It used to be beer and sandwiches at Number 10. More recently it’s been latte and croissants. But the beverage far more people have been talking about recently is that brewed by the Tea Party movement in the USA. What does their liquid insurgency mean for political processes on both sides of the Atlantic?
Voter disillusion has taken quite different forms in America and Britain. That is one thing it suggests. Here the electorate delivered a ‘hung parliament’, and the early noises put out by the resulting coalition government were about reform and renewal. But that image is now being battered by the scale and weight of economic stringency – or, as critics would have it, ideological choices resulting from ‘recessionary politics’.
Cameron and Clegg insist, “We’re all in this together”. But they do so as Oxbridge educated millionaires, say detractors. Meanwhile, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, charities and opposition groups point towards an unequal and divided country reeling (some more than others) from the swingeing public spending cuts outlined by the chancellor last month.
In the UK, the tough ‘small government’ pill, for those without ready access to private wealth, is being sugared by the coalition’s ‘Big Society’ rhetoric – minus the resources. Meanwhile, in the US, President Obama’s bold hopes for economic stimulus, universal health care, tax reform, foreign policy internationalism and environmental protection risk being scuppered as a result of the Tea Party’s “get big government off our backs” sloganeering.
For many US voters, confused as much as bruised, the language of social compassion carries little political weight. Right-wing media attack-dogs, like Glenn Beck, have to an extent also succeeded in smearing “social justice” with the odour of “socialist gulags”. The cultural and political gulf, both internally and externally, could hardly be greater.
Barack Obama won the presidency on the crest of a “Yes We Can” wave. This time, in his revealing Daily Show aside, that was attenuated to “We can, but…”. In a communications society, this president has not been getting his message across to his own supporters, let alone to legions of sceptics. Backed by business millions, his most entrenched opponents – whose more extreme appeals have included the abolition of the UN and the scrapping of welfare altogether – are more in the “no such thing as society” mould.
That idea was tried in Britain, but failed. There is such a thing as society, and politicians cannot help but deal with it in the end. Obama has lost the House of Representatives. But in the process he has gained a political corps to blame. He has also saddled the Republicans with potential Tea Party chaos.
Bill Clinton suffered a similar mid-term humiliation in 1994 and bounced back. So did George Bush in 2006, and he didn’t. Obama looked unassailable two years ago. Now the Republicans seem on course for power again. But the electoral oceans have never been less predictable. This uncomfortable thought will have crossed the minds of David Cameron and Nick Clegg as they watched the US results, too.
The people will speak again. Indeed they already are, as the reality of ‘tightening our belts’ becomes ever more evident.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is slightly adapted from his latest Westminster Watch column for Third Way, the monthly magazine of Christian social and cultural comment (http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/).