Monday, 1 November 2010

Tea Party serves a Bitter Brew

It has been easy to laugh in recent weeks as Christine O'Donnell has risen to international prominence as the Tea Party-sponsored Republican candidate for Senator for Delaware in this week's mid-term elections for the US Congress. This tub-thumping evangelical  has propounded rather bizarre views on masturbation and genetics; and in seeking to impose her religious values in the name of traditional America, revealed her ignorance of the US Constitution in a toe-curling embarrassing episode. Perhaps needless to say, she is set to be decisively defeated - although current polls do show her standing improving in the closing days.

Yet even if the Tea Party doesn't make all the gains it has hoped for, there is little doubt it has led the debate throughout this campaign. Headed up by former Veep candidate Sarah Palin, it has put the Obama Presidency on the defensive with a head-on charge feeding off every conceivable source of bigotry, division and loathing. It has nourished Americans' worries about threats from inside and outside. Although for some of their leaders the focus has been on cutting tax and government, for others political debate has been eschewed in favour of an apocalyptic battle of Good versus Evil in the run up to the End Times. A fervent of fear - of Muslims, of socialism, of "Big Government" - has been whipped up in a well-funded attempt to galvanise a vote for a rather nasty, corporate-friendly right wing coup d'etat. Even the hated BP, culprit of the Gulf oil spill disaster, has got in on the act.
Oil multinational BP sponsors
the TP

It is not new. Nor, for all that we may sneer on this side of the Pond, is it peculiar to America. It is merely the latest of a range of populist phenomena that have risen in the era known, if not quite as the end of days, then as the "End of History" - the supposed final triumph of market capitalism with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Two years later, Italy saw the rise of Berlusconi's Forza Italia movement to win power barely four months after its formation, and Canada saw the Reform Party of Preston Manning wipe out the Conservative Government in a single election. So now in turn the Tea Party harvests the disaffected as capitalism's victory turns sour.

It is a tactic as old as politics itself. Just as ancient Athenian demagogues found individual scapegoats to blame for their policy failures through the ritual of ostracism, now the right wing seeks to shift blame for unemployment, inequality and social disorder onto carefully selected, vulnerable targets. In France, Sarkozy's fumbling regime recently turned its ire on Romanian gypsies, deporting them en masse. In Britain, street movements like the English Defence League, who have made common cause with the Tea Party, drunkenly demonstrate in Muslim areas. Across Europe, a dark stain of xenophobia and Islamophobia is spreading, with the far right rising in elections in Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands and throughout eastern Europe.

Underpinning the thump and thud of their jackbooted march on both sides of the Atlantic is the endlessly repeated accusation that any who are not with them are against them. Obama is castigated not merely as being in political error or misguided on the economy. Rather, he is a traitor, a fifth columnist Communist-Nazi,  a secret Muslim, or even some biblical beast heralding the Apocalypse.

Satanic Obama from
America's last brush with mass populism was the Perot insurgency in the 1992 election. The economic boom subsequently dissipated much of this, but the in the new recession, populism is breeding again, far nastier, far more vicious than Perot's quixotic adventure. The injection of an increasingly hysterical evangelical fundamentalism, with tens of millions of its followers earnestly believing that the world will end in their lifetimes, makes this movement dangerous beyond belief in a nuclear weapons state.

O'Donnell may go down in defeat tomorrow, but the diet of lies that has nurtured an atmosphere of fear will go unabated. The fact is that, just as extremists in the UK like the British National Party have leeched on the genuine grievances of poorer sections of society, mainstream politicians have abandoned them. The Soviet collapse saw politicians across the world rush to not merely expunge "Communism" from their lexicons, but "socialism" and even "social democracy" too.

The old centre-left has failed because of an unholy combination of political cowardice, lack of imagination and rank careerism. A political class quite dislocated from ordinary life has emerged as never before as corporate power has taken over more and more control of western governments, many of which now resemble little other than subsidiaries of multinationals, at the beck and call of unelected businessmen.

Consequently, taken for granted by the parties that once represented them, alienated and devalued by an exploitative system with ever increasing inequality, it is little wonder that many people are angry and looking for an alternative. The mainstream no longer works for ordinary people struggling to make their way in a world where decisions are increasingly taken by remote, faceless and unaccountable bodies and people. Politicians are pastiches of what they claim to be, arrogantly deriding and squeezing out any alternative viewpoints with the once ridiculous claim that there is only one possible poltical system. It is fertile ground for populists and the biggest mistake would be to assume that the grievances the Tea Party and its ilk speak to and exploit are not perfectly genuine, valid ones.
More than ever, the Left, in the USA, in Europe and elsewhere, needs to rise to the challenge - to show that there is a better economics, a sustainable and fairer one. We need to argue that the "free market" has failed comprehensively and won't ever work properly again. We can no longer collude with the status quo. If we don't provide that alternative, the Tea Party and its friends will do so instead, and the future they have in store for us is not a pleasant one. Not pleasant at all.
The last tea party to make any sense...

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