricated and not as flaky as their detractors aver: these are the positives. Another one: in how many other countries would a powerful populist movement demand less of government,rather than endlessly and expensively more? Much of what is exceptional about America is its ideology of small government,free enterprise and self reliance. If that is what the tea-party movement is for,more power to its elbow.
Can they be serious?
Ideology is one thing. But if the tea-partiers do well this week,especially if the Republicans capture the House,they need to move past ideology into the realm of practical policy. This means having something serious to say about how actually to bring spending under control. To date,they have preferred breezy slogans. Will they cut into pensions and Medicare,and if so how? Will they accept that taming the deficit will require hikes in taxes as well as cuts in spending? Will they continue to oppose reflexively every measure of a Democratic administration,or have the courage to share responsibility for the painful decisions the times demand? It has been all too easy from the outside to conjure up a mythic America of limited government,sing hymns to the constitution and denounce the federal bureaucracy in all its forms. Once they are in government themselves,that gig will be over.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2010